Innovation theorist challenged to walk the talk on ‘levelling up’

Richard Jones has chance to put into practice influential theories on boosting regions through research and development with role in new Innovation GM

May 5, 2021
A general view of an old cotton mill in Oldham with the city of Manchester on the horizon, 2020
Source: Getty

Richard Jones has been an influential theorist on how research and development funding could be used to boost the UK regions and help create a “more prosperous, equal and united country”, with his work admired from 10 Downing Street. But after leaving the University of Sheffield last year to become chair of materials physics and innovation policy at the University of Manchester, he is no longer just a theorist.

Last month, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority announced Professor Jones as independent science adviser to Innovation Greater Manchester, a new partnership uniting local and regional government, business and universities in a “blueprint for translational innovation” aiming to create 100,000 jobs.

It intends to take a “whole city and whole region” approach to fostering “inclusive growth” that reaches struggling deindustrialised towns by joining up innovation and skills.

“The driving force for it all really is the regional inequality in the UK, taking the government at face value on levelling-up – assuming it means what it says and is genuinely interested in improving the economic performance of the rest of the country outside the golden triangle – [and] connecting that to R&D and innovation,” Professor Jones told Times Higher Education.

Boosting productivity – the value created per hour of work – in the UK regions was key to allowing them to “stand on their own feet more”, he said. Research and development, particularly in the private sector, can drive that as it creates “new products and services that lead to productivity growth”, he continued.

Professor Jones highlighted research suggesting the UK’s main productivity problem was that its “second-tier cities are underperforming…They don’t look like second-tier cities in Europe. Manchester ought to be like Düsseldorf, but it’s not.”

If government research and development spending is to be spread more evenly to the regions to further stimulate private sector investment, as Professor Jones has advocated, that means creating capacity in the regions to use it. That is part of Innovation GM’s aim.

As to how it will work in practice, “ideally we’d actually do some capital initiatives”, said Professor Jones.

Manchester already has the thriving Oxford Road Corridor, home to the University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University, and the aim was to “grow that as an innovation district so digital companies can come in, so we can get start-ups working”, he explained.

But Innovation GM will also focus on “the deindustrialised parts, the ‘left behind’ towns” and “how we can attract jobs to those places”, said Professor Jones, an admirer of the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, which attracts investment from international companies to its site on the Sheffield-Rotherham border while boosting productivity for local firms.

Professor Jones has been learning about the strengths of engineering and manufacturing firms in Greater Manchester towns like Bury, Rochdale and Oldham, in “areas like coatings, speciality materials…technical textiles”, seeing potential to create “translational research facilities” supporting the private sector to boost innovation.

He said: “Our goal would be to create a kind of super-advanced manufacturing park, as happened in Sheffield, but probably on a bigger scale, built around those industries…We’ve got a site, actually. It would be on the Rochdale-Bury border, where the motorways cross.”

It was often said of “left-behind places” that “they have a skills problem and we ought to sort it out by supplying more skills”, Professor Jones observed. But that was incorrect, he argued, as “you’ve got to create a demand for skills”, which means creating “a more innovative economy that needs more skilled people”.

His vision in Greater Manchester is for a “completely joined up FE and HE sector where…everybody was working together to address that skills side of the equation at the same time as you addressed the innovation side”.

The critique of technology-led innovation economies is that they create greater inequality, benefiting only the people and places with the very highest skills.

“Our plans are a direct response to that criticism,” said Professor Jones, arguing that our understanding of “tech” must extend beyond digital to high-productivity fields such as chemicals.

“When you talk about R&D-led growth, people’s vision of it is some very high-flown person in a university laboratory,” he said. “That part of it is important, but the bit of it that is [also] important is the product development outfit in the back of an SME speciality chemicals operation in north-east Manchester.”

Germany has shown that innovation economies can produce “a much less unequal country than we have”, he added.

“None of this stuff is easy,” Professor Jones cautioned. “I’m not going to say that if we do this, Rochdale will be a kind of San Jose tomorrow. But I think it’s a genuine attempt to think through, at the level of a whole city and a whole region, what it would take to get that kind of inclusive growth.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Northern might: Innovation theorist challenged to walk the talk on ‘levelling up’

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Reader's comments (4)

Is there a clear definition of "levelling up"? I'd have thought this was the place to start (but I'm not a politician). Is it the point where everyone sees John Lewis furniture as a "nightmare" or is it getting "the north of England" 10% nearer to the average income in the South East (more achievable, but a rubbish political slogan).
Sadly, the scale of the problem (deep-seated, long-run spatial and structural inequalities in the UK economy) continues to dwarf the level of funding (and ambition) in these piecemeal initiatives. 'Levelling up' is a cheap political slogan and a pipe-dream.
We should scrap the London weighting given to Universities in the capital and only support new capital expenditure for Universities outside the Golden Triangle. There needs to be Less in London. A University helps bring regeneration to locations that do not have one through the spending power of students via their student loans. Graduates are more likely to stay and work in the University towns and cities where they studied, creating further wealth. Separating the geographical UK Political, Commercial, Cultural and Tourist capitals would also help achieve a fairer distribution of wealth. Currently, London provides all four. Even the USA has Washington and New York.
Low productivity is a red herring. if "productivity = the value created per hour of work" then the nature of financial services means that huge "value" (ie profits) can be created with a few key strokes on a computer. Hence the high productivity in the city of London compared to say a car plant in the Midlands. The ultimate in productivity is a fully automated factory, with perhaps couple of low pay security guards to ensure nobody enters the plant. Fantastic for productivity lousy for job creation. The factory owner keeps all the profits and becomes the next Jeff Bezos/Elon Musk, the local job centre is packed with ex factory workers now on benefits.

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