In November 2015, then Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Sajid Javid, announced the formal promulgation of the Smart Specialisation Hub. Emerging in part from Sir Andrew Witty’s Review of Universities and Growth, this new body was to deliver on the Smart Specialisation Strategy for England, decipher the underpinning methodology, and unlock the near £600m of European innovation funds available to support exciting new projects. To this end, we embarked on a series of events and workshops to get the word out – and began intensive work to develop a signature suite of analysis to map the innovation assets and strengths of every Local Enterprise Partnership in the country. The National Centre for Universities and Business, and our partners the Knowledge Transfer Network, geared up to deliver a focused Hub with a clear mandate.

The referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union then took place, and the Hub wasn’t the only project looking to refocus its work in the context of an altered reality. But the trend towards devolution, increasing focus on place – and what ‘place’ really means – coupled with the need to base strategy and investment decisions on a sound evidential base, brought the relevance of the Hub’s work into sharp focus; and demand has in fact grown, albeit in a slightly recast form.

So, what has the Hub been working on in the intervening months; and, crucially, what do we plan to do going forward?

A refreshed programme of collaborative activity

Whilst demand for Smart Specialisation in the context of accessing European funds may have diminished, the methodology itself – rooted in informed prioritisation of the strengths of local areas, in pursuit of robust and diverse economies – holds true. Indeed these principles lay at the heart of the Government’s Science and Innovation Audit process, in which local actors were encouraged to congregate in a bottom-up way around self-determined priority sectors to develop cohesive plans.

The Hub has accelerated its engagement with the second wave of these Audits, and offered strategic, detailed and valued input:

·         We are members of the Innovation South and Oxfordshire Transformative Technologies steering groups;

·         We are providing hands-on support for the East of England, running workshops and reviewing their report to BEIS, and;

·         We have worked with Liverpool and Leeds City Regions, attending workshops and starting a dialogue on next steps, and offered further support to the Bioeconomy of the North of England.

A new source of analysis

The Hub has now completed its analysis of all 38 Local Enterprise Partnerships’ innovation strengths, and presented them in a striking new visual format. The resulting document, ‘Mapping England’s Innovation Activity’, is available on the Hub’s refreshed website, with the underpinning dataset also publicly available. Of course, this is only part of the story; the challenge is now to add a degree of depth, narrative and nuance to our analysis to ensure it can be used to make informed comparisons and ultimately, strategic investment decisions. We want to engage with partners, continually refresh our unique data offer and make sure it works for local actors.

An impartial advisor

The Hub sits at the nexus of universities and business, the local and the national, between research, commercialisation, skills and infrastructure. As such, we triangulate national strategy with local priorities and intelligence. Whilst the project is funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, HEFCE, Innovate UK and European Regional Development Funds, we retain an independence of thought and data-driven approach which enables us to advise impartially and validate or challenge assumptions as appropriate. Simultaneously, we are sensitive to the unique needs of places and people, and keen to embed and develop real understanding of the physical and human geography that should inform every local strategy. Our response to the Industrial Strategy Green Paper sets out more of our forward ambitions and perspective on the innovation landscape; we will remain connected to the development of the eventual White Paper later this year.

Showcasing best practice

The Smart Specialisation Hub also uses its reach to give prominence to examples of productive, forward-looking collaborations and strategy development. Our inaugural Annual Report, published in December 2016, brought some of these to the fore, and we look forward to launching its successor publication later this year.

Looking forward

Over the coming year, we look forward to deepening our existing relationships, and embarking on successful new ones. We will be supporting the anticipated third wave of the Science and Innovation Audits, applying both strategic insight and data validation wherever possible. We will be drawing together thought leaders to reflect on policy developments: the future of the support landscape and the advent of UKRI; the scope of future innovation funding in the expected absence of European programmes; and the changing nature of devolution. We’ll partner productively with other bodies working in this space to develop thinking. And we’ll be enhancing our datasets and analysis, to build on and enrich our understanding of where innovation strengths lie.

If you’d like to work with us, please do get in touch at – we look forward to speaking with you.

by Andrew Basu-McGowan
Policy Manager, Smart Specialisation Hub (NCUB)