Our Future as an Innovation-led Economy
On July 22 2021 the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) launched the UK Innovation Strategy, setting out the Government’s ambitions for an innovation-led economy. The vision is for the UK to be a global hub for innovation, with this achievement being measured against four pillars: unleashing business, people, institutes and places, and missions and technologies.
The UK Innovation Strategy outlines how a vibrant Research and Innovation ecosystem can enhance productivity across the economy, in turn bringing jobs, growth, and prosperity. It was therefore encouraging to see Belfast highlighted as a case study within the report as a flourishing hub for research, innovation, and entrepreneurship:
Indeed, the RT Hon Kwasi Kwarteng, who wrote the foreword for the Innovation Strategy as the Secretary of State for BEIS, recently highlighted some of Northern Ireland’s strengths following a meeting with Confederation of British Industry (CBI) Northern Ireland council members:
In March 2019 the UK Government approved the Belfast Region City Deal (BRCD), representing a £850m investment from the Northern Ireland Executive, the UK Government, and industry partners for inclusive development in skills, innovation, infrastructure and tourism. This includes £350m for 5 innovation projects that are being led in partnership between Queen’s University and Ulster University alongside our industrial partners. It will be an absolute game-changer for Northern Ireland and has required all parties to put aside their individual priorities and work as a collective – and the evidence suggests that this is working well, meaning we are well-placed to help build NI and the UK to a better position through the post-pandemic recovery.
There is a palpable change in how Northern Ireland is being viewed both locally and on a global stage.
In the decade between 2008 and 2018 overall business investment in R&D in Northern Ireland increased by 300%, with an increase of 200% in research active firms. Our metrics are showing that we are doing something right, last year the Royal Society also showcased Belfast as a world-leading innovation cluster alongside Uppsala, San Diego and Cambridge.
In May 2021, The Department for the Economy announced the ‘10x Economy’ Strategy. It sets out an ambitious vision for NI to rebuild and recover by diffusing innovation throughout the economy and leveraging existing strengths to become a globally-competitive small advanced economy.
The success within our tech cluster can be attributed to a significant degree to the creation, 20 years ago, of the Research and Enterprise Park now known as Catalyst. At the outset of its development two of the key objectives were to promote the commercial development activities of both Queen’s University and Ulster University by strengthening the links between each other and into business, and, to encourage the establishment of technology-based businesses both indigenous and foreign direct investment into Northern Ireland.
The Financial Times recently reported that multinational firms such as Citigroup, PWC, Deloitte and KPMG are going to invest in more than 2500 jobs in Belfast over the next 5 years, drawing on our burgeoning R&D ecosystem and highly skilled work force.
The important realisation is that businesses can’t ‘do it alone’, and in order to have long term success they need a strong discovery research base to draw from and a pipeline of skills at a variety of levels. For Belfast’s tech cluster’s success this included an investment of £40M to establish Queen’s University’s Institute for Electronics, Communications and Information – (ECIT) which focuses on ‘secure, connected, intelligence’ within data science, working from discovery to innovation and across multiple partners including SMEs to multi-nationals.
Other long term notable successes in our University-University-Industry collaboration include two UKRI Strength in Places Award recipients Zero-Carbon Sea Travel with Artemis, which will see Belfast become a global leader in zero-emissions maritime technology, and ‘Smart Nano NI’, a nano technology consortium focused on developing innovative technology for medical devices, communication, and data storage in partnership with international firm Seagate Technology.
Image: Northern Ireland’s two UKRI Strength in Places recipients ‘Zero-Carbon Sea Travel’ and ‘Smart Nano NI’.
All these successful projects are characterised by common factors:
- Opportunities for investments for research, development, and innovation for ambitious companies
- Strong discovery science by individuals in highly skilled roles
- Co-ordinated partnerships with further education colleges, local councils, and development agencies, with complementarity being the focus rather than competition between parties
- A focus on key areas: tech/AI/cyber, life and health sciences, green economy, and advanced manufacturing.
However, our progress has not been without its challenges; we have not had access to some of the key infrastructure to link industry and business such as the Connecting Capabilities Fund (CCF) meaning we have had to use our own initiative to fill these gaps through initiatives such as Health Innovation and Research Alliance Northern Ireland (HIRANI) and the AI Collaboration Centre.
We continue to have some political uncertainty relating to Brexit, and the collapse of the NI Executive between 2017 and 2020 meant working with year-to-year budgets with no new initiatives being able to be signed off. There are also broader challenges within the R&D ecosystem that should be highlighted: an indirect emphasis through REF for competition rather than collaboration, a lag between call, application, and decision, which does not suit industry’s needs, a competitive global market for skills at all levels, including within the academic arena linking into issues relating to visas and salary levels.
The Innovation Strategy acknowledges some of these challenges and aims to address them through focusing on what works, reducing administration and the attraction and retention of global talent. The strategy also spells out clearly the vital role universities play in the pursuit of the common goal of an innovation-led economy:
‘The research that universities and other publicly funded institutions do is also a crucial part of the innovation process, from basic research through to applied and translational research. Universities often work closely with businesses, charities and others to support research, and facilitate its commercialisation to meet a huge variety of social and economic goals. The interaction between universities and business is therefore vitally important for innovation.’
As one of my colleagues put it: what companies really like is seeing collaboration across all institutions. When we manage to provide a view that the universities, Invest NI, the further education colleges, and the Councils are well joined up, it reassures companies that they’ll get access to what they need when they need it. This will ensure that businesses can innovate, embrace global opportunities and respond to emerging challenges in a coherent way with the support of an agile and responsive innovation system.