Is the UK able to rise to the challenge of levelling up?

Dr Barbara Ghinelli is Director of Business Development and Clusters for the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, part of the Science and Technology Facilities Council. In this blog she lays out how levelling up and greater connectivity between innovation ecosystems in different regions can amplify the impact of existing R&D facilities and stimulate economic opportunities across the UK.

This is a time of great opportunity for the UK, but also a time of major challenges when it comes to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide and realising the UK’s full global potential. To address these key issues, including the long-term issue of climate change as a nation, we need to make full use of all available resources, including the talent and expertise we possess across the country on our way to levelling up.

Meeting these objectives and delivering the Government’s ambitious R&D Roadmap requires a carefully thought out strategy. When we talk about the “levelling up” agenda, the key word is “up”. We must keep investing in those UK regions that lead in innovation and productivity so that they remain competitive and boost the economic growth. However, it is also vital that we leverage and learn from our success to spread the benefits across the nation.

Connecting more places to existing assets

The goal therefore is to continue to foster successful centres of growth, while developing mechanisms that distribute the benefits more widely. We can draw an example from the Science and Innovation Campuses at Harwell and Daresbury, whose thematic clusters in Space, Health, Energy, and Digital are already stimulating national and international growth opportunities. These thriving entrepreneurship, innovation and economic growth ecosystems have coalesced around UK National Laboratories, attracted initially by world-class research facilities such as the Diamond Light Source synchrotron. Such research facilities have application across a wide range of scientific disciplines, and have created multidisciplinary centres of expertise that benefit and engage UK industry.

It would be impractical to think that we could duplicate these expensive core facilities across the country. Instead, we can actively develop ways in which all the benefits can be leveraged in other regions. by making it easier for the industry around the UK to collaborate with the Campuses, including hundreds of commercial, academic and public sector organisations already located and thriving at these sites. This, after all, is how it works for scientific users of the research facilities, who come not just from all over the country, but from all over the world. There is no reason this could not be extended to the industry more generally, for example, by offering more flexible office and laboratory space which could facilitate the access to national laboratories, institutes and specialised training across the UK.

Post-COVID-19, businesses will already be more accustomed to working remotely using digital means and there is potential to rapidly expand communications bandwidth and connectivity through infrastructure such as 5G and satellite networks. The key is information exchange – companies need to know what is available, how it can help them and how they can access it. Experience has shown that such exchange is best achieved via in-person communication. In other words, having access to someone who understands what is required and can broker a contact with the right company, individual or facility. We do this already for companies on our Campuses, and, although the physical interaction is currently limited due to COVID-19, we are adapting and taking advantage of virtual technologies in order to extend our reach and forge new relationships.

Fostering new networks and clusters

There are several other actions we can take to support a wider levelling up agenda. We could link regions together through multi-disciplinary programmes that allow businesses to explore collaborative opportunities, diversify and grow their talent base. This should build on the strengths of the region and thus develop programs that link the local economy with the local supply chains. We should identify skill gaps across the UK and match them with capabilities in other regions in order to devise a coordinated approach for delivering a more distributed and diverse talent pool.

We should explore where we can bring public sector, industry and academia together to create hot-beds for innovative ideas that can then be brought through to commercialisation, analogous to the Cluster model at the Harwell and Daresbury Campuses. This could be combined with investment in early stage cross-sector opportunities to seed new market stimuli (e.g. in space, life science, materials/chemistry, health technologies, artificial intelligence).

As part of COVID-19 recovery, the government has identified a green energy revolution with the creation of 350,000 jobs. Connected Living Laboratories, with elements potentially distributed across a number of regions, could become a delivery mechanism where multidisciplinary teams can come together to develop, certify and commercialise new solutions, tapping into the UK’s world-class technical knowledge base. At the same time, new investments such as the Vaccine Manufacturing Innovation Centre (VMIC) at Harwell can drive the development of new and stronger UK supply chains and manufacturing hubs across the country.

Playing to our unique national strengths

Furthering these ideas, a key feature of our strategy moving forward has to be focused around building on the existing regional strengths. For example, as an island nation, the maritime sector is of vital importance for the UK economic health and our port structure is a great source of expertise. We could combine this with innovation from all over the country to create world-class capability in efficient marine transport, logistics and custody of the marine environment. Likewise, rural areas are an ideal place to advance emerging capability in autonomous technology, both ground and aerial vehicles, and to develop innovation in agri-tech and land management, all of which have the potential to be exported around the world. Clusters of organisations that are open to partnerships, risk-sharing and creating a critical mass of competences, can provide a mechanism to accelerate new developments, reaching out to other regions to create a sustainable post-COVID recovery.

It is important to highlight the need for a cross-disciplinary approach to this agenda. It has been a key element of the success of the Campuses at Daresbury and Harwell, ingrained by the research facilities around which they formed. Significantly, more than a third of the organisations in the Space, Health and Energy clusters at Harwell are active across more than one disciplinary area. Rapidly advancing technology in the Space sector, AI, green and clean energy has multiple applications across society that can transform how we manage health, transport, communications, finance and leisure to name a few. Those countries that get ahead of the game in applying these developments to new areas will not only reap in-country benefits but also open up lucrative export markets.

The UK has all the credentials to succeed in levelling up, given the right vision and approach to national investments.

At Connected Places Catapult, we provide impartial ‘innovation as a service’ for public bodies, businesses, and infrastructure providers to catalyse step-change improvements that drive growth, spread prosperity, and eliminate carbon. 

Interested in finding out more about our work on levelling up and net zero? Get in touch – info@cp.catapult.org.uk

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