Birmingham – a crucible for innovation


As light appears at the end of the pandemic’ lockdown tunnel, the future of office use and city centre life is the subject of debate and speculation. Successful pre-pandemic city economies attracted investment from productive knowledge businesses selling beyond local markets and these acted as a driving force for the local economy by increasing demand for other businesses selling locally.

A recent review by Centre for Cities highlighted the employment split across the exporting and local services businesses based on a ratio of 28:72. Indeed as Covid-19 emptied corporate offices the loss of clientele for local cafes, bars and restaurants has been all too apparent. Observing this, pundits argue that the way we have worked in 2020 is a true glimpse of the future; but, as we look to an economy based on a sustainable knowledge-intensive business, can we afford to let this be true? 

It does seem that slowly emerging trends pre-pandemic were accelerated by the viral intervention suggesting there will be fundamental changes in the way we use offices. It seems a new hybrid model of in-person and remote working is likely to be common practice; but the death knell for the office is premature. There are a number of reasons why I believe [hope] that this is the case. Issues around retaining a company’s culture, peer-to-peer support and juniors learning from senior staff by osmosis are key are obvious factors; but here I am focussing on the need for continuous innovation in a world where consideration of a status quo will no longer be relevant or even exist. 

Given the speed of the digital revolution and the ever-greater importance of data in all aspects of our lives, continued innovation will be essential for stability and growth of the economy. For that reason, ‘place’ matters. In the words of Joseph Schumpeter ‘the creative destruction wrought by entrepreneurs in close proximity to one another [is] the driving force for progress’.

Proximity enabled by the clustering of communities during the 18th and 19th Centuries is what led to the growth of Birmingham and the other great industrial cities in the UK. These manufacturing clusters, connected to transport infrastructures around ports, canals and rail, promoted efficient movement of materials and products. In Birmingham the citizen’s interest in experimentation and innovation drove it to become ‘the city of 1000 trades’; thousands of small firms created employment for people living in the surrounding communities who were then able to walk to work. These firms organised into local supply chains transforming starting materials through to finished products. The industrial cities generated the necessary scale, access to resources and raw materials and connectivity to succeed.

Reflecting Joseph Schumpeter’s view, these manufacturing centres were driven by key entrepreneurial individuals. Most notably in Birmingham pioneering engineers, industrialists and entrepreneurs led the way; coming together under the guise of the Lunar Society. The ‘Lunar Men’ included people such as Mathew Boulton, James Watt, William Murdock, Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley and Josiah Wedgewood. The importance of place in this is that change is catalysed by effective communication, quoting James Burke ‘the easier it is to communicate the faster change happens’; and even as advances in digital technologies augment human ingenuity it remains the case that innovation is stimulated by bringing creative minds together. 

Birmingham was a crucible, a place in which different elements interacted creating something new through the translation of creativity and invention into marketable products and services, in other words Birmingham was a crucible for innovation. 

A consequence of today’s need to keep pace with a fast-moving knowledge economy is that an effective innovation culture will be key to the city’s economic success. The changes resulting from the pandemic must not impact the role of our city as a crucible. Set this alongside social, personal development and cultural needs and place remains key to our wellbeing; all our cities must continue to thrive.

That is not to say everything will go back to what it was in 2019. A rebirth of the vibrancy of city centres and business districts will require the office-workers to come back and provide custom to the cafes, bars and restaurants. But as the recent ‘Our Future City Plan – Central Birmingham 2040’ starts to explore, in order to drive a low-carbon sustainable city the core will need to be reimagined to create walkable, mixed-use environments, structured for new experience and to meet new expectations. The rethinking of Birmingham as connected 15-minute neighbourhoods providing easy access to place and experience fits with these needs.

As we move back into the physical world, connected places will again start to drive the innovation chemistry which has been largely missing during the last year in our video-linked worlds. We look to the knowledge economies to drive recovery, but new competencies need to be incorporated into the mix to support the new industries to reignite and then sustain local momentum. Today that means competencies largely underpinned by digital talent. If this is achieved the city again becomes an innovation engine.

As we promote knowledge clusters, we need to intervene in ways that go beyond driving local sector-defined clusters; arguably in the knowledge economies this misses the importance of serendipity in the innovation process. Top-down interventions assume that innovation can be created by edict. In reality today’s technological and socio-economic complexities mean that a local areas’ innovation strengths and limitations will be determined by taking a holistic view, and will be driven by today’s Lunar Men.

There is a tendency to define success through the lens of readily defined metrics, oft based around the physical place. But the major intangible, which is much harder to create by design or intervention, is the magic deriving from the legacy culture behind the location along in which the knowledge creators sit – in other words, it’s all in the mix of people; it’s about who is there and how they mix. 

The character of physical spaces does influence how things happens. It is striking that many successful districts are characterised by 19th Century buildings that encourage conviviality and active street-life. Witness the focus and successes of the creative sector in Digbeth and the Jewellery Quarter.

The city-based Innovation Districts comprise a diverse mix of people in communities drawn together through common interest and approaches to life. Today, perhaps even more so after the pandemic, there is a new generation of “collaborateers”, who rather than accepting long commutes and daily congestion, choose to work and live in places that are walkable and connected by public transport. In other words, they are returning to the living/working ways seen in the 19th Century industrial cities. 

In our young city, these entrepreneurs, aged 18 to 30, are exhibiting a much greater degree of collaboration than their forerunners as they come together in the more bohemian and cheaper margins of the city. Instead of inventing on their own in bedrooms or garages, they are starting their companies in common spaces, where they can mingle with other entrepreneurs and have efficient access to everything from legal advice to sophisticated lab equipment. This culture promotes experiential innovation through contact which is less readily achieved remotely and/or digitally. This is the reason our cities need to come back to life. It also is the reason why these collaborateers will be encouraged by the thinking behind the connected 15-minute neighbourhoods.

As we look to enhance these places by intervening to create the right conditions, it isn’t always about throwing money at the situation. There does need to be a reason for a place to exist, ‘build it and they will come’ is not the answer, if the magic mix of people do not find a reason to be there it will not catch fire. That goes beyond the physicality of the place so consequently the early foundations of Innovation Districts are built organically, through happenstance and an alignment of opportunities. 

That said from an innovation perspective there is a real role for intervention in the form of catalysts to drive the innovation reaction; catalysis taking the form of curation. A guiding ‘force’ to orchestrate activities ensuring the innovators are visible to each other and to promote serendipitous interactions. The curators need to promote knowledge gain, exchange and application to drive innovation ensuring individuals do not find themselves isolated and uncertain where to turn to secure the support they need to deliver their commercial aspirations. 

These places must not be seen to be islands or bounded parts of the urban environment. They need to be permeable enabling transfer of knowledge and talent in and out, to merge with other city districts to draw in cross-sector demand for new innovations. In Birmingham this permeability needs to also address neurodiversity, taking advantage of our young diverse city and blending the tech and creative sectors – beyond science and into the arts; something that to date has not been high on the agenda in Birmingham. This urban-based approach should also be used to further diversify the mix addressing minorities’ engagement in the innovation space. 

These linkages to and within a district catalyse knowledge spill-overs across supply chains. They create a better understanding of need and promote market-led innovation and faster economic transformation. These spill-overs can also serve to penetrate surrounding communities, especially those characterised by low levels of economic activity. In this way it is to be seen as an active intervention post-Covid 19 aimed at enhancing the Innovation District’s contribution to the city’s wider socio-economic condition. The aim should be to inspire where aspiration is low and importantly promote neurodiversity in the local innovation ecology. 

Given technological, socio-economic and political influences city’ responses need to be intrinsically inclusive, diverse and dynamic. They need to be future looking and able to flex to address the multiple new and fleeting status quos. Successful Innovation Districts develop when they are in harmony with the direction of travel identified for the regional economy. There is nothing linear about this in terms of geographies, technology field or sector, skills, communities or indeed product – it is not a hub-to-spoke model that is required, it needs to be a web of connectivity across the city to and from the relevant communities of interest. 

For Birmingham to thrive the offices must come back to life; the jobs and businesses lost during the pandemic need to be replaced and we need the magic in the crucible mix to [re]ignite. We can look to the key events like the Commonwealth Games to put a spotlight on Birmingham and inspire and create a true legacy; but we must effectively curate the innovation places in the city to ensure a sustainable economy that benefits all citizens.

Dr David J Hardman MBE is Managing Director, Bruntwood SciTech- Birmingham, the leading property provider to the property and tech sector whose portfolio includes Innovation Birmingham Campus in the Birmingham Knowledge Quarter and, in association with the University of Birmingham, the Birmingham Health Innovation Campus.