Saturday, 25 August 2012

Towards a Localised Approach for the ‘Golden Triangle’: A Comparative Study of Three Different Situations

My name is Sam Vasili. I have just graduated from Manchester and having (just about) made it through the minefield of an undergraduate dissertation I am going for round 2 with an MSc. I would like to do a comparative study looking in (some) detail at the different environments and externalities of three different high-tech clusters in the South-East of England (Cambridge, Oxford and London). However, I’m not sure how realistic this is given that I am essentially working by myself and I do not have much in the way of funding…. the student loan only goes so far. Anyway, in an ideal world I would look at the different levels of ‘innovative-activity’ in each respective cluster in an attempt to make some form of policy recommendation, and hopefully identify potential areas of investment. 

It is apparent from previous academic research that there are no ‘best practice models’ that can be applied to a multitude of different regions. Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) tried and failed, and (slightly more worrying) successful innovation-intensive locations suffered as a result. Enter localism and the realisation that innovation policies should be contingent on local situations. This is good a thing. Funding is now being allocated to improve areas where we are ‘world beaters’, this is also a good thing. However, this does not mean that we should ignore the age-old problems of social deprivation, inequality and wealth distribution. Perhaps a ‘trickle down’ economy is not sufficient. As identified by Centre for Cities, there are growing disparities between cities in the North-East and university towns such as Cambridge. Even within the realms of a potential South-East super cluster (the ‘Golden Triangle’) there are clearly very different levels of ‘innovative activity’. The problem with these kind of issues is they fall into the "too hard" category. If someone had a rational way of sorting this stuff out they would probably be onto a winner. In practice, most clusters are accidental, often caused by huge government spend for entirely different objectives (e.g. funding world class academic research, organizing national defence). 

Nevertheless, we seem to be identifying areas of potential growth. However, it is also apparent that this growth will not filter out as much as we would like but will remain centered around local ‘situations’. We have identified science parks/innovation incubators/catapult centres as helpful policy tools. However, it is also apparent that polices which attempt to kick start a ‘phenomenon’ from scratch (e.g. Pfizer site at Sandwich) are a somewhat fragile entity. The exception to this (perhaps) being Sophia Antipolis – we would be hard pressed to find an environment that could compete with the surroundings of the French Riviera …. Blackpool doesn’t quite have the same appeal.   In the UK we are now in the process of selecting our ‘key players’, but the experts advising government on where to look for these ‘key players’ seem somewhat interrelated. Leading high-tech clusters are being identified but it is becoming ever more apparent that no two clusters are the same. This has left UK government with difficult discussions about where to invest and how to justify it. Societal impact is indeed a tough nut to crack. 

Having said this, there are processes, stories and ‘tricks’ that can be learnt from successful clusters. For example, the phenomenon of the ‘entrepreneurial academic’ has been a key driver in the Cambridge Cluster. This phenomenon has evolved over the last 40 years as serial entrepreneurs have learnt how to become more efficient, more commercially aware and better connected. Cambridge is now extremely well connected and it is these social interactions between the industry veteran, the second time entrepreneur and the fresh-faced university student that are so fundamentally important. As identified by academics charting Cambridge’s growth - social networking has been paramount to its development.  There is strong evidence of knowledge sharing across sub-sectors within the cluster, as in the case of Abcam (the Amazon for antibodies). Abcam learned some ‘tricks of the trade’ from companies outside of the biotech sector.  One might argue it is now essentially an online shopping site masquerading as a biotech company. Whilst I do not wish to get into a debate about the ‘credibility’ of academic research one thing seems clear - Cambridge ideas may change the world but it is the ‘market-pull’ of these ideas that generates wealth. 

So, could social networking be the secret ingredient for success? It is certainly true that knowledge sharing, knowledge spill-over and social networking has helped in some situations. That is not to say it is flawless, companies will always be wary about losing their IP, trade secrets and employees to the highest bidder. However, with the right policy measures and infrastructure in place, networking definitely helps more than it hinders. As the saying goes - it helps to talk. The beauty of the Cambridge Cluster, however, is that it is relatively compact (a radius of around 10 miles). Oxford, with its industrial development, is somewhat more spread out. This has created ‘barriers’ as travel times between ‘hubs’ of high-tech activity seem to be somewhat of an inconvenience. As a result the ‘coffee shop’ interactions between like-mined people are few and far between. The London high-tech economy again seems to be an entirely different situation to either Cambridge or Oxford… I look forward to learning more about it. Whilst connecting the dots physically with spatial development may not be achievable or particularly sustainable (however you define it), the improvement of infrastructure links (transport, broadband etc) between our existing high-tech clusters and the encouragement of social interactions between the ‘creative class’ could have great potential for growth. Where exactly this potential growth will occur and the extent to which it will reach the UK population as a whole, however, remains to be seen. 

Now I am by no means an expert on this stuff and I am really just testing the water but if anyone out there can offer any advice on what’s being done already, where to look and how to go about it I would really appreciate it. The sort of things I would like to look at are: 
  • The different environments of the three respective clusters (planning policies and restrictions, lifestyle – ref Florida, Blazer et al., transport links and connectivity, other infrastructure etc.)
  • Cluster maps (Cam Cluster, Tech City…. is there one for Oxford?)
  • The makeup of firms in each location by size (according to European Union criteria: employment, turnover and assets), sector and IP activity – the Oxford Firm Level Intellectual Property database seems like a good place to start (am I assuming IP activity is a definitive answer for ‘innovative activity’?)
   Equally, if I’m completely barking up the wrong tree do let me know.

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