04The Innovation District concept: how does it apply to the advanced manufacturing innovation sector in Sheffield-Rotherham?

Many of the principles that underpin the Innovation District concept explored in Bruce Katz’ and Julie Wagner’s paper are useful for thinking about how to maximise the impact of the sector to the city region and national economy. This section examines some of the key principles and explores how they can inform the development of an Innovation District in and around the AMP and SBP.

Clustering of innovation assets

The Sheffield-Rotherham area contains an agglomeration of advanced manufacturing and technology firms, with a clustering of advanced manufacturing R&D and innovation assets. Both the AMP and SBP have grown as the AMRC has expanded to partner with large private sector firms to create innovative new products to release to the market.

Figure 4: Innovation assets in Sheffield-Rotherham

The wider Sheffield-Rotherham economic corridor also houses international brands in materials technology, engineering and manufacturing such as Forgemasters International, Tata, Outokumpu, Alcoa and other firms in the advanced manufacturing supply chain. Many of the industrial production plants in Sheffield-Rotherham specialise in high tech, bespoke or precision work destined for use in aerospace, nuclear, oil and gas and renewables that are highly dependent on the innovations and technologies developed at the AMRC. Integration and synergy in the supply-chain appears to be strong, with firms benefitting from their location in and around the AMP-SBP area.

Anecdotal evidence from manufacturers in the wider Sheffield-Rotherham area also indicates that being physically located in the area is important to remaining at the cutting-edge of industrial design and production technologies, as well as for the wider ‘Made in Sheffield’ reputational benefits. In addition, for some firms co-location on the site would appear to provide very tangible benefits not found elsewhere. Keith Ridgway, Executive Dean of the AMRC, recalled re-locating a facility to the AMP proper after only a few months of being only a 10-minute drive away, because it was felt to be damaging business prospects. This type of co-location within the supply chain was identified as a priority for the Government, who have sought to introduce greater co-location of advanced manufacturing supply chains through funding incentives,11 as a means of encouraging more manufacturers to operate in the UK. Gaining a more precise and robust understanding of the benefits of co-location or proximity to the AMP-SBP for different businesses should be the priority for developing an Innovation District strategy.

The location of an innovation anchor in the form of the AMRC within the wider Sheffield-Rotherham economic corridor suggests a node and networks geography of innovation in the area: the nucleus of innovation and research-led advanced manufacturing is located at the AMP-SBP, but the business connections and sector span out into the wider area. While the geography of advanced manufacturing in the area is less dense than in the business and professional financial service sector-based Innovation Districts, proximity and co-location appear to benefit a range of firms in the advanced manufacturing sector and supply-chain. Companies benefit from the cluster of advanced manufacturing R&D on the AMP-SBP site, the network of advanced manufacturing companies in the area, as well as other innovation assets. This includes the universities of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam, business, professional and financial services (BPFS) and creative and digital industries (CDI) sectors in the city-centre. These nodes of economic activity in advanced manufacturing and complementary activities suggest an ‘innovation ecosystem’ or triangle in Sheffield Rotherham that presents significant opportunities for economic growth. 

A tour of Sheffield revealed the existence of an “innovation triangle” connecting the park, key companies in the broader Don Valley, and the city center’s downtown area—with its ample amenities, university campuses, and focus on creative design. To this end, the Advanced Manufacturing Park appears to be the fulcrum of a broader innovation district rather than the sum total.  – Bruce Katz and Kelly Kline

Business and research-led

One of the particular strengths of the centre and development of the AMP are the strong ties between the university, global firms and local businesses. The AMRC was born out of the University of Sheffield and remains staffed and led by university employees. Business involvement has been crucial to its success from the start, with Boeing, Rolls-Royce and others providing the funding, R&D expertise and links to the market that have driven the growth of the Centre and the expansion of the AMP. The close integration of the university and the private sector companies that form the membership of the Centre are integral to the growth of the advanced manufacturing sector.

The AMP Technology Centre hosts start-ups and SMEs that benefit from being on the site for both use of the facilities and the networks that it provides. The access to high tech testing facilities and close proximity to other innovators in related fields enables these businesses to develop. Testimony from businesses indicate that they benefit from public lectures and networking events that foster collaboration – the AMP provides networking assets to advanced manufacturing firms located on the site. Understanding how the current networking assets benefit these SMEs and what interventions would further support this environment, is key to maximising innovation assets on the AMP-SBP site.

The AMRC Training Centre located on the site also benefits from the proximity to, and reputation of, the AMRC both in attracting apprentices and the value of their training to future employers. It provides practical as well as academic training, and apprenticeship training at the AMRC makes available different pathways, equipping young people with the advanced STEM skills needed to succeed in advanced manufacturing. Young people in particular seemed attracted to the idea of working in the same environment as big-brand companies such as Rolls-Royce and Boeing. But interestingly, as a result of apprentices of SMEs training side-by-side with the better known global companies, partners at the Training Centre also reported noticing an increased appetite for apprenticeship opportunities within SMEs. The Centre opened in 2014 and partners reported that the benefits of business-led training available to local firms, and those located on the site, are already being felt. Understanding how this element of the skills system supports innovation in Sheffield-Rotherham, how other skills and training assets such as the University Training Centre work alongside it, and what the skills gaps are for individuals and businesses to continue to drive innovation in advanced manufacturing, is vital.

When asked what single thing would make the biggest difference to the success of the AMRC, but also boost advanced manufacturing in the area, Executive Dean Keith Ridgway answered that attracting a new global large-scale production facility, or ‘OEM’, would be a “game-changer”. This insight, and others from existing companies on what would boost growth and innovation for them and the wider advanced manufacturing sector, should underpin public sector interventions in the area. Supporting the university-business relationships and innovative firms that have driven the development of the AMRC and continue to power innovation on the AMP-SBP site should be the focus of interventions as part of an Innovation District strategy in Sheffield-Rotherham.

Liveability and place-making

While mixed-use development and the close proximity to amenities (within walking distance or public transport access) is a feature of the city centre BPFS and CDI-based Innovation District, the dynamics of an advanced manufacturing cluster appear to be very different.

Many advanced manufacturing firms (from industrial design to production) stated that they benefitted from being located on the AMP-SBP site, or in close proximity to it. To a large extent this would appear to be because of the access to resources and expertise. Some companies also cited regular coffee mornings at the AMP and public lectures at the AMRC as beneficial to them. But while the AMRC buildings provide some private public realm amenities including a canteen for apprentices within the Training centre, the parks do not encourage people to come together to mix, network professionally or socialise outside of their own buildings. Given the benefits of co-location for many of the innovative firms already on site, more spaces to both share materials, equipment and ideas (and also to socialise) between the buildings would support innovation at the AMP and SBP.

Improving the connectivity between the two parks is another element of the smart place-making that is essential to realizing the full innovation potential of the companies, researchers, and supportive institutions located in this relatively compact area of the region. – Bruce Katz and Kelly Kline

Within the central innovation hub of the AMP and SBP, connections between places are poor. Currently the two sites are separated by a dual carriageway which poses a challenge for supporting the networks and engagements that underpin innovation, especially as the new AMRC Factory 2050 will be located on the SBP site. For the area to function as a coherent space, to facilitate networks and create a more pleasant public realm for day-time occupants and employees, improving the access across the site is important. The proposed HS2 line will also run across the current site of the AMP-SBP. This route poses a challenge in terms of improving connections between the two current sites, and potential expansion of the current sites in the future. Given the expansion of the AMRC and the potential for future advanced manufacturing investment, improving connectivity between AMP and SBP is important – this might require engagement with national agencies such as the Department of Transport and HS2 Ltd.

The more dispersed geography of innovation and the requirements of firms in advanced manufacturing means that residential or mixed-use development would not support growth and innovation in the same way as in more densely populated city centre Innovation Districts. This implies that efforts to improve physical assets or place-making at the AMP-SBP should not be to emulate a city centre environment, but to focus on providing new and existing innovative advanced manufacturing firms with the physical and networking assets that will support them to grow. Place-making should be seen as a means through which innovation is supported, encouraged and accelerated.

For example, the housing offer in the Sheffield-Rotherham area might be an important part of the wider strategy for the region, and be important in meeting future housing demand as a result of the projected growth in the advanced manufacturing sector. However, it is worth noting that this should not be thought of as a key part of the strategy to drive innovation. Sheffield city centre, as well as Rotherham town centre, which are part of the innovation ecosystem from a jobs point of view, also provide attractive city centre amenities within the broader ‘innovation ecosystem’ in Sheffield-Rotherham. Boosting the ability of the city centre to attract businesses and employees forms parts of a wider strategy to boost economic growth in the area that will have an important effect on the future growth of the innovation ecosystem.

Connectivity and transport

Currently the AMP and SBP are both edge-of-town science and business parks located between Sheffield city centre and Rotherham town centre. The site is served by road infrastructure and primarily accessed by car. There is an infrequent bus service but it is not used by most employees or visitors.

Evidence of significant business and economic ties between companies on the AMP-SBP and others in the city centre could support greater investment in access and transport connections between the two. Many people we spoke to during the Commission visit felt that improving the public transport access was vital to driving growth at both the AMP and SBP. Feedback from existing employees and businesses highlighted the potential benefits of improved transport links from Sheffield city centre, and indicated that greater accessibility would enable ambitions to dramatically increase apprenticeship numbers to be realised.

To build the case for improved public transport, and specifically a tram extension from the existing Sheffield city centre line to the AMP-SBP site, robust data and evaluation is required to assess how such investment would support or unlock a large labour force and support economic growth. Further analysis and evidence gathering should be a priority for building the case for increased investment in transport infrastructure, including public transport access, to respond to growth in firms and jobs at the AMP-SBP and to feed into public programmes such as the Sheffield City Region Infrastructure Investment Programme.

Finally, the consideration of HS2 in the area is not confined to the impact on land values and the attractiveness of the AMP-SBP by the line running through the site itself. The location of an HS2 station will also have economic implications for the wider region and should be given careful consideration. In order to make the most of the opportunities that the investment in high-speed rail presents, HS2 should be integrated as much as possible into existing local transport networks and HS2 stations should be in city-centres.12 The wider economic benefits projected as a result of HS2 are not best served by the proposed Meadowhall location for HS2. This poses a challenge to boosting economic growth in the area, and therefore innovation and growth in the advanced manufacturing sector in Sheffield-Rotherham.

The principles that underpin the Innovation District model are useful for thinking about how to boost innovation and growth in advanced manufacturing in Sheffield-Rotherham. While the geography of innovation might be different to the urban and BPFS or CDI-based Innovation Districts found in some cities, being business-led and ensuring place-making focuses on boosting innovation are important for thinking about how to grow and support the manufacturing innovation ecosystem observed in Sheffield-Rotherham.

The final sections of this report will focus on the three guiding principles that partners should take forward, followed by practical next steps for implementing a strategy to boost innovation and growth in the advanced manufacturing district, or ecosystem in Sheffield-Rotherham.

Case study 1: Fremont, California USA

The City of Fremont is the industrial heart of the San Francisco Bay Area in Northern California. Building on a legacy of manufacturing, Fremont has a strong cluster of innovation in advanced industries, with companies such as Tesla Motors, Lam Research, Delta Products, Seagate, Western Digital, ThermoFisher, Boston Scientific as well as a number of start-ups in clean technologies, life sciences, and advanced manufacturing located in the area.

Fremont and Sheffield share certain characteristics; taken together, they might even point towards a new model of Innovation District based around a concentration of innovation in advanced industries rather than BPFS. Both cities are national and regional hubs for innovation in advanced industries, with clusters of innovation that look very different to the mixed-use, high density models observed in BPFS-based Innovation Districts. And like the cluster of innovative firms in and around the AMRC in Sheffield-Rotherham, Fremont’s innovation zone is a drive away from the downtown (or city centre) area and does not currently feature a densely urban ‘coffee-shop’ environment.


The Fremont Innovation District branding and strategy is part of a wider effort to build awareness of this growing cluster of advanced industries and which highlights the concentration of these large and small innovative businesses. Perhaps the most important lesson for other cities is the business and innovation-led approach to developing the district. As an illustration of this, the opening message on the website is an invitation and call to action for companies to engage with the city to ensure policies work for them.

As part of the Innovation District Strategy, Fremont is undertaking significant regeneration and place-making in the area, focused around a new station that is being built as part of an extension to the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) line which serves the wider metro area around San Francisco. The extension of the BART line and new station, along with the high demand for housing in the wider Bay Area, provides the stimulus for development around the station. In turn, improved market forces will enable improvements to the public realm, spur more housing opportunities in the innovation area, and bolster the broader strategy to attract new companies and people to the area. But the investment in housing and public realm surrounding the station is integral to, and dependent on, the new station and the BART line extension rather than an approach to stimulate growth in the cluster of innovation in the area.

While the wider geographic and economic context in the two cities are different, there are useful lessons for Sheffield-Rotherham in the clear, business-led approach to, and rolling out of, the concept of an Innovation District in Fremont.






  • 11 Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative
  • 12 Centre for Cities (October 2013), HS2 Policy Briefing, Centre for Cities: London