Sharing ideas in science, technology and innovation

Transferable Models of Innovation in Business

Andrew Sleigh, Chair of the Chief Technology Officers (CTO) Group, cordially opened events by contextualizing the session, explaining that a primary aim of the CTO group was to bring together people who are innovation leaders in their organisation to transfer knowledge on current best practices on how to innovate and how to improve innovation practices. The session did not disappoint.

In summarizing the two excellent speeches from Dr Adrian Woolard, Head of BBC R&D North Lab and the Connected Studio Innovation Programme; and Dr David Jakubovic, Head of European Open Innovation for Procter and Gamble, several interesting themes emerged.

Both speakers stressed the importance of audience and consumer led innovation connected to technology, underpinned by testing and evaluating experiences with users and ideally, in the case of the BBC, through co-creation. Adrian went deeper into this issue by talking about the current trend in innovation thinking of harnessing constructive failure based upon encouraging teams to rapidly learn through prototyping and building experiences. His passion for building ideas was encapsulated in his quote, “ a prototype beats a 1000 meetings”.

Connecting with and attracting external talent, eg from universities and other businesses, was a common driver in achieving collaborative innovation. Creative talent was seen as crucial in helping organisations to define rather than just solve problems. But both speakers articulated, in different ways, that their respective organisations had to focus very hard on defining world-class problems and or challenges in order to stimulate the best creative talent to collaborate with them.

Understanding and articulating the opportunity space was seen as a key driver in helping to foster successful innovation partnerships. However, both speakers stressed that without the ability to establish a common language and shared objectives a win-win relationship was difficult to achieve.

IPR was also discussed. This is where clear differences could be seen due to the nature of industries and activities that their respective organisations were engaged in. Adrian expressed the need within his sector to be flexible but underpinned by clarity, where David spoke of the need for a more formalized approach.


Summary by Professor Simon Bolton, Birmingham City University, of a discussion that was part of a Business Afternoon at the British Science Festival on 8 September 2014

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Enhancing the Climate for Connectivity- The Business of Innovating from a BIS Perspective

Innovation Economy Perspectives from Amanda Brooks, Director of Innovation at BIS

The Birmingham Science City Chief Technology Officers Group’s May event was hosted at Birmingham Research Park. We were delighted to welcome Amanda Brooks, Director of Innovation, at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Amanda presented on the role of her department and, in particular, her ambition for it to maximize its proactive stance in response to the opportunities and challenges present within both innovation and economic ecosystems.

Adopting an open, discursive and dialogue-rich approach towards CTO members, Amanda nurtured lively debate and conversation. This enabled both attendees and Amanda herself to come away with much food for thought with which to shape collaborative local, national and pan-European approaches to increasing innovation in science and technology capabilities- all whilst achieving wealth creation.

Amanda shared that she had learned from experience that success in developing and attaining the joint goals of innovation and economic prosperity come down to listening and co-operating whilst leading. For her CTO audience, this translates as a call to members- in their senior leadership capacities- to respond to existing networks and relationships in science, technology and business, and so create the best ‘climate for connectivity’. For Amanda, this is also key to her department’s effectiveness and the measure by which she feels it will thrive or fail to make itself worthy of the ‘Innovation’ in its title. To make this leadership approach work properly, she noted some ingredients necessary for turning this connectivity maxim from simply looking good on paper into creating tangible results. These are: accessibility, investment, internationalization and scalability.


Capturing real results for the UK means making innovation and wealth-creation opportunities easily accessible to businesses. This starts with ensuring that innovation policies are right for us, as a UK economy, and making certain that the structures and tools through which these policies operate allow businesses of all sizes a clear and accessible route to opportunity. A priority for Amanda and her department is supporting the Technology Strategy Board and encouraging its evolution in a way that makes accessibility central to what it does.


Creating accessibility is only part-way down to policy, structures and tools, says Amanda. At the end of the day, progressing in the right direction means committing investment and, more specifically, investment in the right places- sectorally and geographically throughout the UK. As she explains, our historical legacy has not given us too much of a head-start: ‘The UK industrial structure has a distorted pattern in terms of where our research and development spending is going… National research and development proportions of public and private spend are low in comparison to other countries’. But we can make this paradigm shift happen from here on in. No easy task, granted; but a necessary one, for certain. (We may note that these views, reassuringly, answer some of the questions and observations from our last blog on balancing national excellence and local need.)

Putting forward a request to the audience, Amanda asked attendees to help the government understand why it is important to invest more in science, technology and innovation. Her ‘ask’ was not for just a one-off consultation, but a call for regular dialogue, to which the CTO group responded enthusiastically.


Prior to her current position, Amanda spent a number of years in the Far East. She played a crucial role in creating growth policies and industrial strategies, in Singapore, as the UK’s Deputy High Commissioner. The experience, she explained, has made a lasting impression on her and is shaping her approach towards what she does today.   Fundamental to her views on innovation for economic growth is the reliance of this growth on international collaboration- connecting the dots between local, national and international environments, and not treating their dynamics as separate and unrelated. This means encouraging trade and industry relationships, but it is also about adopting and adapting to new ways of working. All of these points were met with considerable approval by the audience and formed the basis for constructive discussions throughout the morning.

Some of the insightful and useful points made by CTO members comprised the following:

  • Science parks are great centres with which to bring together localized innovation networks, strengths and energies.  We can use them to connect to wider national and international dynamics.
  • European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) provide an excellent way to lever not only finances but common goals and priorities from sub-national to international levels. (The audience articulated strongly the need to create and pursue ways of using local and national funds to leverage ESIF, especially those funds from the Local Economic Partnerships and from the Technology Strategy Board.)
  • Our respective organisations, and the ecosystems that we create between us need to be co-ordinated and must work towards the right kind of outputs and objectives. We can look to the international stage for examples of how to do this effectively.

Coming out of the internationalization discussion arose exchanges around scalability.


The group was keen to understand how, given the disappearance of regional- level governance, a coordinated innovation offering could be made by and in partnership with the 39 Local Economic Partnerships. Members found this a challenging prospect, particularly as LEP boundaries do not necessarily overlap with natural innovation and economic boundaries, in geographical terms. Amanda acknowledged the limitations, expressing desire for BIS to facilitate support for LEPs to ensure that they do work with these natural boundaries. (Although she noted two significant realities. One- not being able to change the current LEP boundaries and their inherent limitations; and, two- the more fundamental issue of vulnerabilities inherent in changing political administrations and the operational shifts caused by their respective ways of working.)

Amanda explained that the TSB could help by linking in with the regions, but that this will most likely be in the form of embedding their activities within and with existing environments and organisations, rather than setting up new regional hubs of their own.

Other crucial ingredients of effective scalability identified were: the creation of well-coordinated business support mechanisms; effective procurement channels; and training, knowledge-sharing and up-skilling for businesses in order for them to make the most of opportunities for themselves. So, first, we must foster the creation of business support products with particularly strong co-ordination of both their control mechanisms and content.  (This will avoid the proliferation of near-duplicate initiatives and individual projects, and the confusion and resource inefficiencies that would ensue). Second, there must be recognition that there is a necessarily steep learning curve for public sector organisations to climb, to share good practice in providing a critical mass of procurement routes and means that are realistic for the most innovative businesses (be they large or small). Lastly, there should be greater promotion of schemes such as Horizon 2020- already with a high UK uptake, but which can be promoted even further- where businesses and, of late  most especially SMEs, can lead research and development projects designed specifically to further their own innovation potential and market competitiveness- ideas to wealth in a nutshell.

Amanda posed two questions to the audience:

  • What is working well with BIS’ approach and what needs to be improved? (Where are the successes? Where are the gaps? Where should we spend or not spend? What and where is the evidence for our responses to these questions?)
  • What does the interaction with local, national and European landscapes look like for your organisations and partnerships? How can we make things clearer and easier to access and work with?

What are your views? Do let us know and help us to keep the dialogue with Amanda and BIS very much open and alive.


Amanda can be followed on Twitter: @AmandaBrooksBIS


The Chief Technology Officers Group provides a forum for science and technology innovation leads from larger private and public sector organisations to network, share ideas, increase best practice and discover business opportunities. If you and/or your organisation would like to find out more, please go to:


Our thanks to Dr James Wilkie, CEO of Birmingham Research Park Ltd, and his team for hosting the event.


Susannah Goh, Demonstrator Development Manager, Birmingham Science City


Innovation for growth – balance of national excellence and local need

A recent conference on ‘Research and Innovation in the UK – funding, commercialisation and infrastructure’ started with a summary of the National Audit Office report on R&D spending in the UK, which clearly demonstrates the concentration of public and private R&D spend – 52% of the UK’s spend on R&D takes place in London, the South East or the East of England. The distribution reflects GDP – implying we keep investing in national economic success. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) proceeded to lay out the way that they ensure they invest proven excellence in research, the Research Councils fund prospective research, but largely from proven researchers. Likewise, the Technology Strategy Board (TSB, though notably absent from the platform) as the national innovation agency proudly focus primarily on excellence with their funding within the priority sectors and technologies determined by the Industrial Strategy. Of course limited resources need to be prioritised and it is right to maintain success and excellence and reap the economic rewards as a country.

However, subsequent challenges to the wisdom of an almost exclusive focus on excellence, regardless of geography, were raised during the conference, but left unanswered by the closing presentation on next steps for UK Research and Innovation Policy from BIS.  The first came from Marcus Gibson of the Gibson Index who challenged whether the current focus of public spending on R&D and Innovation was accounting for the thousands of SMEs that are the lifeblood of the UK economy – many of them at the cutting edge of knowledge and technology, but without the voice or resources of bigger business or necessarily the track record. David Hardman of UK Science Park Association and Innovation Birmingham went on to emphasise that much of the countries Innovation is happening in the 3.5k SMEs in Science Parks and Innovation Centres all round the UK, many linked to universities and research centres and a key part of their local innovation communities. Alan Welby of the Liverpool City region LEP specifically flagged the vital role of public investment to strengthen local economies that were ‘behind the curve’, referring to their Knowledge Economy Plan. The LEPs have some resource through European Structural Funds (ESIF) and Local Growth Funds (LGF) to invest in local innovation priorities, but this is small compared to national research and innovation funding; UK direct spend on R&D was £27bn in 2011 (about £10bn from public purse), whilst the total ESIF funding plus match supporting local R&D and innovation activity across all 39 LEPs is likely to be around £0.5bn per year, and only a small amount of RGF funding is likely to be allocated to R&D and Innovation infrastructure.

The Government is due to release an Innovation Strategy alongside the 2014 Autumn Statement.  In the meantime each of the LEPs has some sort of Growth Strategy, and each has recently stated its strategy for using the limited ESIF funds, many with a focus on innovation as a driver for local growth.  Perhaps we can see the LEPs influencing the Innovation Strategy at the national level so that there is a better balance between the current focus on building on and exploiting existing excellence (which needs to be done) and stimulating and supporting research and innovation for local economic growth, as part of the aspiration to see a re balancing of the economy.

Pam Waddell, Director of Birmingham Science City


Birmingham Science City review of progress

Birmingham Science City (BSC) is now recognised as an important catalyst of collaborative innovation activity in Birmingham and the West Midlands, supporting a vibrant local innovation ecosystem and advising Greater Birmingham and Solihull (GBS) and other local Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs).  Valued for its neutrality, networks and knowledge, BSC is able to identifying genuine gaps in the local innovation landscape and work with partners to fill them.  Throughout its lifetime, it has had the consistent aim to develop, use and promote science and technology to improve prosperity and quality of life, though its governance and approaches have evolved with changing and challenging times.Twitter_Background

Born of a Whitehall initiative in 2005, and nurtured under the wing of the Regional Development Agency in the early years, BSC was fully reconstituted as an independent partnership of the public, private and research sectors at the end of 2011.  In December 2013 the independent Partnership Board reviewed progress against the constitution adopted in 2011. The full report and constitution can be found at This article shares the highlights of that review and considers BSC’s priorities going forward, with a particular emphasis on BSC’s role in supporting Innovation for Growth .

Partnership and Networks: There are over 200 individuals from over 50 public, private and higher education organisations working closely with BSC on the Board, Working Groups and business groups and/ or on developing or delivering activities and projects. Ten partner organisations currently contribute to the modest costs associated with the BSC Executive (approx. 2.6 FTEs) and Board, with special thanks to our core university partners and Birmingham City Council, with other partners contributing to the resources for specific actions. The Board agreed that this model of partner funding was essential to maintain partner buy in and the impartiality for BSC that has become a key valued attribute, despite the challenges of sustaining funding.
Relationship with LEPs: The BSC Board is the Innovation Advisory Board for the GBS LEP and took a lead in developing the Innovation Strand of the LEP’s Strategy for Growth and is now playing same role for the Strategic Economic plan and the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) Strategy. BSC has also provided advice on specific issues relating to innovation and represented the GBS LEP at national discussions.  BSC has good working relations with other West Midlands LEPs, and in particular has offered support in the development of the innovation aspects of their European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF) strategies
Innovation Ecosystem: This first of three areas of action laid out in the BSC constitution includes supporting physical infrastructure, engagement in Science Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) careers and finance for Innovation. However, particular progress of relevance to the Growth Strategy has been made in activities to encourage innovation in business, with highlights being (i) the establishment and running of the Chief Technology Officers Group as an invitation only network/ discussion group of the Innovation Leads in businesses, public sector organisations and universities and (ii) The development of the (ERDF funded) Innovation Engine Project to enable SMEs to access new markets by matching large organisational challenges with knowledge/ technology from SMEs and universities and catalysing relationships and access to knowledge transfer schemes.
Collaborative project development in specific sectors: Since its inception in 2005, BSC has catalysed the development of collaborative R&D projects or, increasingly, demand-led demonstrator projects to facilitate commercialisation/ exploitation, with a particular focus in Low Carbon, Innovative Healthcare and Digital. Recent highlights have been (i) the establishment of a pan-WM partnership positioned to participate in a bid for a EC Healthy Ageing KIC (Knowledge and Innovation Community; a very large-scale collaborative R&D, training and enterprise programme) and (ii) development of the £1m Creative Digital Health Solutions project which involves application of existing and new digital innovations to increase patient and service-user choice in determining healthcare solutions and maintenance of personal wellbeing, and opening new market opportunities.
Marketing, Engaging and Communicating: This final area of action involves the ongoing, but nevertheless vital, work of maintaining a thriving and well informed innovation community, building relationships with key funders and policy makers (notably the Technology Strategy Board nationally) and working with partners to promote science and innovation strengths, e.g. via the Birmingham Year of Science 2014 and associated events.

Priorities for next two years: At its review meeting in December 2013 the BSC Board congratulated the Chair, Director and Executive Team on progress to date and endorsed the existing constitution as continuing to be fit for purpose.  Going forward, the Board suggested work on taking advantage of new European opportunities; further developing activity around the STEM skills agenda; more work with partners on promoting our R&D and Innovation strengths; seeking innovation at the interfaces between our priority sectors; and supporting partners to access national centres such as Catapult Centres.

If you would like to know more or be involved with BSC networks and activities, keep in touch via:

Pam Waddell, Director of Birmingham Science City

The European Commission’s Approach to Smart Cities; Why the West Midlands should engage

At a conference on November 26th 2013, hosted by the European Commission, it outlined its approach to Smart Cities. It launched its Strategic Implementation Plan (SIP) for Smart Cities and Communities. This can be downloaded from here.

Smart Cities

The Commission has formed a European Innovation Partnership (EIP) to steer this initiative made up of key European players in developing smart cities and they have had a major input into this plan. There were many speakers at the event but two key messages resonated:
• The need for citizens to be at the heart of Smart City initiatives
• The time has come for the end of pilot projects – there is a need for large scale replicable projects across Europe.

This EIP strive for a ‘triple bottom line’ gain for Europe: a significant improvement of citizens’ quality of life, an increased competitiveness of Europe’s industry and innovative SMEs together with a strong contribution to sustainability and the EU’s 20/20/20 energy and climate targets. This will be achieved through the wide-reaching roll out of integrated, scalable, sustainable Smart City solutions – specifically in areas where energy production, distribution and use; mobility and transport; and information and communication technologies are intimately linked.

So what are the key points to this plan?
• The Commission intends to make available approximately EUR 200 million for Smart Cities and communities in the 2014-2015 budgets of the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, with more to come in future years.
• This, for once, is a co-ordinated initiative across a number of Directorates as it focuses on the ICT, energy and mobility overlap, i.e. the area where smart cities come into their own – the joining up.
• They are also keen for projects to access the European Structural and Investment Funds.
• The aim is to stimulate large scale role out of replicable solutions across the EU.
• The major element of the SIP is to propose ‘Lighthouse projects’.

What are Lighthouse Projects?
The Plan sees them as ‘Initiatives that bring together groups of cities with industry and innovative SMEs from the ICT, energy and mobility & transport sector to deliver common Smart City solutions thus creating scale and reducing risk for political decision makers as well as investors, to progressively support wider implementation across the EU as well as showcasing the competitiveness of European industry and innovative SMEs’.  It sees them working to integrate technologies across the ICT, energy and mobility & transport sector achieving for instance advances in

• ‘zero/plus’ energy districts,
• increased use of alternative energies,
• public transport and efficient logistics,
• or green, widely available ICTs and multiple-use infrastructures
These are seen as significant projects both in size but also in effectiveness.

Other Aspects of the Plan
Whilst lighthouse projects are what a number of European Cities are already chasing, there are other aspects including:
• Developing and applying new business and financial models and public-private partnerships that combine industry with public investments to promote Smart Cities.
• Advance Smart City open standards through a Smart City coordination group.
• Develop infrastructure platforms and common architectures for smart city information.
• Promoting an “open data by default” culture change within public and private actors.
• A framework to develop citizen insight.
• 100 short term staff exchanges between cities, industries and relevant NGOs to crowd-source the best ideas (to begin in 2014).
• Promote the implementation of collaborative, integrated smart city planning (city planning forums) and operation, that maximise city-wide data to deliver more agile processes; employing modern multi-criteria simulation and visualisation tools.

The obvious candidate for following this up in the West Midlands is Birmingham Smart City. With the work of the Smart City Commission; the Carbon Road map and the Birmingham Mobility Action plan much of the policy framework is in place and what it needs now is money. This initiative, especially through the Lighthouse projects, may provide some of that. That is not, however, to exclude other Cities and communities in the West Midlands who may find routes into this programme.

There is a briefing and potential partner matching session in Brussels via the ERRIN network on December 13th 2013. Short notice I know, but worth attending to put ourselves on the map. The West Midlands is still a member of ERRIN via the Birmingham and West Midlands Brussels office so it is my understanding that partners from the region can attend this. Good to check with ERRIN and the Brussels office first.

For more information on the Smart Cities and Communities EIP

Patrick Willcocks
European Policy and Urban Affairs Adviser


Credit Yourself with Innovation- The Accessibilty of R and D Tax Credits

Research and development need not always be complex and expensive.  R and D Tax Credits can make a great difference to your company’s financial development and innovation potential.

Our government has continued the last administration’s commitments in providing tax credit opportunities to innovative enterprises.  To date, this has helped businesses carrying out R and D to the total tune of £5.6bn.  Yet, there is often reticence by many companies to claim the corporation tax help for which they are eligible.  Each company will have its reasons for applying or not applying.  However, there are common misconceptions about viability that we hope to challenge in this blog:

Myth 1: You’ll need to do ‘never-done-before’ R and D

Fact: Eligibility doesn’t mean brand new R and D

To claim, you don’t have to come up up with completely new R and D.  Unless a company’s knowledge has been in the public domain, any duplication of research and development may well still qualify.  This marks a change from the original R and D tax credit scheme rules.

Myth 2: Applications are relatively easy, reflecting the fact that you can only get small amounts of money

Fact: Tax credits need not be peppercorn.

Credits claimed may be substantial.  Making a claim and qualifying is not an onerous process, but this does not mean peppercorn sums.  For example, under some circumstances, the tax credits released on a company’s qualifying expenditure can be as much as 56%.

Myth 3: It’s for large companies

Fact: The R and D Tax credit scheme is designed as a workable SME alternative to the R and D tax relief scheme for larger businesses.

Size often matters in terms of a company’s ability to do R and D.  But so does context.  Given that we are not necessarily talking about needing groundbreaking research to qualify, or the employment of additional scientists and technologists, or hefty expenditure on laboratories and equipment, the scheme is designed to fit comfortably into the operations of small and medium-sized businesses.

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So having established a few vital truths, how is the viability of a claim decided?

The activity has to be for a project that attempts to:

  • Advance the level of knowledge in a field of science/technology and
  • Resolve scientific or technological uncertainty

This is a very broad definition, so it can also help to remember that:

  • Only part of a project may be thought of as ‘difficult’ R&D but frequently large routine elements will also qualify if they are essential to proving the R&D
  • You do not need to share that information with anyone else in the industry
  • Success of the project is not essential

R&D costs eligible for the incentive are as follows:

  • Staffing costs –  including salary, national insurance costs, pension contributions
  • Consumable and transformable materials – materials consumed/transformed in the R&D process, as well as software used directly in the R&D
  • Limited overhead payments for power, fuel and water
  • Externally provided workers, including agency staff and sub-contractors

(Image: )

If your claim fits the above criteria, you may well be in with a good chance of a successful claim.  You may think that your R and D is what you do in your ordinary workaday life, but these workaday activities  could well be worth many thousands of pounds in saved or reclaimed corporation tax.

Phil Arch

Phil is an Associate at Business Solutions ( ) and a member of Birmingham Science City’s Digital Working Group

Birmingham has a digital knowledge economy; but where is our confidence?

The legacy of Birmingham’s noble history of invention, entrepreneurship and manufacture provide the foundations for the future. However, approaches to stimulating its 21st Century economy need to be creative to address the needs and ways of today’s economies and societal norms.

One of the biggest drivers for innovation today is the knowledge economy and its intimate linkage to digital technologies. New industries have been created based on intangible products and services, and as these technologies mature they are increasingly being applied in more traditional businesses. As such ICT is a valuable and successful standalone sector, but it is also an ever increasing driver of innovation across all sectors and needs to be recognised as such.

National and local innovation and growth strategies are focusing on key sectors, business support, skills and access to finance.  All are issues in their own right, but in reality they are components of a complex and interactive ecology. As a consequence, strengthening one component in isolation just moves the factor limiting successful growth to another component.
In order to strengthen the ecology, holistic interventions need to be cognisant of implications for the whole, not delivered as separate components that generate imbalance. Interventions, whether public or private sector led, cannot be directed at short term out-puts, gratification or returns; in such a dynamic environment delivery must be achieved in a sustainable, additive and supportive manner that can move to reflect prevailing needs.

Success in terms of Darwinian evolution determines that it is those most fit for the prevailing conditions that will prosper; this means decisions about component levels that change the local enterprise environment will in themselves drive selection.

For example, lack of skills and expertise in a local community will mean companies requiring those skills either adapt or die. They can adapt by bringing the necessary skills in from outside the region by relocating staff or by utilising today’s digital connectivity to work with remote skills, or they can train up their own people. A longer-term intervention would be to provide targeted skills sets through the educational system.
Birmingham needs its knowledge economies to thrive so we need to promote environments that enable them to operate in a networked, horizontal manner.  This city’s very size is a strength in a knowledge-based economy, but at the same time it is a weakness. The necessary horizontal connections are harder to secure, simply due to the societal and physical complexity of the city. Even in a world where distance is far less of a barrier than it has ever been, local relationships are still required; people want to interact and serendipity is far more likely to flourish when regular face time is an organic occurrence. As is widely quoted, ‘innovation is a contact sport’.

Birmingham must grab hold of the innovators who dream up winning ideas in their academic laboratories, corporate offices, homes or garden sheds and show them that the most rapid and effective way to translate their concepts into commercial reality is to become immersed in a driven community of the like-minded. It is in this context that Birmingham requires ‘urban innovation engines’ to trigger, generate, nurture and so catalyse economic growth in the city.

Birmingham already has a number of focal points, beacons: physical locations within the city that pull together communities, such as the Innovation Birmingham Campus. Here, digital and tech entrepreneurs rub shoulders with their gaming, media, medtech, low carbon and built environment counterparts, along with the professional service providers and supportive services. Consequently, they drive forward their novel ideas, business opportunities and innovate.

More open innovation and cross-fertilisation between our talented entrepreneurs will happen once the different enterprise hubs work more closely together. So, we need to link the businesses on our Campus with businesses in the other beacons of sector-specific communities such as Fazeley Studios, the Custard Factory, Birmingham Research Park and the Longbridge Technology Park; with locations such as Millennium Point and the Library of Birmingham and the city’s universities. Then you have a truly connected knowledge economy and a Smart city.

A critical next step, to further widen the effects, is to connect existing SMEs around Greater Birmingham into these innovation ecologies and help them ‘know what they don’t know’ and so drive innovation.

These SMEs may also be from the knowledge economies, but the real opportunities will be derived from connecting new and old economy businesses. It will drive access to new markets, maximising opportunities arising from our excellent track record of attracting inward investment. It will also further boost our export performance, generate or accelerate new growth in established businesses and create opportunities for start-ups.

Successful beacons are those where management actively engages and understands clients’ needs, and where there is – at the same time – intimate engagement with local economies. Successful beacons understand and build on legacy strengths and help to create complete innovation ecologies. As such, they are very different from general office offerings.

This holistic approach generates local clusters of businesses; the locations are then beacons where next generation entrepreneurs know they can locate to, to mix with expertise and experience and like-minded people in an actively managed ecology, and so gain benefit and more rapidly deliver their businesses.

So where do talented entrepreneurs currently find such holistic support?  The unfortunate answer is that – although a plethora of support is available – it tends to be accessed by the small minority of businesses who are already ‘in the system’. The lack of clarity in the local offering means that many businesses do not find their way into the innovation ecology and so miss out on potential growth to the detriment of the local economy and jobs market.

It seems obvious that Public Sector business support should be simplified, and that a focus on the Enterprise Beacons is a way forward such that they become the access points for this support. In doing this, we take a major step towards addressing the current lack of clarity in such offerings, helping unpack the complexities and drive awareness.

The nature of these beacon-based communities is that they will provide automatic signposting to the support, largely delivered by word-of-mouth from the converted – those that have already benefited from public funding – to those needing it. This is nothing new, the SMART Awards offered by the then Department of Trade and Industry in the 1990s were delivered locally, and previous winners were used to market the offering to the next generation of applicants. The result was a fully subscribed programme and a sense of local pride in achieving an award as a result of the local recognition.

By engaging at the coal face of the city’s entrepreneurial vein, these funds would be readily accessed in a much more timely fashion, and so address the urgency of the start-up and SME needs. Whilst it is important to recognise that a new venture’s market will be global, in the early days its business needs will require very local engagement.

For inward investment and marketing, the Birmingham tech-brand also benefits from the beacon approach. Recognising these beacons provides the visible evidence of what is already happening in the city, and provides tangible activity on which to base the marketing of the city as a true tech-cluster.

Successful economies exude confidence.  False confidence can be delivered through marketing a brand without substance, one without a complete ecology, but knowledge communities establishing in such environs will soon falter and dissipate and the economic benefit will stall. New industries have been developed out of informal discussions literally for centuries but they only become an economic success when the entrepreneurs have stopped talking and started doing.

Birmingham’s streets and coffee shops are as good as those in London or any of the other core cities. We have many examples of highly successful world-leading tech companies in this city – they show it can be done. Indeed, there are over 3,000 tech-companies with a Birmingham postcode. Birmingham has a digital knowledge economy so where is our confidence?

The connected economy approach links the beacons to the existing SMEs and larger corporates in the region providing the magnets with which to attract inward investment. We have exemplified substance behind the marketing campaigns we now need a range of city stakeholders to become actively involved; connecting, communicating collaborating; the reality is developing a digital economy is not a spectator sport………………. so let’s do it.

Dr David Hardman

CEO of Innovation Birmingham


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