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Birmingham’s battle for Silicon Valley status

Birmingham’s battle for Silicon Valley status

🕔10.Oct 2012

Birmingham’s chances of joining the world’s elite cities – and even becoming seen as a ‘cool’ place to live – depend on creating employment through the knowledge economy, according to leading academics.

Only by universities working together with the city council and building Silicon Valley-type R+D complexes, alongside creative digital villages in areas like Digbeth and the Jewellery Quarter, can Birmingham hope to regain the mighty industrial and economic weight it boasted in the 19th century.

But representatives from academia also sounded a warning note.

The city’s skills deficit and too many ‘poor’ schools meant that new knowledge economy jobs would be unavailable for at least half of the working population, going to outsiders instead.

Birmingham Science Park managing director, Dr David Hardman, told a Conservative party fringe meeting that however successful the drive to attract R+D institutions might be, the initiative would be a “net importer of jobs” into a city where average unemployment stands at 12 per cent and rises to 30 per cent in some inner city wards.

Dr Hardman added: This won’t necessarily create jobs for people who are unemployed. R+D is irrelevant to over 50 per cent of people in Birmingham.”

The meeting, organised by the Urban Land Institute brought together Dr Hardman, Professor David Eastwood, the vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, and Wouter Schuitemaker, Investment Director at Business Birmingham.

Prof Eastwood urged city leaders to “get out more” and visit China and the Far East where investment in knowledge economy infrastructure was taking place at a “frightening” rate.

And he said Birmingham needed to move more quickly in delivering premises for inward investors, and helping them to move in to the city.

Prof Eastwood added: “It is not appreciated how severe the competition for inward investment is. It is one thing to put forward an exciting proposition that gets you to the final stages of a beauty contest, but it is then a question of how quickly can we deliver it?

“I think we are still very slow at that.”

Asked to comment on what would make Birmingham a ‘cool’ place to live in, Prof Eastwood said an influx of creative and cultural businesses might improve the city’s image. However, he drew attention to serious underlying socio-economic problems and the number of families surviving on benefits.

“This was a city that was not dependent. This was not a welfare city, it was a city with people who did and people who built. We have lost something of that, actually.”

Mr Schuitemaker urged Birmingham to follow the United States by developing clusters of R+D-based businesses around major universities. “The days of large green field investment have gone away and the preferred route, particularly for Chinese companies, is to work through UK universities.

“We can build world class clusters, whether it be around life sciences at Birmingham University or video gaming at Birmingham City University the opportunities are there.”

Dr Hardman insisted being ‘cool’ would not change the Birmingham economy for the better.

He added: “We have got to create big businesses. Not one or five-man bands, but 50 and 100-man bands.”

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