Let's Make the North of England Centre of an Innovation Revolution

18/07/2016 13:49

Innovation - or the invention of new products and ideas - is the most important factor in long-term prosperity. The North of England was once the country's innovation heartland, building and dispatching pioneering ships, trains, and machinery by the thousand to all corners of the world.

But the end of the industrial age sapped the region of its former sources of invention and ingenuity. Today the North East and North West are the regions with the second and third least number of innovative companies in the UK. None of the UK's top ten places in terms of patents granted per head are in the North, and its big cities languish mid-table, when they should be churning out inventions.

The loss of the North's innovative capacity has devastated many communities too. With the old industries unable to compete, jobs for life turned into zero-hours contracts, the mills into discount warehouses and betting shops. It's clear that the Brexit vote was, for many, a vote to bring back the factories and jobs that have long since closed or moved abroad.

We can't turn back the clock, but we can help the North's towns and cities build on the industries they do have to become prosperous inventors and exporters to the world. That's why in ResPublica's Finding True North Manifesto, published last week, we've set out proposals to help the North rekindle its innovative zeal.

In many places great things are already happening - Newcastle excels at video games, and Manchester leads in media. But elsewhere, the region must build on its strengths. Not everywhere can or should be the next 'silicon roundabout'. Just as San Francisco and Tel Aviv lead on consumer tech, the North can be a world leader in the advanced manufacturing, materials, and sustainable energy that will drive the next industrial revolution, and the public services that will support it.

To develop innovative small businesses in areas the North already has a strong foundation in, we need a network of specialist business 'accelerators'. Accelerators are widespread in the IT sector, where they take a handful of the most promising startups and provide them with a few months of intensive mentoring, equity finance, business development and co-working space with similar firms. Why not the same in sectors the North specialises in? Let's create a hothouse for the materials and advanced manufacturing startups of tomorrow, giving them access to shared workshops with universities, kitted out with the most modern equipment, usually only available to big companies.

The North also needs to create spaces where innovation can happen. The mills of last century clustered near coal mines to power them and railways to transport goods. Today, we need to help foster 'innovation districts', where the most innovative businesses can collaborate with universities doing pioneering research, attract young workers looking for city-centre living, and access high-speed internet connectivity. Our planning policy needs to be much more proactive, identifying areas where businesses are naturally clustering and developing the infrastructure and urban environment necessary to aid the exchange of ideas.

Innovative places also need a supportive state. The North's city-regions and counties should create a 'Northern Digital Service'. This would provide a shared platform for councils to pool their resources and provide seamless digital public services as good as anything the private sector can do. It would be a centre of expertise, using cutting-edge developments in automation and big data to predict and prevent problems. It would also attract the most talented digital workers to the North, as the savings from sharing resources would enable it to pay for talent.

Returning the North to a highly innovative region won't be easy. Its history is littered with government attempts to revive the appearance of strong employment, without tackling the underlying problems. But just shifting people and businesses around doesn't work - invention and new ideas are where we must focus our efforts.

It's time for the region of the industrial revolution to become centre of an innovation revolution.