New London Architecture

Shaping place-based innovation and urban growth through peer practitioner’s network

Friday 15 September 2023

Author: Connected Places Catapult

We are in the middle of a cycle of accelerated urban and place innovation. Innovation requires mixed settings that are agile, flexible, hyper-connected and resilient. Cities, and Innovation Districts within them, are increasingly becoming sites where innovation is concentrated and experimentation is embraced.

In the UK, over the last decade alone, we have seen more and more places actively considering their innovation economy, intentionally creating Innovation Districts and thinking about the qualities that underpin innovation rich cities. This has also been reflected in policy as seen in the shift from a National Industrial strategy towards a National Innovation Strategy.

In this time and in response to this changing context, the UK Innovation Districts Group (UK IDG) was born. It came about, as often the best things do, very organically. In 2017 a group of five self-identified innovation districts (Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, London Kings Cross and London Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park) started meeting for informal conversations and ideas sharing. Principally recognising that the social and economic dimensions of innovation districts were not only hugely undervalued, but also massively complex; and not the sort of thing that can be untangled on your own. 

As a result, the UK IDG formed as a peer support group – bringing together people and places who wanted to learn, share best practice as well as challenges they were facing.

Together, we could see the need for a joined-up network of place-based innovation leads at a national level to act as a bridge between practitioners and policy makers. The need to create stronger links and partnerships between innovation focused cities (like projects that have now stemmed connecting Belfast, Glasgow and Liverpool) or indeed connecting different innovation districts within the same city – like in London, has led to joint bids, research commissions and policy influencing. 

Since those early beginnings, the UK IDG has formalised and increased to 12 innovation district members (see map). We’ve partnered with Connected Places Catapult, and while our main objective remains sharing best practice, we’re also working together as practitioners at the forefront of the innovation agenda speaking with one voice to central government, to help shape and inform innovation policy and investment from the ground up. 

The group is also committed to progressing shared research and learning on place-based innovation – such as the2022 Commission on Inclusive Innovation and our work this year to develop a metrics framework that looks towards how we measure the value of Innovation Districts. 

In terms of where UK Innovation Districts are going next; there is so much to play for. 

Increasingly, we see a move away from asking ‘how do we get more of an innovation economy?’ to thinking about a ‘whole place return’ agenda and asking ‘how do we get more out of an innovation economy?’ We are all trying to understand and unlock the entwined nature of inclusion, productivity and prosperity. The central question facing innovation districts going forward is about what type of value creation and return they can deliver for the places in which they’re embedded. This leads to other related and essential challenges for Innovation Districts of mission purpose, environmental sustainability, equity and inclusion and governance

In order to do this, we need to embrace the complexity of innovation ecosystems and the mix of ingredients (physical, economic and social) that fuel them. Governance, place partnerships and leadership are critical success criteria for innovation districts going forward. So too is a deeper, direct involvement with supporting the human capital and skills that they rely on. For this reason, in 2024 the UK IDG with the support of Innovate UK, will be exploring the skills agenda within the innovation economy, particularly with respect to increasing and diversifying routes to entrepreneurialism.

Innovation Districts must continue to be places that break from the status quo; hyper connected places, intentionally tuned into the diverse neighbourhoods of which they are part, in order to help generate new ideas and methods that can solve pressing problems. We need to be prioritising new urban models of innovation clusters that operate in sympathy with their cities and thrive off the dynamism and diversity of their urban context.   

Please get in touch if you would like to contribute to or hear more about the UK IDG’s 2024 skills research commission: hello@ukinnovationdistricts.co.uk
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