From Science Parks to connected centres of innovation

April 3, 2017

Over the last 50 years the success of science parks in the UK has largely been achieved through geographic aggregation of talent often with a sector focus; creating hot-spots of critical mass, which stimulate and accelerate innovation. This model now faces historically unique drivers of change. Societal digital evolution, the blurring of sector boundaries, data becoming the focus of value and increasing urbanisation aligned with the ever-increasing rate of technology development and the associated challenge of ensuring availability of relevant skills means that arguably the 20th Century model of the science park is looking less fit-for-purpose.

 

It remains the case that innovation is stimulated by bringing creative minds together; but by putting the same type of people together all the time in the same places similar outcomes will be generated so stifling innovation.  The advance of digital technologies is driving the blurring of sector boundaries but is also providing the opportunity to consider a new (4th) generation of science parks. In the new model innovators, entrepreneurs and businesses of all sizes connect to collaborate. It should also move us beyond what we would now consider to be our ‘tech’-based clients to include the creative sectors – beyond science and into the arts. This challenges the ‘science park’ tag – a true innovation campus now needs to engage with the broadest possible mind-sets – the convergent scientists, technologists and business leaders working alongside and with the divergent minds of the creative artists. The move towards the 24/7 urban live-work-play culture means that city-based and integrated innovation campuses will become the real sites of innovation.

 

Outside cities, the geography-based models focus around centres of excellence or high value assets that result in the co-location of critical mass over decades. In the new model connected real estate merges the physical and the virtual places; providing a means of driving communities of interest, where people are brought together through global exchanges and collaboration created in much shorter time-frames. Such locations, operating without walls create borderless spaces, breaking down local economic, sector and social silos. This has the advantage that it levels the ‘playing-field’ enabling regions where historic, often declining, economies, can be refreshed through access to local and global talent to promote growth.

 

Within urban settings this is the very basis for the ‘Smart City’; by connecting ‘innovation’ districts/campuses to the wider city economy the innovation ecology is immediately opened to wider input from sectors that have previously not considered science parks as their natural home. Intra-connected cities will better promote innovation and of course by connecting city-based locations to other such locations one creates a web of inter-connected cities that will benefit from today’s global supply chains and economies.

 

This connected innovation agenda has been slow to gain momentum. However, the social evolution that has influenced the lives of tomorrow’s entrepreneurs leads them to readily accept a non-spatial definition of ‘place’ as one driven by a sense of belonging, a sense of ‘place’, not a geographically bounded location. Hence, ‘GenZ’ entrepreneurs will naturally look beyond their locations in their working lives and the very nature of science parks will need to keep pace with these changes to ensure they meet the needs and work patterns of their future clients.

 

The future effectiveness of these ‘places’ will be determined by the availability, quality and efficiency of the web infrastructure serving the location; in turn the web infrastructure will determine the strength of affiliated digital communities and that will determine the pace of innovation. It is with this outlook that we have developed a strategic plan for what was Aston Science Park and created the Innovation Birmingham Campus.

 

Innovation Birmingham’s aim is to work within Birmingham’s city centre to address the needs of Greater Birmingham’s knowledge-based economy. It is based on a belief that the lives of Greater Birmingham’s citizens will be improved considerably by catalysing the connections, communication and collaboration between digitally-driven start-ups, corporations, the public sector, academia and the city’s inhabitants. Innovation Birmingham orchestrates a connected innovation community through the provision of facilities linked to its 30 Gig/s web infrastructure. We aim to catalyse digital entrepreneurship through an accelerator, two incubator programmes and a community of digital businesses, through technology and demand-led innovation.

There are currently over 150 businesses, employing 1,100 people, located in the 3 buildings on the Innovation Birmingham Campus. The connected real-estate ethos has been embodied in the design, delivery and now operation of the new iCentrum® building which opened in April 2016. The building has been designed to promote community dynamics, striking a balance between order and chaos with a proactive and energetic management catalysing interaction. A physical community is connected to the citizens and business community of Birmingham across all sectors through an active meeting and events programme. This borderless ‘skunk works’ promotes engagement to drive new business creation and promote innovation in existing businesses by enabling collisions of thoughts and ideas opening doors to new possibilities.

 

Through this ‘without walls’ strategy Innovation Birmingham looks to empower borderless innovation by engaging digital champions and communicators in globally connected local debates to overcome local limiting factors on growth in Birmingham’s knowledge economy. Nothing new in this, such an approach drove the first Industrial Revolution in Birmingham – then it was called the Lunar Society, all be it that at that time, in common with the supply chains, it was geographically located.

 

The metrics suggest that science parks do not apparently achieve their full catalytic potential in terms of GDP impact. Arguably, in the 21st Century, in part this is because few of them have exploited the whole opportunity offered by global, even, it must be said, regional/local exchange, collaboration, partnerships and resource sharing. Stakeholder requirements and cultural differences have prevented the development of powerful and sustainable alliances. It is our contention that an alliance of trusted interconnected centres with common interests and requirements around knowledge economy-led regeneration is the way forward; indeed may become essential in a post Brexit world where Public sector financial support becomes even more scarce.

 

Innovation Birmingham is a founding member of Cisco’s National Virtual Incubator network, which currently links seven centres across the UK utilising the latest video collaboration technology to promote connected collaboration; we also have agreements with the DMZ incubator in Toronto. Whilst more needs to be done to develop and expand on these initial linkages, they exemplify the concept of an alliance of centres of innovation.

 

Innovation Birmingham operates the Innovation Birmingham Campus, but it is a Knowledge Economy business. Whilst our main income is generated from property, business success is driven by the continued development and support of a thriving creative community of collaborating entrepreneurs and innovators; based on the campus, integrated into the city and connected to world. That is our extended version of the ‘property-plus’ model that identifies the science park movement.

 

As we continue to develop our strategy, with three further buildings planned – the first to be started in 2017 with pre-lets confirmed – the Board of Innovation Birmingham and Birmingham City Council are actively seeking investment in exchange for equity to support the continued development of Innovation Birmingham and the Campus as a next generation innovation community. For those interested in the further development of this alliance model, we would be keen to open a dialogue. We are also keen to explore means of providing ready access to early stage and growth venture capital to accelerate the growth of our clients.

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