Our universities hold the key to growing our private sector
The Centre for Cities report : University Challenge: Growing the knowledge economy in Birmingham was published yesterday. It's a disconcerting read, shaking what the city believes about itself.
It says the city has many assets . . . including our science base, diverse population, central location, cultural offer and environmental ambition.
As it makes a plea for a realistic assessment of the city's real economic footprint, here goes:
- An example of how we don't value science in the region is the impending closure of the renown Horticultural Research International at Wellesbourne, now part of Warwick University. Scientists across the world respect its work highly. But for want of a tiny fraction of the funding manufacturing has had, this world-class outfit is nearly gone. Their scientists will go where their minds are valued or, regrettably, stop being scientists.
- Notice what's not on the Centre for City's list. Manufacturing and engineering, for example. Creative and digital industries aren't there either. Nor financial and professional services.
- Despite our history and all the money poured into it, high value manufacturing employs a mere 1%. (a bleak contrast to the comment to my previous blog AWM driving forward the implementation of new technologies, processes and products for 21st century manufacturers, etc etc)
- The creative and digital sector employs 1.1%, fractionally more than in high-value manufacturing. Although people in this sector contribute to our cultural offer, economic driver it ain't.
- Professional and financial services are important to us, employing 14.5%. But this sector is unlikely to grow soon. Many in it work in the city centre, a couple or so miles or a planet away from where and how most citizens live; indeed, a third of city centre workers commute in from outside.
- Our diverse population may seem like an asset from the outside, and indeed it should be and sometimes is. But we're a socially very fragmented city, with a decision-making cadre that doesn't reflect our demographics. And by and large, it's non-white people who live in the poorer and less well-served areas of the city. All this is unfair, socially divisive and a waste of talent.
- The city has indeed a central location. But there has been a lack of investment in our public transport infrastructures for decades. Hence there's a mismatch between the connectivity we need and the connectivity we have. Although the New Street Station development will create a much better welcome to passengers, it's more property development than rail investment.
- Our environmental ambition is admirable, and an attractor to young professionals. But notwithstanding some important initiatives, such as the city centre CHP system and the work of some research groups, we're advised we should not expect tough targets to lead to a thriving local low-carbon sector. Nationally, we lag behind other northern European countries in green technologies, and it doesn't look likely this sector will be a significant economic player locally. Still, the report advises, we need to consider ways of shortening the feedback loop between delivering low carbon policy, research activity in the local universities and the development of commercial solutions.
In addition, we need to respond to high rates of worklessness and low level of skills in the city's population as a whole.
In summary, our "University Challenge" will be difficult to meet.
For the most part, neither our civic leaders nor our business community is used to working with academics, nor academics in a civic or commercial environment.
Additionally we don't have the investor community that, say, Cambridge or Edinburgh has. . . . which is something we can turn to our advantage. For investors, our universities are fresh and fertile ground. We need to attract them here.
Even with the relevant legal, managerial and investor support, most scientists will not morph into entrepreneurs.ÃÂ Those that do make the risky move into the commercial world won't generate a return on investment quickly. It takes years, not months.
Our investment must be, too, on the people who stay in academia, the labs and the clinics. They are even more important to us than the ones who make the move. For they are investing their time and their minds into finding out what we don't know . . . yet.