The week’s discussions started with a review, across public and private sector stakeholders, of next steps in the building of the Midlands Manufacturing Technology Centre at Ansty Park, near Coventry. The Midlands MTC is referred to in the Government’s Manufacturing Strategy launched in September last year. I believe it is important that we now find ways of moving forward with this centre quickly. It will build on the excellent contribution that the Advanced Manufacturing Centre, developed with the University of Sheffield, has already made in developing and proving new efficient manufacturing processes, including the Factory of The Future Concept. It will also be joined by the new Advanced Forming Centre being built by Glasgow Airport.
The second prompt came from an internal review of the Micro and Nanotechnology Centres, which are supported by the Technology Strategy Board together with the regions and the devolved administrations. We are carrying out a review of these Centres at present and although it is too early to report on findings or recommendations it is clear that there are some emerging trends. The Technology Strategy Board is interested in the successful exploitation of technology and innovation, building on the world class science base we have here in the UK. Our review is focused therefore on both where the technology sits in a world class context and what the business performance of the centre is. I have been hugely impressed by the centres at PeTec, with public sector funding through One North East, and at the Scottish Microelectronics Technology Centre at Glasgow, funded through Scottish Enterprise. It is clear that the way forward is an approach that focuses on world class centres of excellence rather than a ‘me-too’ approach of a centre in every region. There are some real lessons emerging on how we can manage this concept of centres across the UK.
My third prompt came with an energy flavour, and fitted in with the Low Carbon Industrial vision. It resulted from a meeting with NaRec, the New and Renewables Centre in Blythe, about establishing a world-class structural and condition monitoring centre for offshore wind devices. It is clear to me that such a move would attract both business and capability to the UK. If we wish to be viewed as world-leading in offshore wind, this kind of centre is essential. A committment will in turn attract overseas business in this sector to invest here in the UK. We need to find ways of making this happen.
And my final prompt of the week came in preparing one of my own presentations, a corporate partner briefing to the aerospace industry looking at the importance of investing in innovation during the downturn and summarizing our commitments to the sector. Facilities and centres are an important part of the aerospace landscape, including the commitments to the advanced manufacturing centres referred to earlier and the National Composites Network. This centre includes the Airbus Facility at Bristol, which I had previously been involved in establishing. Although these facilities are powerful in their own right, I believe the aerospace industry in the UK has lost out to its European and international counterparts through not having an integrated, national research centre as we had with DERA.
So my view is that centres are an important part of the innovation landscape. The question is, are we doing enough? Our own strategy, Connect & Catalyse, makes reference to their importance but when it was published last year our thinking was still developing in this area and we left our position open to consider further opportunities. People compare the UK approach to centres with those of other countries, such as Germany with its own Fraunhofer Institutes, which I have mentioned recently. I feel that we do have good centres and facilities in the UK – but that we don’t promote them or use them strategically in a joined up way. We have some terrific science parks, and great capability through small businesses in centres such as the Babraham Life Science Park at Cambridge. We have two established Innovation Centres of national importance, at Daresbury in the North West and in Oxfordshire at Harwell.
We also have the Innovation and Knowledge Centres funded through the EPSRC with support from the Technology Strategy Board, and there are many other examples built around universities and business. We need to use these more strategically to promote and build innovation capability here in the UK. I recall a good meeting I had with Karen Mills, now Chairman of the US Small Business Administration, in the Autumn of last year to review the US approach to innovation. It was clear to me that we were putting in place an approach which she respected but that we could just not compare when it came to funding. I did value her recommendation to promote cluster development and growth nationwide across the US. In this positive approach to clusters she went on to promote a two-part programme –
– Create an information centre to map the geography of clusters and maintain a register of cluster initiatives and programmes
– Establish a grants programme to support regional and state cluster initiative programmes nationwide that would direct financial and other assistance to individual cluster initiatives
It is interesting that in the week ahead we will be having our next Technology Strategy Board Strategic Advisory Group meeting with the regions and devolved administrations, where we have a similar objective of creating an overview of initiatives and alignment of funding. We are perhaps doing more than we think but just not wrapping it up in a way that promotes our achievements in the best, joined-up, big picture way. I feel that a more strategic approach to centres and facilities, with coordinated national and regional funding, could make a big difference to the UK innovation economy.