Innovation Insider – Building innovative capacity by advancing skills

New Government strategies and funding can transform the West Midlands into an innovation powerhouse, but how can the region’s businesses build their knowledge and create vital new products to meet this ambition? Joanna Birch – Director of Birmingham City University (BCU)’s Innovation, Enterprise and Employability directorate – explains how.

A region with innovation as its focus

It is a challenging but exciting time for the West Midlands right now.

Covid-19 has temporarily derailed the fastest-growing economy outside of London, with the pandemic also exposing a significant digital divide – nearly one quarter of jobs in Birmingham are in occupations likely to shrink by 2030.

Meanwhile, the UK Innovation Strategy outlined that businesses in the West Midlands have lagged behind other regions when it comes to adopting new innovations.

However, there are reasons to be optimistic about the West Midlands’ future.

The region has been named one of the UK’s first Innovation Accelerators, alongside Greater Manchester and Glasgow. Inspired by the likes of Silicon Valley, these new centres will drive new opportunities and prosperity for the region’s residents, all backed by £100 million of government funding.

As discussed in a previous Innovation Alliance piece, the Government’s Levelling Up white paper has outlined plans for the West Midlands to become a “national trailblazer”, bringing London-style powers to the region.

All of this combined creates a new challenge for Birmingham and the wider region – how can we help businesses to develop viable new products in a quick, cost-efficient and impactful way in order to meet these new ambitions?

The benefits of a connected ecosystem

We are in a time of great change. The problems to solve are getting more complicated, requiring multiple disciplines, insights and solutions.

Covid-19 has radically altered the conditions for doing business, and there is now a greater need for businesses to understand how to innovate successfully in order to remain competitive.

It is key that businesses gain the core skills needed to ensure that a new offering is developed in a timely, affordable way, delivered to a market that will appreciate it.

I have undertaken visits to institutions to the USA, Canada and Europe, and have seen from these visits that innovation happens best when you have a connected ecosystem, with tailored spaces that bring communities together.

An ecosystem approach to innovation – leveraging talent both inside and outside of your organisation – is a highly desirable and successful way of responding to a competitive, ever-changing environment.

It has yielded many benefits for businesses, with a recent survey revealing that 91 percent of organisations feel that ecosystems have increased the resilience of their business.

In talking to the founders, businesses, councils, government investment teams and incredible tech businesses at international makerspaces, it became very clear how they used place, relationships and resources to great effect.

The West Midlands is taking vital steps to meet this. The development of Birmingham’s Knowledge Quarter, which reaches from the Bruntwood SciTech iCentrum building across to Digbeth, comprises of a number of institutions, such as BCU, Aston University, Birmingham Metropolitan College and Aston Engineering Academy.

It is exciting to work with this community – as well as Birmingham City Council, the Greater Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, the Growth Hub and amazing social enterprises like free@last – to see how we can create a vibrant, connected network.

New services and facilities to help businesses innovate

In order to help businesses build their innovative capacity, these ecosystems must be supported by programmes that skill up, support and assist during the early stages of idea formulation and launch, and then ensure that the business has the financial and business support to help them grow thereafter.

Our STEAMhouse facility, training and ethos has ensured innovation in the West Midlands is delivered in a cost-effective, efficient and quick way.

Our STEAM work has created 65 new enterprises, who have constructed 75 new products. We have forged 27 linkages globally, including a new innovation centre in India, one of the world’s most entrepreneurial countries.

We are a supportive space to amplify, experiment and develop knowledge, products and services, inspired by an established community of practice. We listen, explore and build on new ideas together.

Our new STEAMhouse innovation centre, set to open in late Spring 2022, will offer businesses, creatives and entrepreneurs in the region a range of services that will help them advance their skills and create new innovative products, including:

  • A digital hub, connecting users with future technologies such as AR, VR and 5G testbeds and trials;
  • Collaborative, cross-disciplinary workshops and events that bring multiple stakeholders from a range of industries together;
  • Specialised workshops and facilities to support prototyping in print and materials, digital design, digital manufacturing, resilient materials and more.

Our STEAM-based innovation looks to see how we can create spaces to support radical openness, going beyond an organisation, discipline or hierarchy to recognise the potential of everybody in the room, defining new ways to move forward.

BCU has also received accreditation from the Institute of Innovation and Knowledge Exchange (IKE), becoming the first institution in the Midlands – and only the second in the country – to receive such an accreditation.

From May 2022, we will be offering the IKE Innovation Practice Certificate, a certified programme that will help organisations build their innovative capacity via a range of tools, guidance and new ways of working.

Individuals who undertake the course can then take what they have learned and use it to drive innovation in their business. This will be key to unlocking regional potential.

Offering regional businesses access to these skills, insight and facilities will empower them to innovate in a way that provides long-term benefits to both the business and the wider region.

Want to find out more about how Birmingham City University can support your business? Visit their business support platform, BCU Advantage, to find out more.

Author, Joanna Birch

Director Innovation Enterprise Employability and Business Engagement at Birmingham City University