It was immensely heartening to hear the Prime Minister talk about the importance of ‘Place’ in the context of her speech on science and the Industrial Strategy. Of course, the Strategy itself had plenty to say on the subject; but high-level strategic aspiration can sometimes be muddied by the everyday reality of actually making things happen. So this renewed commitment, and the exciting activity it has the potential to empower, is profoundly encouraging.
Hull is a vibrant, growing and highly economically significant place. Of course I could hardly say any different; but I don’t think I have to lean too heavily on our success as UK City of Culture for 2017 to back up this assertion. World leaders in a diverse range of sectors find a natural home in Hull and its environs; Siemens, Smith & Nephew, rb (formerly Reckitt) are among global companies undertaking critical R&D and large-scale manufacturing here. The Humber Energy Estuary is a valuable opportunity offered by our physical geography and a superb national asset with which to respond to Government’s ‘Clean Growth’ Grand Challenge, set out in the Industrial Strategy, with Danish giants Ørsted already investing billions here in creating the world’s largest offshore wind farms. As the Prime Minister said today, Hull really has gone ‘from whaling to wind turbines’.
Of course, the University of Hull itself and its research specialisms sit at the heart of all this. Our leadership of Aura, a collaborative industrial cluster involving the leading players in offshore energy, manifested in the recently-announced Aura Innovation Centre, and associated programme of support for SMEs in the low carbon and offshore wind sectors, is emblematic of our international standing and powerful potential in offshore wind innovation. And our partnerships with other universities and leading businesses in the region are critical not just to our success but also that of Hull, the Humber and, indeed, the UK as a whole.
But can we confidently say that we capture the value of our local area to the fullest? Indeed, can any place truly make this assertion? I would contend not.
Data and analysis on activity around us is vital. We can see part of the picture; but can we see all of it? How does our physical and human geography affect what we do? What R&D is taking place around us which we are not capturing? What GVA activity is being reported here, and what is being reported at companies’ headquarters elsewhere – and more pertinently, where are things really happening? Where is intellectual property being generated? How do we close the gaps and build the collaborations that enrich this evidence base, create more and better projects and inform our strategic priorities?
Joining-up is key. We need to be able to capture the value of all the work taking place in our region. How does all this activity translate in to a strength in Hull & Humber? We must recognise the importance of measuring these strengths in a realistic way, relative to other places, and define our local excellence in its proper context. Only then can we confidently track the impact of activity locally and nationally, and demonstrate that with the right interventions that impact can be truly game-changing and shift the needle in a highly significant way.
We should recognise the importance of universities in helping the absorptive capacity of local businesses and support them to increase their own investment in research, development and innovation. At Hull we are focused on bringing together the right partners and actively play our cherished civic and convening role to the fullest. We, and others like us, will always welcome support in convening networks, drawing on place-based insights and policy priorities, and leveraging access and introductions to corporate partners.
Bringing the right people – and their analysis and data – to the table is one vital part of the puzzle. But for the other pieces to fall into place, contextual understanding of places, innovation excellence and replicable learning on boundary-pushing university, business and place collaborations, will add immeasurable value.
Forthcoming Investment in such as the Strength in Places Fund is important and hugely welcome. However, its real potency could lie in promoting positive partnerships towards a common goal, underpinned by the application of evidence. We look forward to working with partners such as NCUB to expand our learning and networks, bolster our regional understanding and develop lasting propositions built on deepening relevant regional relationships.
Bill Walker is Director, Strategic Relationships and Knowledge Exchange at the University of Hull