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UK universities have long had a strong global reputation for excellence in research and innovation. But we should also be celebrating that the UK is now ranked 2nd in the world for collaboration between universities and businesses. This was one of the key themes discussed at the launch of our latest report on Wednesday.
In this report, supported by Santander, we explore ways in which cities are making this happen and set out a framework for city leaders to consider their local challenges.
Improvements in university-business collaborations over the last ten years seem to be primarily driven by an increasing culture of open innovation, from knowledge intensive businesses and from university researchers alike. This shift has happened alongside changes in funding, shifting universities’ emphasis towards commercial opportunities. National policies and the recent Witty and Wilson reviews are broadly supported by partners but they can only go so far in setting the scene and providing the tools for boosting collaboration, it’s cities that are taking up the baton, rather than getting lost inreviews after committees.
The best city based approaches are ones that take an enabling approach: providing the environment and opportunities for new relationships to form, and for existing ones to prosper, rather than leaving city decision makers to choose and match firms with expertise or departments.
As one of the favoured comments from our launch put it, the city’s role is to provide the environment for green shoots to thrive not to choose an individual blade of grass to pull. Examples such as Fraunhofer and Cambridge’s science parks owe their success to a long term commitment to funding and continued attempts to build a scale of relationships between research centres and with businesses over time. Although projects at this scale take time to become self-sustaining.
Cities that don’t have these established innovation ecosystems can build scale through networks. For some, working with other cities to bring universities and businesses together allows them to build sufficient scale of partners and research. This can help them access funding for infrastructure otherwise beyond their reach. A good example of this approach is the N8 group of universities and the High Performance Computer. For other cities this is as simple as providing a networking space. Engine Shed in Bristol provides such a space (building on the success of the SETSquared partnership) but otherwise adopts an arm’s length approach, allowing relationships to develop naturally.
Benefits can also accrue from encouraging close contact with graduate alumni and providing a clear route and language to begin university: business collaborations (e.g. Stanford University and the Y Combinator incubator). But cities need to be clear what their role is. For instance in the case of Y combinator in Silicon Valley (which generates significant profits), no established formal role is played by either the city or Stanford University.
Some cities are using their local strengths, (for example the AMRC in Sheffield) and the most successful collaborations are flexible and also support growth in firms outside of specific identified sectors. For example, Teesside University develops links with digital companies: a growing sector in the region and a particular strength of the University. But it also offers digital training/support to any businesses looking to improve their digital skills in order to become more efficient.
Finally, cities with successful collaborations need to ensure growing firms have access to these networks, and ensure they maintain their innovation ecosystems effectively. For example firms in Cambridge are starting to report networking fatigue as there are too many to keep track of and the returns are diminishing as they become more specialised and closed. Careful management of these networks is as important as encouraging their growth.
Our report shows that there is a lot happening in this space and that university and business collaborations have become increasingly important for the national economy. In many instances cities are best placed to support these links as they have the critical mass, the links and the proximity to make a difference. But in doing this, cities should use their local knowledge and relationships to identify where there are opportunities to build on successful collaborations for their growing firms. And they should then help businesses and universities to overcome perceived barriers to collaboration and in turn build scale. It’s by building and maintaining a critical mass of businesses and university departments, and a dialogue between them, that cities can support these links.
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