Disruption is one of innovation’s closest allies. History, littered with disruptive events, technological or natural episodes, has changed how we live, work, and play in our urban areas. The invention of the internal combustion engine allowed cities to develop horizontally, whilst the elevator enabled cities to spread vertically. While the ramifications are yet to be known for several months, even years, COVID-19 will have changed how we interact with the places we live and work. That is not to say innovation only happens when such disruptive events occur. Far from it, these episodes serve as a ‘hotwire’ into our innovation ecosystems, often forcing us to think and do things differently.
In 1977 punk rock turned music on its head. Providing the thrust for an eruption of new ideas, crossing over into fashion, technology, and place-making. It was the catalyst for what is often regarded as one of popular music’s richest periods in terms of innovation. Is it possible that one of the shape-shifting fall-outs of COVID-19 is that our innovation ecosystems become more front and centre in how we live, work and play with an enhanced role carved out for communities? A ‘DIY Innovation’ for 2021?
Innovation Hubs have been powerhouses of innovation. Locations such as Birmingham Knowledge Quarter and Leeds Innovation District have driven, not just local economic growth, but also contributed to the national picture. Of course, innovation hubs are not new concepts. In a way, they emerged in the 2000s in places like Boston and Eindhoven. These have morphed over time and space reflecting local and regional context, enabling us to define a series of ten different typologies, to the extent that the UK is now home to a smorgasbord of more than 100 established and aspiring hubs of innovation.
The Connected Places Catapult playbook on Innovation Hubs, provides a practical guide to support public, private and academic organisations in developing their hubs, whether corridors, districts, or quarters. Of course, these Innovation Hubs vary in their degree of maturity. However, there are visible stages on that journey, around which it is possible to identify specific interventions to help accelerate the maturity process. Capturing the potential benefits which these hubs can provide across wider geographies, particularly those, which are more challenging in terms of productivity is not straight forward. Not least because the strategic objectives of developers and universities are not necessarily aligned with those of the local authority and the communities they seek to represent. Part of the solution requires a shift in mindset, one that views people as innovation assets rather than units of dependency.
The role of these hubs in promoting wider, more inclusive innovation has until the last twelve months been a rather latent issue, but one which is now attracting considerable attention. Public, private, and academic organisations are exploring the expanded role which these hubs can play and the opportunities they present in contributing towards more local and inclusive growth. Indeed, significant numbers of local authorities are putting increased emphasis on the role these hubs have in post-pandemic recovery programmes. This will receive a further boost in the coming months with the publication of the National Innovation Strategy and R&D Place Strategy along with their associated funding programmes. An example of this early thinking comes from Greater Manchester with the establishment of Innovation GM. A new programme, which includes thinking on how the regional core innovation hub – Corridor Manchester, can support the growth of innovation in the surrounding towns of Wigan, Rochdale, and Stockport. In these more challenging places where innovation is less visible there need to be new models, built around ‘exploration’ and ‘discovery’. The mantra of ‘build it and it will come’ will simply not work in such locations, where working with the grain is likely to prove far more effective.
Simply calling this ‘inclusive’ innovation however, hints of an innovation being a hierarchy. At a recent webinar on the topic hosted by the Connected Places Catapult, the notion of ‘dispersive’ innovation was floated as something being far more democratic and open. There are two main aspects to this expanded and accelerated attention around what we might call dispersive innovation. Firstly, how do we ensure that the ideas and solutions generated from these hubs are dispersed in a more democratic and openly available way? Secondly, how do we capture the innovation talent amongst communities and outside traditional innovation hubs? These are separate, but closely linked themes. Critically, both need to recognise the distinction between innovation within a hub and that within communities. Typically, the latter tend to be led by community groups, activists, social entrepreneurs, and NGOs as opposed to universities, venture capitalists and developers. Consequently, their priorities are different with a greater emphasis on social equity, sustainable development, and community cohesion. Located outside of hubs they tend to be within residential neighbourhoods with a focus on community health, housing, and renewable energy.
There are good examples across wider geographies but also through time of more dispersive innovation and the approaches taken to generate impact and benefit. In 1976 Lucas Aerospace published an alternative plan for its corporation, one which pioneered practices for more dispersive approaches. Workers developed what became known as The Lucas Plan based on the knowledge, skills, experience, and needs of workers and the communities in which they lived. The results included designs for over 150 alternative products. The Financial Times described it as, ‘one of the most radical alternative plans ever drawn up by workers for their company’ (Financial Times, 23 January 1976). It was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. In his book Grassroots Innovation, Professor Adrian Smith puts the case across that web platforms and versatile digital fabrication technologies allow people to share open-hardware designs and contribute to emerging knowledge commons. Built on the back of the accelerated use of these platforms and technologies over the last 12 months, there is an emerging sense that part of the fall-out from COVID-19 could rekindle ideas about direct participation in technology development and use.
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