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The UK Industrial Strategy: Growing The Sectors Of Tomorrow?

31/03/2017 11:31 BST | Updated 31/03/2017 11:31 BST

In January this year, the government launched a consultation on its new Industrial Strategy. This envisages our economic future as one backed by science and based on cutting-edge innovation, aims to build on excellence and also to spread growth across the UK through more focus on 'place'.

The Strategy places considerable emphasis on industrial sectors, paving the way for 'sector deals' - essentially the opportunity for funding, regulatory and policy support for those that get their acts together.

The sector deals process works well for existing industrial sectors. Aero-space, automotive and nuclear have existed for decades, are associated with particular locations, and have well-established lobby positions and cohesive industry councils to represent them into government. Not surprisingly, many of these sectors have been called out for early deals and are already receiving chunks of funding.

Other sectors may find it more difficult. Some are fragmented like the creative industries, which range from crafts through music to advertising. Some, like food, are huge employers and export earners, but are not based in one particular place. Some are nascent industries of the future, but are not yet represented in government institutional architecture.

Advanced Urban Services is no exception. The group of companies working around this brief suffer a number of disadvantages. They are fragmented because by definition they're bringing together new business alliances; they are housed in multiple UK cities, and they lack an industry council.

Yet, the UK has huge strengths in this sector. We're home to a cluster of world beating expertise in urban services and infrastructure, from architecture and consulting engineering to real estate and development financing. We lead internationally in standards-setting. Our university and research sector provide a bed rock of knowledge, and UK SMEs are in the vanguard on urban open data, spatial data analysis, modelling and visualisation.

The market for these services is huge. With the speed and scale of urbanisation creating exceptional demand in the world for services and integrated solutions in the world's cities, investment into cities and their infrastructure over the next decade alone is likely to be over $20 trillion.

Other nations have woken up to the opportunity and are supporting their sectors in this area. Last year the U.S. Department of Commerce identified the 'urban sector' as a critical area for future export opportunities. The Nordic nations have significant capabilities and are taking a lead at spearheading the UN's New Urban Agenda. Singapore is running demonstrators, and supporting exports with their smart cities and urban planning firms now highly sought after across the Asia-Pacific region.

So how can the Industrial Strategy ensure the Advanced Urban Services Sector is able to build on its potential in the UK?

First, coordination across Government itself, calling out the UK's Advanced Urban Services sector in the Industrial Strategy and particularly as a priority for international investment and trade. The establishment of a Sector Council for Advanced Urban Services would provide a focal point for both government and business.

Second, is to invest in skills. Government could work with Higher Education Institutions to build an Advanced Urban Services skills programme, work with professional bodies in architecture, engineering and surveying to ensure they the content knowledge to safeguard existing jobs and create new ones, and work with existing city networks - such as Core Cities, Key Cities and Scottish Cities Alliance - to support the deployment of technologies across the UK.

Third, back the sharing of best practice and the development of standards. There is a lack of exchange of good practice, business cases and evidence of operational deployment among both city authorities and companies. And the UK can build on strengths like BREEAM building standards, BIM Building Information Modelling and the BSI-Future Cities Catapult City Standards Institute to lead the world in developing technical standards and operational models.

Fourth, invest in large-scale urban demonstrators to test and prove emerging technologies - as proposed in the Government Office for Science paper 'Technology and Innovation Futures 2017'.

Fifth, scrap the outdated procurement practices and tools that stifle innovation. Instead, harness government procurement to drive innovation in the sector by supporting incremental and experimental approaches.

Finally, financing needs attention. There are difficulties developing the financing models and business cases for Advanced Urban Services. It would help to prioritise this sector for government-controlled and influenced financing organisations.

I believe that British expertise in city-making and urban management offers an unparalleled opportunity to make our infrastructure smarter, to grow our exports and to improve the productivity of our cities. This is an opportunity to be seized in the Industrial Strategy.