Venturefest Blog Series: Part 7 – Big West Midlands opportunities as Innovation Test-beds (Panel 2)

This panel gave us the pleasure of hearing from four professionals, each involved in hugely important projects currently underway in the West Midlands that have potential to act as test-beds for innovative technologies and approaches. Panellists were: Andy Welch, Technical Director of West Midlands 5G; Andrew Pestana, Head of Innovation for HS2Martin Sutherland, Chief Exec for Coventry City of Culture 2021 and Josie Stevens, Chief Marketing & Communications Officer for Birmingham Commonwealth Games 2022. The session was chaired by Tim Staniland of IXC – InnovationXchange, Venturefest WM 2019 headline sponsors, who began by posing the question: How do you ensure that innovation is included?’

The Discussion

Josie Stevens started off the discussion by explaining that the Commonwealth Games Team is like a rapidly growing start-up, with 30 staff currently, projected to grow to 120. This means they are learning fast and, as Birmingham has 3 years less than time usually given to cities to prepare for the games, they are forced to be innovative simply due to such time constraints. Stevens went on to emphasise the opportunity of the City and region being the stage, with the Games the show in 2022, yet the importance of spending public money wisely. Focusing on cost effective innovations will drive down the costs of the games, but it is important that the money is spent smartly, to create a green games that connects with the people of the city, to create a legacy. Finally, she spoke on the marketing strategy of the games. They hope to engage and connect with as wide an audience as possible. To achieve this they are working on various campaigns and new ticketing systems that will broadcast the games widely on the world stage and make them highly accessible.

Next Andrew Pestana picked up the batten and explained that innovation has been hard-wired into HS2 contracts. He explained that each contract created has to fulfil certain requirements of innovation before it moves on to the procurement stage, thus ensuring that innovation is included at all stages of the project.

An audience question queried how this procedure actually worked – whether, for example, the intricacies of contract law made the process a challenge and if, by including innovation in every contract, the whole undertaking got slowed down. Andrew admitted that the system will never be perfect and that contract and procurement laws can be slow to work through. However, the HS2 team have designed an ‘Innovation Hub’ where innovation ideas are deposited. This allows for as much communal involvement amongst their partners as possible, making it easier to introduce Innovation into every contract and better flow of ideas between everyone involved. Other panel members expressed interest in finding out more in order to inform their approaches to developing more innovative approaches to delivery of their projects – a useful outcome of this panel discussion in itself!

Next, Martin Sutherland took the stage to talk about how innovation is being included in Coventry City of Culture 2021, beginning by stating: “There is no blueprint when it comes to the City of Culture; all cities are very different”. Emphasis is significantly put on the principle that 2021 is just the beginning. In other cities that have been named ‘city of culture’, the event has attracted a large crowd for up to a year, but have quickly witnessed the crowd disperse when the festivities come to an end. Coventry wants to use the event as the starting point for the change that needs to happen in the city and in the perception of the city. Martin stressed that they want to use culture for a wider agenda, for example, to provide social benefits to the city and to improve the health and wellbeing services there. This use of the event is innovative in itself, however, Martin went on to explain how they aim to achieve this. The whole event is following a “co-creation model” in which Managers and Artists work with existing communities within the city such as schools, drama and music societies etc. This way, rather than professionals moving into the city and out again when the events conclude, they will leave a real and lasting impression on the institutions of the city. Finally, Martin pointed out that celebrating the City’s heritage and future in innovation would be a key element of Coventry City of Culture.

Finally, Andy Welch spoke about introducing 5G in the West Midlands which is literally acting as a Test-bed for the rest of the country, testing out real-world, large scale deployment of about 30 use-cases, and demonstrating the advantages of 5G to encourage investment. As 5G will cost an estimated 10x more than 4G to introduce, it is important to iron out all the potential issues (e.g. how to deploy it efficiently and whether the increased speed benefits are worth the cost) on a smaller scale before releasing more widely. WM5G was very keen to engage with people, such as those at the table and in the room, and will be running open competitions which will be found on their website once it goes live.

The overall themes that were drawn from this highly engaging panel were that collaboration and interconnectedness are key to ensure innovation in large projects such as these in order to share ideas and expertise and to ensure the widest possible benefit. The Innovation Alliance WM is committed to continuing to share opportunities (through social media and regular working group updates) to be part of this collaborative innovation approach of these major developments.

(Author: Tom Higgins, University of Warwick; Co-Author: Pam Waddell, Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands)