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Innovation and the importance of place

Posted By The Work Foundation

22 July 2011

Earlier this week (20th July), The Work Foundation hosted a roundtable looking at Innovation in Cities: the importance of place. As part of the Cities 2020 research programme, this event precedes the publication of a report on the issue, due for release in the autumn, which seeks to explore how innovation ecosystems can be better supported in UK cities and consequences for policy makers and business.

We were delighted to welcome a panel of expert speakers; Stephen Aldridge, Director of Analysis and Innovation, Communities and Local Government and policy fellow of the Centre for Science and Policy, and Dr. Glenn Athey, from the East of England Development Agency and visiting academic at the University of Cambridge and Lizzie Crowley who leads The Work Foundation’s research on innovation in cities.

Lizzie kicked off the debate by introducing the Work Foundations perspective on innovation and why cities provide the ideal environment to foster growth. Discussing the interim findings of the report, Lizzie put forward ideas surrounding what it is that cities need to encourage and succeed with innovation. If Innovation is spatially uneven does moving towards a typology allow us to better understand why some cities succeed where others fail? This means that consideration of existing strengths is key, particularly with limited resources, along with removing fundamental barriers to growth.

Stephen Aldridge then took the audience in a different direction, discussing increasing recognition by central government of the importance of cities in fostering the creation of new knowledge we need to consider what innovation can do for cities and indeed, what cities can do for innovation. Putting forward the Coalitions approach, Stephen introduced the range of policy levers being brought in to create the financial incentives for places to encourage growth – such as business rate retention and the New Homes Bonus. Creating the background conditions for and incentivising growth is essential to success. Stephen emphasised the importance of policy which indirectly fosters innovation, and that creating a climate of skills, competition and good infrastructure enables business and local government to shape their own cities.

Dr Glenn Athey then led the room towards the practicalities of innovation and constructive solutions. He suggested that economic development needs to become much more entrepreneurial in its approach and he put forward key traits economic actors need to succeed. Glenn talked about the importance of recognising innovation within the service sector and how policy to support it looks very different to that used to support science and technology innovation. There is little money around, but this might be no bad thing as it will force places, people and business to think and act differently.
 
The floor opened for debate, asking if the point here is jobs creation or innovation and how do they interact? A general consensus within the room emerged that actually successful innovation isn’t just about hi-tech progress and scientific discovery; it’s about innovation in all sectors, and cities should look at working with what’s already there before they focus on attracting sectors that are considered traditionally innovative.

The key issues for all to take away were that innovation is at the heart of all forms of economic development, it is crucial to growth. However, making the distinction between the two has yet to be fully considered. The role of LEPs in innovation was another key consideration. With few resources it’s a focus on delivery, not strategy, which will help to attract private sector collaboration.

These questions will all be central to the forthcoming report and with the launch of the Big Innovation Centre at The Work foundation later this summer; this topic is at the centre of our current research, and of debate about the recovery throughout the UK.  

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