Higher Education is a key force for the public good and it sits at the heart of driving London's and the nation's economy. The sector's major contributions are to provide a constant stream of highly skilled talented graduates, ideas and expertise from our academic staff and our entrepreneurial students, as well as the fruits of our research spinning out into innovation and enterprise with business and industry. Universities are actively tackling the major global challenges and are making a real difference to the world we live in.
London is home to more 'world class' universities than any other city in the world. Four of the capital's universities feature prominently in the world league tables, with University College London (UCL), Imperial College London, the London School of Economics (LSE) and King's College London (KCL) amongst the top 50 in most world university rankings, with UCL and Imperial achieving top ten status in some.
The age old adage that UK researchers are good at ideas but not good at exploiting them for economic advantage is outdated, or more frankly, plain wrong today. Our universities are an incredible resource that are the envy of other nations and their capital cities, and this gives London and the UK a leading global position and advantage in a future world that will be increasingly driven by the wise and intelligent use of knowledge. But there's much more potential.
"Our universities gives London and the UK a leading global position and advantage in a future world that will be increasingly driven by the wise and intelligent use of knowledge."
The 'innovation cluster' of 2050
By 2050, London must create and be at the heart of an 'innovation cluster' to rival that of the Bay Area in California or in Boston around Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - and benefit the whole of the UK through its economic and societal success. This is not an easy ambition, but London is the only city in Europe that has the potential to achieve at this level. London and its citizens will benefit, through the prosperity, employment and regeneration this innovation cluster will bring. So too will the nation as London institutions collaborate with innovation and research partners across the UK, bringing yet greater benefit to us all.
"London must create and be at the heart of an 'innovation cluster' to rival that of the Bay Area in California or in Boston around Harvard and MIT."
To achieve this, universities need to create the conditions that will not only facilitate the organic development of such a cluster, but perhaps catalyse its more rapid development. Several factors that will be critically important in making this happen, some of which are already underway.
Universities must promote partnership above competition. With relatively new leadership at each of London's world-leading universities there is a very strong sense of greater and closer partnership working being the key way forward. Active major examples include joint working with the Crick Institute, the Turing Institute, and The London Centre for Nanotechnology. This sits astride a myriad of collaborative research activities between London institutions. To achieve the 2050 vision, London institutions also need to work even more closely with the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the emerging 'Northern Powerhouse', and elsewhere. The 'cluster' that needs to be created needs to develop well beyond the strict geographic boundaries of London for it to be a global success.
The National Health Service is also critical to the development of this cluster. UCLPartners is a good model: an academic health and science partnership which has grown to involve 23 NHS Trusts, 20 Clinical Commissioning Groups, 26 boroughs and local councils, 11 higher education institutions, and industrial relationships. The UCLPartners Quintiles Prime Site is the highest performing recruitment centre for patients entered into clinical trials anywhere in the world. As new ideas and technologies emerge from universities, and London based institutes such as the Crick and Turing, these extended health partnerships will allow us to translate research more rapidly and effectively into the treatment of human disease, creating economic and health benefits for London and the nation. Supporting and further developing these networks across the NHS will be important for building the 'innovation cluster' envisaged.
"Universities must promote partnership above competition. With relatively new leadership at each of London's world-leading universities there is a very strong sense of greater and closer partnership working being the key way forward."
If this is correct for medicine and health, we might also benefit from taking the same coordinated partnership approach to other defined sectors of business and industry in and around London, where we can find similar global advantage. The London Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), the Greater London Authority (GLA), Medcity, and agencies such as London First are critical to making this happen. We also need to work jointly to create the appropriate dry and wet incubator and other facilities and a highly creative environment that allows the unthinkable to happen and for research-driven entrepreneurship to catch fire.
In conclusion, London already has much of what is needed to be at the centre of a cluster of innovation that will ultimately rival any other in the world. We stand at the threshold of making it happen at scale and we should seize the opportunity to create another major economic string to London and the UK's bow.
We need a coordinated effort to bring together the innovators from both universities and business, as well as the facilities, the partnerships and the venture funding necessary to accelerate progress. Not another agency or talk shop, but more a coming together of creative and talented individuals with entrepreneurial spirit and a complete lack of understanding of the word 'no'. We should resource them appropriately and ask them to jointly tackle the task of making London a leading global innovation cluster.
Professor Michael Arthur is President and Provost of University College London. This is an extract from 'The Future of London', published by Bright Blue and Localis on September 12; www.brightblue.org.uk and www.localis.org.uk