Civic Leadership, Innovation and Economic Growth

With the run up to the General Election in May and the growing debate around devolution and cities, it was very timely to speak at the UUK Conference ‘Powering the Knowledge Economy: Universities, Cities and Innovation’ today.

We need to think broadly about how we power the knowledge economy and this is not simply limited to local economic growth. It is about much more, including public learning, civic spirit, and community-based innovation. It is also about businesses playing their role in education, community and society, and being part of, rather than outside, the civic and place-based leadership agendas.

I see a major part of my role and that of the University, as facilitating a joined up approach to problem-solving, so that we are really focusing on the key issues for the region and achieving the best outcomes, rather than simply viewing things through the lens or field in which we happen to work. The key issues of today and the future are highly complex – they cannot be addressed through one sector or sphere of society working alone.

We have some great examples of where this has really worked to bring about opportunities for the whole city-region, including the collaboration that won Bristol recognition as European Green Capital 2015. Bristol also won funding for one of the UK’s first four University Enterprise Zones, led by UWE Bristol and to be located on our Frenchay campus, which will support the next generation of companies in the areas of robotics, biosciences, biomedicine and other hi-tech areas. Both universities are also working very closely with businesses and the health sector on driving forward innovations on the assisted living agenda, diagnostics and telemedicine – particularly important for a society with an aging population and very relevant to all our lives.

This is all in addition, of course, to universities powering the knowledge economy through addressing skills shortages and providing learning opportunities that transform the futures of individuals, families, and communities. We know that 80% of new jobs will be in high-skill areas so access to opportunities and different pathways to higher skills is absolutely critical – involving collaboration across universities, educational providers, businesses, the public sector, community organisations and professional bodies.

Universities think and operate long term. They are also politically neutral and represent many sectors and sections of their locality and region. This makes them well placed to be anchors for their region – joining up across the various elements of a place, coordinating and developing the high-level opportunities and catalysts that will really shape the future. That was the focus of my speech today.

In the heated public policy debate ahead of the General Election it may be that university voices are more important than ever. Universities can and should shine a light on what is possible and lead the way by building the bridges, networks and capacity to deliver.

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