The rise of urban innovation districts for science and tech

Innovation hubs in our cities can power the economy of the future and redefine the workplace as a democratised space for collaboration and productivity

by John Stern
Last Updated: 18 Mar 2022

Science, technology and innovation are central to the post-pandemic reboot of the UK economy and the repopulation of the nation’s cities as we pivot towards Industry 4.0.

As The Economist reported last November: “Laboratory space has become commercial real-estate’s hottest property, along with other facilities that power the digital economy. Data centres and infrastructure that connect smartphones are booming.”

Chris Oglesby, executive chair of Bruntwood SciTech (a joint venture between leading property company Bruntwood and Legal & General), is one business leader that has welcomed the government’s proposals in its recent Levelling Up white paper.

“One of the most eye-catching positives in the white paper is the commitment to increase R&D spending outside of London and the South East,” he says. “It’s a fantastic outcome for Greater Manchester and the West Midlands to be identified as new Innovation Accelerator zones along with Glasgow City Region.

For Oglesby, the concept of ‘levelling up’ doesn’t just mean narrowing the north-south divide, it’s concerned with “tackling those deep-rooted societal issues like health inequalities” and the pursuit of the government’s net zero target by 2050. “It’s not just about the economic piece, it’s about driving social outcomes, such as life expectancy differentials, which, in Manchester for example, vary by 12 years from one end of the Metrolink to the other,” he says. 

He adds: “We’re particularly focused on getting a fair share of R&D investment into different UK regions.  There is an equivalent amount of  Intellectual Property (IP)  generated in Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield as in Oxford and Cambridge, but there's a lot more private sector R&D investment in the north, whereas in the southeast, and the Golden Triangle, there’s more public sector R&D investment.”

Oglesby believes that there needs to be a virtuous circle of investment (public and private) in science and innovation that links the research and development capabilities of academia, the relocalisation of certain types of manufacturing and a population hungry for opportunity:  “We now need to use this momentum from the Levelling Up white paper to turn our R&D strengths into more jobs and opportunities across our city regions, attracting long-term investment from the private sector.”

Bruntwood SciTech is behind the creation of  innovation districts and specialist science and tech campuses  such as Circle Square in Manchester, where the likes of  Bosch Automotive, Octopus Energy and Hilti have bases, driven in part by the University of Manchester’s work in robotics and lightweight materials. 

These innovation hubs where co-location is an asset presents an interesting slant on the changing nature of the workplace. “Clusters are important,” says Oglesby. “There are things that we’ve learned to do remotely but when we’re talking about innovation, that’s a real challenge. A lot of the noise about the death of the workplace is coming from sectors in decline. We’re very bullish about the workplace of the future but it requires a far more collaborative relationship between the owner of the building and the companies within it.

“An effective workplace is an asset to a business but only if it stimulates good collaborative working.”

One of the lessons from the pandemic is that working from home or other remote locations is brilliant for some but not others; convenient for an employee but perhaps not for the employer. Oglesby adds: “We’re working on designing spaces that can suit a neurodiverse workforce, managing things like sound and light, so that you create an environment where everybody can be productive.”

Oglesby is sceptical about organisations who have got over-excited about the prospect of chipping away at the bottom line by scaling back on pricey office space. ​​We’re seeing companies recognise that, in a war for talent with salary inflation, that the marginal cost of a desk is not that significant.

Another hope is that the rise of urban innovation districts brings science and technology closer to communities who might otherwise have felt excluded. “On a good day, I’m hugely positive about the prospects for the UK if we can sort out the relationship between business and government,” concludes Oglesby. “The triple helix model that Bruntwood  SciTech operates at a local level is typically a partnership between universities, local government and industry. That should be replicated on a national level as well, with a strong government working with our universities and industry to power the economy forward, and we hope the place based Innovation Accelerators will help do just that.

Science and tech clusters in our cities can power the economy of the future and redefine the workplace as a democratised space for collaboration and productivity. Find out more here.

Image credit: courtesy of Bruntwood SciTech

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