Alliance universities view Smart Specialisation and the pursuit of innovation-led regional growth and prosperity as part of their institutional mission. In our Creating innovative regions report, published as part of the University Alliance regional leadership series, we looked at how this plays out in regional innovation ecosystems with a particular focus on the Midlands through Coventry University, the University of Lincoln, Nottingham Trent University and the Open University.
We found that the main way in which these and other universities support growth and innovation locally and regionally is by providing leadership, continuity and connectivity – made possible by their permanence as ‘anchor institutions’ in cities and regions. In spatial terms, the administrative and economic boundaries for local growth and innovation are particularly complex in Britain. Universities are playing an important role in connecting the dots.
Vice-Chancellors, for example, participate in their Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) but also work to link LEPs across neighbouring areas through sector interests. The University of Lincoln is a leader in the Greater Lincolnshire LEP but also works with partners in the food and drink industry from Norfolk in the south of the region, up to the Humber in the north. It has helped to respond to skills gaps for this wider region by establishing a new School of Chemistry and establishing the cutting-edge Joseph Banks Laboratory. Likewise, it works with Siemens as part of cross-Midlands automotive supply chain.
Universities also act as hubs for networks of people and knowledge, a function that is particularly important for smaller businesses. Nottingham Trent University is working with other universities in Nottingham and Derby to deliver a LEP-wide innovation scheme. This aims to extend support over three years to nearly 600 enterprises through dedicated innovation hubs, giving entrepreneurs and small businesses access to university facilities and knowledge exchange activities.
They also contribute and channel the resources needed for innovation: knowledge, talent, routes to finance and space. Businesses, especially SMEs, can be transformed by advancements made by cutting-edge research, but also from market and process insights that university experts can provide. Of course, people are at the heart of innovation, and universities are working closely with industry to ensure provide students and employees learning on the job with entrepreneurial and technical skills.
In the years ahead, the Industrial Strategy, devolution deals, new combined authorities and elected mayors will shape innovation policy even further along regional lines. This brings potential benefits such as development of innovation support around specific industries and technologies, and strategies for improving human capital for innovation. It also presents risks such as inward-looking approaches confined to regional boundaries and over-focus on organisations rather than functions.
As large, stable institutions embedded in their local and regional economy for the long-term, universities are key assets in the UK’s innovation infrastructure for realising each of these benefits and for mitigating the risks.
This blog is an abridged version of University Alliance’s chapter in the Smart Specialisation Hub Annual Report 2016. Read the full report here.