Reflecting on a Year of the Smart Specialisation Hub Project

Reflecting on a Year of the Smart Specialisation Hub Project

On a macro level, 2016 brought with it seismic change – or at least the inexorable commitment to serial changes down the line. 2017 has been only marginally less dramatic – and through this period the Smart Specialisation Hub has sought to make some sense of how these macro influences affect place-based innovation.

The Smart Specialisation Hub project – funded by Government and European sources to provide advice and support to local areas as they develop innovation strategies and projects, to develop an understanding of the strengths of places and translate national policy into local action - was established in 2015, with a remit lasting until the end of August 2018. And 2017 has seen the Hub take a different footing: one rooted in practical support for stakeholders, with the agility to respond to their needs and add real value at the junction between innovation and place.

We’ve done this against a rapidly shifting national and local backdrop; in the context of Brexit, the Industrial Strategy green paper and its subsequent 250-plus page white paper, and the impending advent of UKRI, the support we’ve sought to offer – and been tasked with by Government – has shifted markedly.

Appetite for European funding has contracted in the wake of the referendum result – particularly in the context of European regional development funds being paused domestically in the immediate aftermath. The devolution agenda has moved quickly, with combined authorities and metro mayors now alongside LEPs in some places and not others. Further endowment of responsibility and finance is implicit in this, and the evidence base underpinning investment – particularly in the context of the Strength in Places Fund announced in the Industrial Strategy – is as relevant as ever.

The new structures to follow in April 2018, as UKRI, Research England and the Office for Students come on stream have required careful developmental work on the part of Government and agencies and have been of great interest to our stakeholders. The Higher Education and Research Act, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and recently-announced KEF are all architecturally significant.

The Hub has tried to respond to these stimuli as usefully as possible for both our funders and partners in Government and our local stakeholders – without losing focus on our core remit.

This year, we’ve completed our observatory of the innovation assets of England’s 38 LEPs – a unique accomplishment. We’ve used some of this data, and contextual insight on the ground, to create ‘Mapping England’s Innovation Activity’, a high-level visualisation designed to drive the discussion on data availability at local level.

Now more than ever, local actors are seeking broader and deeper understanding of the world around them, and wanting to collaborate, innovate and raise their profile. In this way, the work of the Hub project has always been a good fit for the ambitions of the National Centre – and we look forward to continuing to provide some valued connective tissue to support them in their efforts.

We’ve worked ever more closely with the Science and Innovation Audits, as Government has continued this programme of bottom-up consortia surfacing their assets and priorities. Through contextual understanding, sharing of best practice, and advice on alignment with national strategy and leadership, we have helped consortia develop expressions of interest which have been approved by Government, and acted as critical friends on steering groups. This support has extended beyond the life of the Audits themselves, and where consortia have continued to animate their ambitions as lasting collectives, we’ve been present to advise on strategic fit and next steps.

As Local Enterprise Partnerships sought to refresh their Strategic Economic Plans, we’ve helped them understand where their ambitions might redound effectively outside their boundaries, and helped them look for fruitful cross-LEP collaborations. As the Industrial Strategy tasks them with the development of Local Industrial Strategies in some areas, so we will look to assist here too.

We don’t consider our data work complete. So, in response to stakeholder feedback, we’ve explored international comparators and regional agglomerations, and in the new year we will be publishing a version of our data visualisation including indicators from the devolved administrations. We are also looking to develop a deeper understanding of potential strength and we will report back on this work soon.

Where we can, we continue to look to drive appetite for ERDF projects, and support both LEPs in their efforts to disseminate calls, and individual project applications where possible – despite demand constraints.

You can read more on our work in this year’s Annual Report, which was released at the end of November; and over the coming weeks we’ll set out in more detail what we are planning to accomplish over the rest of the life of the project.

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