This insight was first published as part of NCUB’s State of the Relationship 2021 Report. Read the report in full here.

We are living in a period of immense change. The centralisation of past decades is giving way to multipolarity as, up and down the country, there is recognition that improving investment, productivity, and social infrastructure outside of existing centres should be a priority. This is, of course, not a new idea – recognition of regional disparity in the UK has long preceded the “levelling up” agenda – but the twin shocks of Brexit and Covid-19 have thrust into sharp relief the existing disparities between places. In this context, it becomes more important than ever before to ensure that places are able to attract talent and investment, develop new ideas and products, and build robust local economies that demonstrate resilience and inclusivity.

Innovation – whether it be of goods, of services, or of processes – is at the core to creating jobs, stimulating investment, and improving economic outcomes for a place. And, of course, innovation does not happen in a vacuum: the right physical, policy, and economic inputs can together create an environment for innovation to thrive.

Places around the UK have been synonymous with innovation for more than 200 years: neighbourhoods such as Ancoats in Manchester, Hockley in Birmingham and Govan in Glasgow were global capitals of innovation during the industrial era. They pioneered locally – in tight networks of cotton spinners, medical scientists, shipbuilders and metal producers – many of the inventions, processes, and ideas of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Places in London, Edinburgh, Cambridge, Liverpool, Sheffield and around the UK have been home to Nobel Prize-winning discoveries and numerous other inventions that shape our lives today.

In the modern era, the UK is now entering its fifth cycle of innovation places, since the first organised science parks took hold in the 1960s and 1970s. In the first cycle, science parks and business centres were established outside of cities to enable tech transfer. Many gravitated around large government R&D facilities. Incentivised by the efficiencies of selling space to larger businesses, these commercial locations tended to achieve a high level of occupancy, and many have endured successfully. However, most did not consciously specialise and their long-term effect on innovation and place development has been limited. Many of these places now confront dilemmas around connectivity, porosity and appeal to drive the talent, profile and collaboration they depend on.

In the second cycle, the growing imperative faced by universities to commercialise saw more campus and incubator initiatives established. At the same time, sector-specific hubs were created in newly emerging sectors such as media, life sciences and advanced manufacturing. The approach to innovation was typically more network- and services-based, rather than strongly place-based.

In the third cycle, from the late 2000s, the UK saw the rise of innovation triangles and corridors, motivated by the perceived need for places to compete on scale in a much larger international investment market. These larger locations have required a different scale of convening, planning and branding, creating significant impacts on place in the process.

The fourth cycle, beginning in the mid-2010s, has featured a wave of innovation districts and quarters, underpinned by a new capital investment cycle in larger cities and growing demand for their dense labour markets. With more of the low hanging fruit having been picked, more of these locations are in areas of historic deprivation or under-investment. Many of these innovation districts are governed by cross-sector partnerships or coalitions, including involvement from the academic sector, local businesses or BIDs, local government, and other institutions with significant local presence (e.g. NHS).

Now as we enter our fifth cycle of innovation places, there continues to be a role for all types of innovation hubs. Buildings and infrastructure, whether in science parks or innovation districts, will have to evolve from passive workspace provision into an active canvas for discovery. More places have recognised the need for partners with longer-term horizons, and for collaboration that hinges on greater frequency, quality and purpose; increasingly, places seek to learn from and work with each other – for example, via the UK Innovation Districts Group. Success, more than ever, relies on a clear common identity and co-ordination.

We also see the rise of dedicated civic innovation and mission-driven hubs designed to use place and infrastructure as a catalyst for new ideas, solutions and policies directed at larger societal challenges. Knowle West, Barking Riverside, and Perth West are just three among many places being reimagined as test beds, whether for new technologies, new kinds of civic participation, or new modes of carbon mitigation.

This new generation of innovation places has the potential to deliver long term economic and social impact, both through supporting an ecosystem of innovation via SMEs and spinouts, and through their potential to reconceive city systems on a macro level and drive innovation in public investment, procurement and services. Governments at all levels are seeking to deliver whole place return; by growing innovation places across the UK and fostering innovation’s social license to operate, we will start to see these returns materialise.