Levelling up the UK through inclusive innovation

The UK is positioning itself to be a global hub for innovation by 2035. But how do we make sure that the innovation economy creates opportunities for people and communities from all corners of the country?

This article features in the first edition of the Connected Places Magazine

For the benefits of innovation to be shared by all, we need a vision for what inclusive innovation looks like. So, the Research Commission on Inclusive Innovation is working with local leaders and innovation hubs across the country to get under the skin of some of these questions.

Levelling up the UK through inclusive innovation

What inclusive innovation will look like in individual UK towns and cities is beginning to become clear. But for more context on the wider remit of the commission, we spoke to Emma Frost, Chair of the UK Innovation Districts Group, which is leading on the Commission.

“Innovative, fast-growing firms account for less than 1% of UK companies, yet add £1 trillion to the UK economy. So what more can they deliver as they grow? And how is this best achieved and enabled?

“We need to understand the complicated dynamics at play, and what the link is between inclusive innovation and inclusive growth. This commission is aimed at doing exactly that.” Crucial, according to Frost, is hearing from those “in the thick of it.”

“We need to learn together and faster to avoid repeating the same mistakes or missed opportunities. We need it now to help inform policy and delivery as we respond to post pandemic, post Brexit and wider global economic forces. Put simply, we need to shake up who gets to innovate, on what and who benefits from it.”

Frost’s advice on the most important challenges facing all place leaders comes in four parts:

Get the basics right with respect to good growth

“We need a fast-growing innovation economy that pays real attention to fair employment practices, early and sustained education programmes, and diligent assessment of supply chains and added value.”

Focus innovation activity on societal challenges

“Encourage mission-led innovation and grand challenges everyone can get behind. Activate and strengthen partnerships between public, private, community and academic sectors – and be clear on the value each player adds. Bring people with you. Innovation districts can be agents of change but only if they’re able to connect people and purpose to build a coalition of the willing.”

Recognise that innovation districts often develop in areas of huge change, adjacent to areas with real socio-economic challenges

“Place leaders need to be aware of their role in the change. There are always inherent sensitivities and trade-offs. Monitor impacts and outcomes, good and bad. Track what’s happening, to whom, and respond.”

Inclusive innovation requires intentionality

“Trickle-down economics doesn’t deliver enough. True inclusive innovation requires us to rewire the value chains, existing systems and ways of working. Innovation districts offer a way to push forward this sort of transformation in a place-based way. But it doesn’t happen by accident. It has to be planned, prioritised and pushed every step of the way.”

So, what do places of innovation stand to gain? As Frost puts it: “If we get this right, places of innovation can future-proof themselves for the fourth industrial revolution – able to be part of it rather than reeling from it. They can also, hopefully, pave the way for a more sustainable and equitable innovation economy.”

Inclusive innovation hubs across the UK


Targeting under-served communities

Bradford’s Impact Hub is a social innovation hub and co-working space with collaboration and co-design at its heart. To target Bradford’s under-served communities – women, young people and people of colour – Impact Hub Bradford has aligned itself with the city’s economic strategy.

Chief Creative Officer, Imran Ali, summarises the hub’s approach:

“We believe diversity brings better outcomes to all entrepreneurial endeavours, but is absolutely vital to those pursuing social impact.”So how much impact is the Impact Hub having? We can point to a number of examples.

“Our two-day programme, The 35, brought together minority leaders from across the city for a series of workshops on common challenges. The cohort found mutual support in each other’s journeys, and strategies for building resilience into their work.

“Our 2019 edition of TEDxBradford was a day-long event connected by the theme ‘Radically Social’. Half the contributors were women and over a third were people of colour. This diverse representation helped attract over 300 attendees notably, as the audience could see themselves and their issues represented on stage.

“Finally, our SUSTAIN programme was a six-month series of masterclasses, workshops and individual coaching for social impact organisations challenged by the impact of COVID-19. SUSTAIN was developed in collaboration with PwC Foundation.”

Ali believes the Impact Hub’s ability to listen has been key to their successes.

“Think of compassion and empathy as core design materials. Use them to create products and services that matter. Inclusivity through co-design will ensure your communities feel ownership and agency over what you’re doing.”


Inclusivity through collaboration

Based in Birmingham, Digital Innovators facilitates collaboration between young people and businesses to unlock the potential of the next generation of innovators. In partnership with Greater Birmingham, Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership and Bruntwood SciTech, they recently launched The Ideator, a collaborative work environment on the Innovation Birmingham Campus.

This pilot programme establishes an incubator and development process for businesses to develop the ideas formed within the programme, with the intention of employing the young people who have created them.

As Mick Westman, Digital Innovators founder, explains,

“We believe everyone has the potential to succeed. We do not have entry requirements for students on our programmes. We do not look at grades or previous experience. All we ask is for participants to be eager to learn.”

For Mick, making innovation more inclusive is all about collaboration: “Collaboration is at the heart of what we do. Without our partnerships, our impact on a diverse pool of young people would not be as significant as it is today.”

Mick’s advice for more inclusive innovation? “Ask yourself, what are others doing which you could be doing better? How can you work together to increase inclusivity? What would this collaboration look like? The answers will help you identify the steps necessary to improve inclusivity through collaboration.”


Building community partnerships

The Glasgow Riverside Innovation District (GRID) works closely with community leaders and groups to understand the needs and ambitions of its communities. It’s a partnership between the University of Glasgow, Scottish Enterprise and Glasgow City Council, founded to drive inclusive innovation in the local community.

As a result of a partnership with InTo University they have located staff into community owned assets, which achieves a number of goals. GRID Director Benny McLaughlin explains: “Firstly, it creates economic activity within the community with associated spend and engagement. Secondly, it recycles rental income from tenancy agreements back into the community.

“And, as a result of situating some of our team in the community, we have engaged over 1,000 local school children in mentoring and educational activities.”

So where next for the GRID partnership? McLaughlin sees the work of the partnership as part of a wider contribution to the economic and social commitment across Glasgow: “The civic ambition of the partners is to ensure that where GRID has activity planned, the communities where that activity takes place are recognised and benefit from our presence.”

“My key advice to others trying to make places of innovation more inclusive is to listen to the community at all stages of interaction. This may elongate the delivery of initiatives but will help gain trust and support for the long term.”

The Research Commission on Inclusive Innovation has conducted a national study, looking into ten innovation districts across the UK to better understand what’s being done to address the challenges of delivering inclusive innovation and inclusive growth in those areas. You can now read the latest findings here