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Dr Benjamin Reid

I want a Catapult Centre I can print out at home

Authors: Dr Benjamin Reid Benjamin Reid

26 January 2012

In a world where you can download and print out a range of operational weapons at home, it is appropriate that today the Coalition government announced that one of the new ‘Catapult Centres’ (the entities formally known as Technology Innovation Centres) will be focused on technology transfer for the ‘Connected Digital Economy’.

This is an unquestionably positive step, even if the announcement of the theme is a full 13 months since we called for such a Centre for the Creative Industries in December 2010. It will surely be another year or more before the Centre even launches – a little disappointing given the lightning pace of innovation in this sector. 

The ‘ticking-over’ pace of development is a shame, as there is a clear and pressing need for new ways of connecting Britain’s digital and creative sectors – at least if they are to continue to hold on to their world-leading position. Some pilot work in this area – such as Brighton’s Fuse project – is  promising but small compared to the scale of the need.

So, a few initial thoughts on getting this Catapult Centre to work effectively: 

1)      It can’t just be about the tech: Sorry, it really can’t. It must investigate and understand the interface between technology and the new business models they enable – exactly the topic of a workshop we held with the Creative Industries Council in December. This means bringing together economics, entrepreneurship and innovation studies with science and technology. This is the only way it will be able to channel its technology research into benefits for the UK economy.

2)      It needs to collaborate with what’s already out there: The Centre must be closely allied with other public initiatives to avoid replicating the traditional UK ‘bitty’ approach to technology transfer – the problem Herman Hauser identified when he first called for Catapult Centres.  It will need particularly close ties with the AHRC-funded knowledge exchange hubs for the creative industries such as those centred on Lancaster University or Queen Mary University. It will also need to work closely with the new Copyright and Business Models Centre for the Creative Economy once that is announced, as well as with recent developments on the Digital Economy Research stream from the EPSRC.

3)      It needs to understand what industry is already doing: There are already some fantastic examples of UK university-industry collaborations in this sector. The significant investment by Google, CISCO and others in the collaborative spaces for SMEs in digital and creative hubs – e.g.  TechCity in east London - shows that they see their future tied closely to the broader fortunes of the UK’s creative and digital sector. Their capacity to invest will be larger than the Catapult’s ever could be – the Centre must act as a catalyst for co-ordinating broader industry efforts to invest in its future.

This Catapult has the potential to be a crucial building block in an effective innovation ecosystem for the digital and creative industries in the UK. But it’ll have to consider the three issues above very carefully – and really hit the ground running – if it is to be as effective as the Coalition clearly hopes. 

Finally, a shout out: The Big Innovation Centre at the Work Foundation is currently undertaking research on links between universities and the digital and creative industries, and is looking for innovative and interesting case studies. If you know are involved in one, or know of one, it would be great to hear from you.

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