As Birmingham’s new administration settles into its leadership role, it must find innovative ways to create real impetus to stimulate the city’s economy.
Manufacturing is showing the way forward in the recovery process for the West Midlands region and as successful recovery is built on legacy-derived strengths, it is important that manufacturing is promoted and grown. However, other sectors require significant attention, not least because for the city of Birmingham, manufacturing accounts for less than 11 per cent of all jobs.
In today’s society, the Knowledge Economies are seen as the drivers of economic recovery. So Birmingham needs to ensure they are better supported, developed and grown within Birmingham. Such companies create, evaluate and trade knowledge and are reliant on intellectual capabilities, rather than physical inputs or natural resources. Birmingham needs to provide an environment that creates and nurtures home-grown – and attracts and retains external – talent. Within this city, talent needs to be connected; in order to flourish, it must not become buried – it must be engaged in interactive cross-sector networks and importantly, it must be celebrated.
The life-blood of knowledge-based businesses is ready access to information and high skills levels. This is recognised and delivered through what has come to be known worldwide as the ‘Triple Helix’, representing effective cooperation between universities, the public sector and private industry. The Triple Helix symbol depicts inter-twined strands that deliver integrated activities.
With five universities, the largest local authority in Europe and the legacy of being the ‘workshop of the world’, it would seem Birmingham has all that is needed for success. However, this potential is not currently being realised to the fullest possible benefit.
In reality, whilst the three distinct strands of the Triple Helix are generally moving in the same direction, they are in fact often only engaged in a parallel non-interactive dance. This lack of real and integrated delivery means Birmingham’s Knowledge Economies are under-performing.
The end goal must be to enhance the retention of the top talent by capturing graduates and postdoctoral students within new city-based industries; and not only those employed in the professional services sector.
To achieve this, the private sector needs to better engage with universities and the public sector. Birmingham’s major employers need to play a disproportionate role in seeding cluster development. By acting as ambassadors for the region and working more closely with the inward investment agencies, key businesses could be much more effective as magnets to seed and promote further growth and employment.
It is SMEs that inject strength and innovation into the local Knowledge Economy; so our flagship Knowledge Economy companies also need to promote spin-out companies and, along with the City Council, engage with – and play a part in promoting – start-ups. The public and private sectors need to engage with the entrepreneurs and provide industry-derived expertise and experience, as well as contract and procurement decisions that promote real contracts with SMEs to support their growth.
Birmingham’s tech and creative companies – based around Digbeth and Eastside – if represented as one – would compete in scale with Silicon Roundabout/Tech City in London. Too often, such critical mass is not truly identified in Birmingham, and one can include the reality of the medical cluster in this. As a consequence Birmingham’s successes are hidden from the world and the city appears to be underperforming. Whereas in reality, it’s a case that the successes are just not celebrated as one at the city level.
Aside from what the city and its population can achieve, global connectivity is the only way Birmingham will be able to play in the cities ‘Champion’s League’. For Birmingham’s Knowledge Economies it is about digital connectivity enabling instant global deal making.
The City Council is promoting a digital, smart and connected city, but there is need to bring the discussion above siloed functions. Common needs and themes should be identified, where additive economic impacts can be set against opportunity costs across wider functions, rather than single departments.
The city also needs to demonstrate content and activity. Birmingham may not have digital super highways today, but the Science Park’s 200 Meg symmetrical broadband is unrivalled across the UK and has 75 per cent spare capacity; indeed we have the capability to expand to 1 Gig capacity. We can receive, stream, broadcast and create highly exciting content for the benefit of the city – we need users generating content…. where are you all?
Birmingham needs to drive change – not just in the physical environment, but also in business, public sector and cultural mind-sets. The city needs to free-up thinking and enable rapid unfettered adoption of new concepts and technologies. We need to drive ‘knowledge streets’ by encouraging experimentation and community engagement. What better place to start something different than in the designated Enterprise Zones?
Birmingham needs to be highly innovative in its approaches; as a city we must address the needs and aspirations of the entrepreneurs of the future. A city the size of Birmingham should be driving innovation, given creativity occurs at the intersection of expertise, diversity and opportunity. Birmingham has this mix in spades, if it – and its population – truly aspires to being better.
Birmingham’s Triple Helix needs a lightning rod that will transmit and energise interaction between its three strands; Birmingham Science Park is working to become this catalytic core. Focused and active delivery is required, as is the need to promote global connectivity in tandem with vital local connections between the various centres of talent within the city’s boundaries.
Let us create an environment that promotes creative serendipity in Birmingham. Let’s drive collisions of thoughts and ideas, open doors to new possibilities, new opportunities, new businesses and new jobs. Let’s add vibrancy to the city’s economy and then for once, truly celebrate it.”
- Dr David Hardman MBE, is CEO of Birmingham Science Park