Money is not the only object: A focus on place is needed to address regional imbalances in R&D
The UK Government’s Research and Development (R&D) Roadmap, released in July last year, and national strategies such as the Innovation Strategy, will aim to make the UK a global leader in science and technology.
However there remains deep misalignment in areas of public investment in the UK. While London receives large amounts of public funding, areas such as the West Midlands receive significantly less publicly-funded R&D support. This is not new with research showing why equal access to innovation in the UK is vital, with high levels of investment in R&D directly associated with increased productivity, living standards and quality of life.
Therefore whilst the continued push for innovation in the UK is undoubtedly positive, the achievements of these strategies will be seriously hindered if they do not support local and regional communities from across the UK access innovation.
However money is not the only object here. We must not overlook the importance of place when addressing lack of innovation and regional disparity, since policy makers cannot just increase R&D funding across the regions as a panacea. It also needs to include equal access, which relies on wider Government investment in supporting infrastructure such as transportation, health and education.
In Greater Manchester, for example, a report by the Good Things Foundation suggests as many as 1.2 million residents could be excluded in some way from the benefits of digital innovation — with over 700,000 people in Greater Manchester only using the internet in a narrow or limited way and a further 450,000 classified as “non-users”.
This digital exclusion directly hinders the adoption of emerging technologies, such as AI, which despite having overwhelmingly positive deployment use cases, bring a degree of justifiable apprehension for many in the UK workforce with people scared that this technology will replace jobs. This fear is exacerbated by the lack of opportunity or access to reskill with the digital skills needed for a future of innovation.
Though apprehension may not be a significant barrier for other emerging technologies, such as quantum technologies, access to a workforce with the skills and resources needed to commercialise this technology in the UK certainly is and the UK is in danger of missing out on crucial opportunities to be leaders in innovation.
For Manchester, this is especially pertinent as it was recently named the fastest growing tech city in Europe by Tech Nation, with investment growing by 277% in 2019 from £48 million to £181 million.
Without an open regional dialogue on the interconnection of place, technology and investment, there is a real danger that the UK will not be able to keep pace and support innovation to be a global leader
Local Digital Capital
At the end of 2020, techUK released eight reports covering investment into different nations and regions in the UK, each identifying core opportunities and barriers to investment in each area. These reports also emphasised why Local Digital Capital - a coalition of eight inputs that together can build, sustain, and grow a local tech ecosystem, and includes core components such as digital skills, digital adoption, digital infrastructure and trade support - underlines innovation in the UK.
Bringing regional access to R&D
The good news is that the UK R&D strategy takes into account regional differences in R&D, as will the Place Advisory Group which will support the government’s levelling up agenda and its wider approach in the context of wider economic recovery from COVID-19.
In addition, techUK will be launching the Local Digital Capital (LDC) index later this year. This will set a framework to measure LDC across our nations and regions, including the research and innovation component, allowing us to understand tech's role in levelling-up
It is also worth noting there are many important industry-led initiatives starting within regional communities that are promoting regional networks of innovation that will support R&D, such as the Scottish Geospatial Network Integrator that is connecting their regional geospatial market.
The UK Government focus on Innovation is a real opportunity to empower regional development however making this a success must mean moving beyond questions about funding to also include a focus on strong place-based collaboration and coordination. Doing this will not only make innovation in the UK a success, but mark a major change in how we build R&D innovation as central to prosperity for all.
Laura is techUK’s Programme Manager for Technology and Innovation.
She supports the application and expansion of emerging technologies across business, including Geospatial Data, Quantum Computing, AR/VR/XR and Edge technologies.
Before joining techUK, Laura worked internationally in London, Singapore and across the United States as a conference researcher and producer covering enterprise adoption of emerging technologies. This included being part of the strategic team at London Tech Week.
Laura has a degree in History (BA Hons) from Durham University, focussing on regional social history. Outside of work she loves reading, travelling and supporting rugby team St. Helens, where she is from.
As Head of Policy Neil leads techUK's domestic policy development. He regularly engages with UK and Devolved Government Ministers, senior civil servants and Members of the UK’s Parliaments with the aim of supporting government and industry to work together to make the UK the best place to start, scale and develop technology companies.
Neil joined techUK in 2019 to lead on techUK’s engagement in the UK-EU Brexit trade deal negotiations, as well as leading on economic policy.
He has a background in the UK Parliament and in social research. Neil holds a masters degree in Comparative Public Policy from the University of Edinburgh and an undergraduate degree in International Politics from City, University of London.
Sue leads techUK's Technology and Innovation work.
This includes work programmes on cloud, data protection, data analytics, AI, Digital Identity and Internet of Things as well as emerging and transformative technologies and innovation policy. She has been recognised as one of the most influential women in UK tech by Computer Weekly and as a key influencer in driving forward the Big Data agenda in the UK Big Data 100. Sue has also been shortlisted for the Milton Keynes Women Leaders Awards and was a judge for the Loebner Prize in AI. In addition to being a regular industry speaker on issues including AI ethics, data protection and cyber security, Sue was recently a judge for the UK Tech 50 and is a regular judge of the annual UK Cloud Awards.
Prior to joining techUK in January 2015 Sue was responsible for Symantec's Government Relations in the UK and Ireland. She has spoken at events including the UK-China Internet Forum in Beijing, UN IGF and European RSA on issues ranging from data usage and privacy, cloud computing and online child safety. Before joining Symantec, Sue was senior policy advisor at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). Sue has an BA degree on History and American Studies from Leeds University and a Masters Degree on International Relations and Diplomacy from the University of Birmingham. Sue is a keen sportswoman and in 2016 achieved a lifelong ambition to swim the English Channel.