Innovation districts – the way forward for sustainable growth?

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By Heather Cameron

“Innovation is the lifeblood of any society or any economy” Julian Beer, Birmingham City University

Innovation districts, first coined by Bruce Katz and colleagues at the Brookings Institute in the US, are a recent trend in urban planning that is on the rise across the globe.

They represent a move away from the traditional corporate campuses, socially isolated in out-of-town sites, consisting of clusters of innovative research facilities in working areas that are also liveable, accessible by foot or by bike, and have good transport links.

The move towards these innovation hubs reflects the growing importance of the geography of innovation to urban areas.

Driving economic growth and regeneration

According to the judges and partners of the inaugural Lambert Smith Hampton Enterprise Award, consisting of leading figures from the property industry, innovation districts can drive economic growth and ensure the Northern Powerhouse and UK-wide devolution are successful.

The Sheffield City Region’s Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District (AMID) Partnership was selected as the winner of the £15,000 Award, the proposals of which were highlighted as an example of how developing industry clusters can deliver economic growth, employment and community regeneration. They also called for the AMID Partnership to be considered as a model for regional development.

The AMID Partnership consists of The University of Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam University, Harworth Estates, Sheffield Business Park, Sheffield City Council and Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council.

This integrated approach utilises newly devolved powers and funding for the greatest economic and social impact.

The role of The University of Sheffield and its Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) in driving productivity improvements and innovation has been recognised in three independent reports.

One of the reports, Making it: the advanced manufacturing economy in Sheffield and Rotherham, notes that “R&D and industry-led innovation in Sheffield-Rotherham has been driven by the AMRC and led by the University of Sheffield, a UK leader in advanced manufacturing and research.”

Another notable innovation district in the UK is Corridor Manchester. Developed over the past 10 years, it is a partnership between the city council, local universities and regional hospitals that supports nearly 12% of the city’s workforce and generates £3bn GVA per annum. The recently opened £61m National Graphene Institute, which is to explore new commercial uses for graphene technology, has been described as “the perfect example of innovation-district potential.”

Growth in collaboration

Such university-industry partnerships are becoming increasingly common as a way for higher education institutions (HEIs) to enhance their research, create new research and development opportunities and increase revenues.

Robert Tijssen, chair of science and innovation studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands, has stated that “university-industry connectivity is now the third mission of a university, next to teaching and training and research.

The most recent Higher education – business and community interaction survey shows a continuing increase in the exchange of knowledge between UK HEIs and the public, private and third sectors.  Between 2012-13 and 2013-2014 these interactions increased in volume by 10.1%, the value of which was £300 million – increasing from £3.6 billion to £3.9 billion.

At a time of reduced government funding, it should be no surprise that such collaboration is continuing to increase.

A recent Universities UK report highlighting the extensive economic value of universities states that they have an important part in supporting businesses to drive product, process and service innovation.  And in terms of policy implications, it argues that:

any policy aiming to promote the long-term economic success of the UK needs to have universities at its heart, recognising the breadth, complexity and significance of their contribution and the need for stable, continued support to enable further impact.”

Barriers to innovation

Despite the wide recognition of the value of such partnerships, it has been argued that the UK’s fiscal policy of austerity acts as a barrier to industry innovation.

According to Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at the UCL Institute for Education:

As long as the rewards for investment in financial assets are higher than the rewards for investment in knowledge-intensive industry innovation, the latter will be neglected… This is a serious problem in the UK economy, where finance generating finance often seems to be the main game.

Way forward

Nevertheless, it would seem likely that the rise in innovation districts will continue due to the organic nature of their growth, as highlighted by Katz and colleagues. Economic and demographic forces will continue to change the way people live and work.

Brookings has called for local decision-makers, global companies and financial institutions, and government to ‘unleash’, ‘embrace’, ‘support and accelerate’ innovation districts. The result: “a step toward building a stronger, more sustainable and more inclusive economy.”


If you liked this blog post, you might also want to read our previous post on science and innovation

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3 thoughts on “Innovation districts – the way forward for sustainable growth?

  1. Pingback: Scotland’s space sector: a launchpad for economic growth | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

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  3. Pingback: Innovation districts – the way forward for sustainable growth? | UK Business and Sports News

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