By Andrew Basu-McGowan, Policy Lead for Innovation and Place at NCUB and Head of Policy for the Smart Specialisation Hub

Almost a hundred universities, Local Enterprise Partnerships, innovators and policymakers gathered in an extraordinarily long room at County Hall on the banks of the Thames, all brought there by the Smart Specialisation Hub 2018 Conference – with pressing elements of the place-based innovation landscape on the agenda and an opportunity to contribute a wealth of experience and knowledge to live and pivotal debates.

Central Government and agency partners from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Cities and Local Growth Unit and UKRI were brought together with a vibrant cross-section of local actors and place-shapers to get a feel for the national drivers behind the devolution agenda, the different ways localities are choosing to inhabit it, and to feed in their views on how that agenda is shaped moving forwards.

Ostensibly, we were there to talk about local perspectives on raising investment in R&D; to ruminate on what would characterise a good Local Industrial Strategy; and to consider what forms of analysis, evidence and data could best underpin assertions made in those strategies and beyond. And stakeholders certainly availed themselves of the opportunity to play their thinking back to the policy officials with responsibility for delivery.

Hub staff quickly synthesised some general findings from the breakout sessions and a few consistent themes emerged – several of them of a piece with NCUB’s in-house work on some of these and other topics. It was widely felt, for example, that longevity and strength in local institutions such as LEPs would create confidence and better empower them to deliver on their responsibilities and ambitions. We’ve had that played back across NCUB’s research and innovation roundtable programme in the autumn.

Similarly, we know that culture change can play a significant role in moving the needle locally – whether that relates to building coalitions around the priorities identified in Local Industrial Strategies, universities working together to identify and curate investable spin-out propositions and ideas, or better sharing of data from public and private sources. Broadly, the interconnectivity of LIS, R&D investment and productivity was well understood and observed. As was the red, white and blue (or maybe just white?) elephant in the room that is Brexit, with another of its twists and turns to be laid out in that building across the river next month.

But tellingly, there was also a deep and wide-ranging willingness to grapple with the unique challenges of places and people – the physical and human elements which lend a place its character and opportunities, as our CEO Joe Marshall  noted in his closing address. These high level policy aspirations mean different things in different places. And bringing people together from such a range of localities helped bring that reality home despite the Westminster vista visible in the windows.

Increasing investment in R&D needs to be considered not just in the context of balancing FDI against increasing innovation in a broader base of SMEs – but also against a backdrop of left-behind places, with ever-dwindling productivity, being able to feel the benefit.

Increasing investment in R&D needs to be considered not just in the context of balancing FDI against increasing innovation in a broader base of SMEs – but also against a backdrop of left-behind places, with ever-dwindling productivity, being able to feel the benefit. Professor Richard Jones spoke eloquently on this point, and memorably so when he characterised the UK as ‘Portugal with Singapore attached to the bottom-right corner’ in productivity terms. As we continue to try to build an increasingly innovative knowledge-based economy we must also take heed of diffusion of impact; and it will in part fall to local areas and their Industrial Strategies to shape how this will take place, though Government’s role as a driver – in both fiscal and leadership terms – cannot be underplayed.

There were a number of specific reflections on the topic of increasing investment in research and development to 2.4% of GDP that bear closer examination – and the Hub will be putting together a detailed paper on the subject, and others covered at the conference, for release on its own website. But some highlights which emerged that can perhaps add to the richness of our own debates on this topic include:

  • The idea that investing in people, and ideas, can be more potent than investment in capital projects – and is more likely to result in rolling returns as these people and ideas enjoy greater success
  • That Government still has a key role as a primer for industry to invest…
  • …And that innovative, high-growth companies need to be sourced, and supported with pools of capital – either from the VC community or elsewhere
  • A suggestion that investable opportunities should be created, or encouraged to situate in places experiencing economic adversity to deliver social benefits
  • And that local infrastructure be put in place to better support companies looking to expand their R&D offer and scale up

Countervailing views can be found to several of these concepts – but the conversations are valuable and the debate vital and vibrant as the nation seeks to address this challenge. We certainly took away invaluable learning, and we are sure policy officials present did too. Check in with the Smart Specialisation Hub website for more on the topics covered at the conference and to look at our latest analysis publications on local capacity and capability.


Published: 5 December 2018