At the end of March, the curtain came down on the Smart Specialisation Hub project co-delivered by NCUB and the Knowledge Transfer Network.

Here we reflect on some of the Hub’s work and look to the future of place-based innovation intelligence. For more information, see the Hub’s website and its final insights report, which expands on elements of this piece in more detail.

The establishment of the Smart Specialisation Hub was driven by two parallel agendas: supporting local areas in building a stock of data to support their strategy design, and deploying that stock to evaluate and endorse applications for ESIF innovation funding. Flowing from the Smart Specialisation Strategy for England and the Witty Review, these two imperatives were tied together in a single project.

We’ve played back elsewhere that the effects of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU had an inhibiting effect on the appetite for ESIF funding. We’ve also previously covered the Hub’s pivot to serve both the needs of ESIF applicants, and the wider place agenda (at the direction, and with the support of, our funding partners). And the Hub’s renewal in August 2018 – to continue to advise national and local players in critical policy contexts: around Local Industrial Strategies; increasing R&D investment in a manner relatable to places with and without embedded research excellence; and to better map the innovation landscape – has also been described in detail.

So this piece doesn’t seek to re-tread that ground. Instead, I want to reflect on what might come next for place policy; what Government and agencies can do to support local actors; and what the Hub’s legacy, however modest, might be.


I want to reflect on what might come next for place policy;

I will start with the latter. Great credit should go to the Hub’s analytical team, who produced the initial framework against which data on the 39 – then quickly 38 – LEPs was deployed. The Hub’s website is now a static archive, but a quick perusal reveals the breadth of work that was done at some speed – on those LEP profiles, but also a series of more specific reports which sought to add colour and context to our understanding.

Innovation ecosystems and environments; assessments of the external funding environment at LEP level; sector mapping exercises; international comparisons with other innovation-active states; analysis of supply chains; deliberations on Government’s 2.4% target, and supply chain, skills and productivity publications – all sought to add to the quantum of understanding of local areas and were well received.

The LEP profiles remain the only work of their type – it is publicly available analysis and we hope that it will continue to be used by LEPs, combined authorities, Government, UKRI and others to illuminate debate and inform decision-making. At NCUB, we will certainly draw on the work already done to support our programme on place.

The Hub also had the virtue of being, at least for a short while, a still point in the innovation intelligence firmament, and as such could feed in to deliberations on how place-based understanding could be improved. We hope and believe that the discussions we drove on the availability and consistency of local data will help data owners bring the limitations of available datasets into focus and work together with local areas to seek solutions and trial creative approaches. If this, and a Smart Specialisation-informed approach to prioritisation in Local Industrial Strategies (if only in part) are to outlast the Hub project, that should qualify as an accomplishment.

In conducting our programme of work on behalf of our funders, we have drawn a series of nationally-focused lessons.

Turning to place policy, and indeed related policy drivers: we know the life of the Hub has seen profound changes to the landscape, with a number of macro external forces acting as push and pull for the activity of local actors and national strategy. An exhaustive list of changes would extend beyond Brexit, through the formation of UKRI, development of sector deals, the Industrial Strategy, the Knowledge Exchange Framework and more, beyond the inexorable devolution agenda, reframing of LEP boundaries and other outcomes of the review of their operations. It has sometimes been hard for local players to keep up, despite their best efforts.

And in conducting our programme of work on behalf of our funders, we have drawn a series of nationally-focused lessons. Through supporting Science and Innovation Audits and trailblazer Local Industrial Strategies, it has become clear that national and local strategies need to be sustained by stakeholder support and central Government advocacy and engagement. Brexit has been a distraction and a profound one. Whilst valuable supporting work behind the scenes is going on, for obvious reasons contingencies are not always communicated and confidence can suffer as a result. Community understanding has not universally kept pace with a rapidly changing landscape.

With the UK Shared Prosperity Fund edging closer, work on commercialisation, university-investor links, possibly replacements for European research funding being scoped and more, change will not abate soon. And each of the present policy debates have a local or regional dimension – it will be critical that Government and agencies continue to recognise and support, and NCUB will certainly be framing the place context front and centre.

Against this backdrop and through months and years of careful engagement with local areas, we have learned that they each seek to demonstrate consistency and credibility in their own ways. And each is increasingly seized of the need to articulate real points of difference – to essentially produce strategies that would be unique and identifiable if their branding and badging were removed.

Local areas, more than ever, want to dependably demonstrate what they are good at.

Local areas, more than ever, want to dependably demonstrate what they are good at. And they are focused on the application of analysis to do exactly that. It will be critical that they are given the analytical support they need, the wrap-around advice on how best to build their offer – for example, in the trade sphere – but are equally empowered to make their own decisions. And sat alongside that, independent evaluation of their plans will be key. We know plans are in train to provide much of this support, and look forward to seeing the results come to fruition.

Whilst the Hub in its current guise has ended, the need for informed prioritisation of activity remains – and local areas have a critical opportunity to shape their own futures with clarity of purpose and entrepreneurial drive. At NCUB, we look forward to playing our own role in this unfolding story. From the perspective of the project itself, it remains only for me to extend personal and professional thanks to our funders, and our partners at the Knowledge Transfer Network; and to continue to embrace the importance of the physical and human geography of places in driving productivity, growth and resilient, innovative local economies.