Innovation Hubs – A Platform to Accelerate the Levelling Up Agenda

We are living in a period of immense change. The centralisation of past decades is giving way to multipolarity as, up and down the country, there is recognition that improving investment, productivity, and social infrastructure outside of existing centres should be a priority.  This is, of course, not a new idea – recognition of regional disparity in the UK has long preceded the “levelling up” agenda – but the twin shocks of Brexit and COVID have thrust into sharp relief the existing disparities between places. In this context, it becomes more important than ever before to ensure that places are able to attract talent and investment, develop new ideas and products, and build robust local economies that demonstrate resilience and inclusivity. 

How then, should we be investing in the context of recovery, to achieve these outcomes and avoid further baking in these inequities? I am convinced that the answer lies in innovation.  

Innovation – whether it be of goods, of services, or of processes – is at the core of creating jobs, stimulating investment, and improving economic outcomes for a place. And, of course, innovation does not happen in a vacuum: the right physical, policy, and economic inputs can together create an environment for innovation to thrive. By bringing together diverse organisations who would otherwise not collaborate, new ideas are seeded; through exposure to these different ideas, leaders are catalysed to take action and accelerate new market offerings or approaches; through knowledge-sharing between networks, successes can be compounded and best practice can be established. 

As evidence to support this trend, in the 2021 Budget, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced a commitment “to stimulating private sector investment to create jobs, develop hubs of innovation, and revitalise local areas and regions across every part of the UK.” This investment and commitment to regional development is vital, as innovation activity to date has unsurprisingly been unequally spread across the UK. Over the past twenty years, some 100 places in the UK have attempted to build an innovation node or hub, but only about ten of them have achieved real scale and maturity. By contrast, in the Northwest corridor of the US Eastern Seaboard, the area which spans from Boston to Washington DC, with a population of 50 million, about 20 locations have become scaled up innovation hubs.  

Clearly, therefore, there is a gap between innovation ambition in the UK, and the development of innovation capacity. The UK needs to be ambitious and to do more: we should aim to see thirty to forty places making the journey to successfully establishing fully scaled innovation hubs in the coming years. For that reason, I welcome the publication of the Government’s Innovation Strategy and the emphasis it gives to place.  

Every innovation hub has their own context and ambitions, and no two will go through the exact same journey to scale. However, there are common steps which need to be tackled on the road to success, and lessons to be learned from others who have walked the path already. That’s why we recently published our global review of innovation hubs – updated for 2021 – which identifies ten types of hub, their common features and differentiators. Its why we translated that knowledge into our Hubs of Innovation Playbook for Place leaders, which provides practical step by step guidance for those seeking to seed and scale innovation activity in their areas. And it is why this week we launched the UK Innovation Places Summit, taking place this September in collaboration with the UK Innovation Districts Group. The summit will bring together pioneers and practitioners in place innovation to learn from one another, accelerating a new wave of innovation hubs across the UK, and with it new national prosperity and productivity.