This article was written by Dr. Katherine Parsons and Professor Rick Delbridge.
Much recent UK Government’s (UKG) policy agenda has revolved around attempts at levelling up left behind areas. This is taking place in an increasingly complex multilevel polity of the devolved nations and regions in a post-Brexit United Kingdom. This policy landscape motivated us to explore the ways in which such opportunities and challenges are negotiated through various innovation-focused tools and approaches to support inclusive economic growth across the UK.
The research team from Cardiff, Glasgow and Manchester Universities (Dr. Katherine Parsons, Professor Rick Delbridge, Professor Elvira Uyarra, Dr David Waite, Professor Robert Huggins and Professor Kevin Morgan) sought to provide an overview of current activity across three city regions which are seen to have made substantial progress as regards innovation policy: Cardiff, Glasgow and Manchester. Each of these exemplifies attempts at ‘triple helix’ collaboration across local government, higher education and business. Specifically, the research addressed the inter-related activities of business, universities and regional/national policy makers involved in policies designed to deliver innovation and inclusive economic growth.
We conducted interviews with stakeholders from higher education institutions, local and national government, businesses and business representatives from across the three city regions to understand the engagement and interaction between these stakeholders in designing and delivering innovation and economic growth policies. Interviews sought to capture the diversity of geographies and objectives of each city region, presenting an overview of the similarities and differences between them.
Our findings shine a light on examples of good practice and innovative progress in each city region as well as reflecting the challenges and tensions experienced on the ground. We found that while the three city regions have varying economic profiles and governance structures, they have a number of characteristics in common and each is looking to embrace a more inclusive and place-based view of innovation. Whilst partnership working between Higher Education Institutions, businesses and policy makers was generally cited as well established and somewhat effective, it is widely acknowledged that there are challenges in practice.
The comparison of three city-regions in three different national contexts exposes both the opportunities and obstacles presented by the multilevel polity context across the UK. There are new sources of funds (from, for example, UKG and UKRI) which are seen as potentially leading to more active collaboration. But the form that these funds take may pose obstacles if they encourage competition not cooperation, are seen as overly prescriptive as to what is eligible, or indeed prescribe what counts as legitimate.
The situation is highly nuanced in the three case studies: it is a bilateral political game in the case of England, where Manchester interacts directly with UKG, while it is a yet more complicated trilateral game in Scotland and Wales, where Cardiff and Glasgow have to navigate between their national governments and UKG. Relations between the devolved nations and UKG are not straightforward, not least in the context of the levelling up approach pursued from London. Further complexity arises from also navigating horizontal governance challenges amongst stakeholders across the city regions. These tensions deserve to be given more prominence because they have may be under-estimated in policymaking circles yet fundamentally shape the three regional innovation systems.