The Birmingham City University-led Urban M project addresses urban manufacturing by supporting and developing collaborative maker spaces where people from different disciplines work together to produce new products and services. Heather Law, International Officer at Birmingham City Council, discusses the project’s peer review sessions, which set out to analyse the relevance and transferability of maker space policies across Europe.

It is not only the destination that is important but the journey. In the midst of the relentless momentum of the Urban M project lifecycle, the peer review experience has offered a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect upon the policy challenge that we have set ourselves in Birmingham – to consider how Birmingham’s collaborative maker space infrastructure can encourage its SMEs to become more innovation-active with a particular emphasis on ‘prototyping’.

The evidence for why this is important couldn’t be clearer. The EU’s Regional Innovation Scoreboard notes that the West Midlands is the joint lowest performing region in the UK, along with the North East. In addition, the region’s Science & Innovation Audit identifies that 44% of West Midlands firms are identified as not being innovative. If Greater Birmingham were to close its productivity gap through innovation, there is potential to grow the economy by over £4billion.

Prototyping – identifying a good policy environment


“But how do you identify a good policy environment and pinpoint the necessary steps to bring about the changes you want to make?”

But how do you identify a good policy environment and pinpoint the necessary steps to bring about the changes you want to make?

The Urban M project has provided ample opportunity over the course of two years to expose Birmingham stakeholders to a whole host of collaborative maker spaces, fab labs (or fabrication laboratories) and incubators in a variety of European cities.

Stakeholders have also participated in policy meetings to gain further insight into collaborative incubation (for example where Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths experts work with Arts experts to invent new products), investment in collaborative research and development and the commercialisation of collaborative innovation (getting products to market). Ideas and inspiration have not been in short supply. But how to take that learning and make it work for Birmingham?

The opportunity for some constructive reflection has been built into the project in the form of a peer review. Having been the recipient of one and contributor to two, I can thoroughly recommend the process.

The Birmingham City University (BCU) Team applied a design-led thinking approach to the Birmingham challenge over the one-day peer review (split over two days). Lisbon was selected as Birmingham’s mentor as the Portuguese capital’s strengths mirrored the challenges we have as a city in Birmingham, not least because of their well-connected maker space eco-system and successful fab labs.

By employing a design-led thinking approach, the peer review process helped Team Birmingham identify what steps were required to boost the city’s innovation capacity. In basic terms, design-led thinking helps you to break down and understand an issue and then develop creative ideas to find a solution.

The peer review process – a collaboration

There were three participants in the process: the facilitator (BCU), the peer reviewee (Birmingham City Council) and the peer reviewer (Lisbon City Council)

What sounds like a rather convoluted process is in reality, rather simple, consisting of four elements:

  • Challenge definition: (exploration of the issue). This is where the reviewee sets out the context of the challenge, unpicking its various facets.
  • Ideas generation: where the facilitator helps the city to prioritise its top 3 challenges from the 8-10 challenges that were identified during the challenge definition phase and the host city comments on this process.
  • Prototyping: where the reviewee is asked to identify the activities which address the challenge. This may include identifying potential project ideas, governance changes or strategy changes. This is further broken down into questions addressing:

What does the policy looks like from a typical user’s perspective?

How/where do they interact and engage?

What is the effect on the use?

  • Testing: where the reviewee is asked to consider practical questions such as:

Who writes the policy?

How is it approved?

What are the timescales?

Which committees/budgets are involved?

So, what did we come up with? What were the results of this process?

Potential contributing solutions were pinpointed for Birmingham and these include:

  • Ensuring the next European Regional Development Fund’s (ERDF) call for proposals priority strand one, focusing on research, development and innovation includes provision for collaborative maker space activity and specifically, a mention of fab labs with the aim of supporting open access. This will allow the funding of collaborative maker space focussed projects.
  • Once collaborative maker space is in the call for proposals, we hope that two types of projects will come forward to support:

a) Innovation inactive SMEs, helping them access Birmingham’s maker spaces

b) Long term collaboration between maker spaces and the business support ecosystem.

This opportunity to pause and analyse how best to approach the challenge we had set ourselves, not least, the inclusion of a session where we mapped out the timeline with relevant stakeholders, has been particularly useful. We now need to make it happen. A local stakeholder group with representation from local universities, the GBSLEP, the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, the Innovation Alliance and maker spaces, offers a further chance to discuss the action plan as well as identify potential collaboration in projects. The next call for proposals for the ERDF programme is any time now and project proposals will come soon after; a time of great expectations and hopefully some good results!

For more information about the Urban M project, contact