Celebrating Bath’s distinct identity can help region become a global innovation powerhouse, says report

November 16, 2018

The differences between Bath and Bristol should be celebrated as they can be key factors in making the West of England one of the world’s leading centres for innovation, according to a major study.

The region is already among the UK’s most exciting innovation clusters based on its vibrant tech, creative, advanced engineering and financial services sectors, the report says.

While much smaller than Bristol, Bath – with its distinct culture and own thriving innovative hubs – must be viewed as a separate city as this complements Bristol’s offering, the study says.

Produced by consultants SQW, leaders in the field of innovation and economic analysis, the report highlights future opportunities that could boost the region further. Bath’s two universities – along the two in Bristol – will play key roles in this growth by attracting and retaining talent while triggering new innovation through research projects and business support schemes.

But the report also notes there are some serious challenges for both Bath and Bristol such as affordability of housing, increasing costs of space for start-ups and scale-ups and a lack of an investment infrastructure when compared to other UK regions.

The report, which was commissioned by the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol), revealed a number of drivers behind the region’s innovation success. 

Its “innate culture of collaboration” was singled out, boasting a strong interplay between specialist sector and local networks which bring together organisations and individuals from the fields of creative and cultural, hi-tech and digital, aerospace and advanced engineering, health and professional and financial services.

The success of these local networks was facilitated by the compact scale of the region as well as the fact that many are privately funded and self-sufficient with little dependency on public funding. 

These network relationships also supported a fluid workforce that has moved between the different industries that make up the innovation economy, supporting cross-sector working, technology transfer and collaboration opportunities, the report says.

The “outstanding” quality of life across the region with its rich mix of cultural and creative assets had been key to establishing a thriving innovation economy as it has enabled a workforce that was rooted in place and unlikely to go anywhere soon.

But the report also tackled the thorny issue of Bath’s role alongside – but not in the shadow of – Bristol, which has a population more than five times bigger.

It concludes that their differences are a major strength in promoting the region as a global centre for innovation.

“Although they are very close. Bristol and Bath are quite different places, with different strengths and opportunities,” it says. “Strategic planning for the whole area is important because of the scale of growth expected and the constraints on new development and infrastructure.

“But there are distinct differences between the business cultures of the two places, and in the range of the people attracted to live and work in each.”

The report goes on to conclude: “These differences should be celebrated: they provide people with more choice of where to live and work at different stages in their lives.”

However, it adds: “Whilst there are opportunities to grow the innovation cluster across both cities, the scale of opportunity in Bristol is what stands out, and this ought to be recognised locally.”

SQW, whose previous work has profiled the Cambridge Phenomenon and Oxfordshire Innovation Engine, said “with its pace of development and the potential going forward, the Bristol and Bath city region is well placed to become a global innovation force in the future”. 

This meant Bath and Bristol could boast “stickiness” – people tend to stay in the region because of the quality of work and life – and “thickness” – there is a critical mass of specialist skills. These factors combine to support the retention of talented people, particularly graduates who have a commitment to “the place”.

With its concentration of talent, the region has made a name for itself in specialisms including high-value product design, virtual reality, games technology, computer science and engineering, animation, digital design and publishing, TV and film and finance and business technology.

A particular driving force for innovation is one of the highest concentrations of higher education, research and innovation centres in the UK.

The report highlights he role of Bath’s universities, including CAMERA at the University of Bath, which explores motion capture and VR in gaming and health applications, the Centre for Creative Computing at Bath Spa University and new initiatives including the University of Bath’s Automotive Propulsion Institute.

Together the four universities were a major source of graduate talent, meeting the needs of local businesses – over half of all graduates qualify in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and there is a strong focus on entrepreneurship and enterprise across many courses. 

There is strong support as well for business start-up and growth with SETsquared incubators ranked the top in the world, at the University of Bath and University of Bristol’s Engine Shed; Future Space at University of the West of England; UWE Bristol’s University Enterprise Zone; the Network for Creative Enterprise;; and the recently announced Creative Industries Cluster – a partnership of all four universities, the Watershed digital media centre and industry partners.

Another major factor which has established the city region as a major innovation force is the hard core of ‘anchor’ organisations and outstanding individuals across the two cities. Historically many current leading-edge companies in the region have their roots in earlier innovation, investment and business growth. UK semiconductor firm Inmos was a formative influence. 

West of England Mayor Tim Bowles said: “This study shows that we are a great place to innovate and that we’ve got so much to offer innovators in the region and inward investors. It is important that we take on board recommendations of the report in order to build on the reputation we have worked so hard to establish over the years and fulfil our true global potential.

“That means making sure we bring through the next generation of innovation leaders in the region; create the conditions for firms to scale-up from start-ups to beyond medium-sized businesses; further develop the specialist skills base, as well as talent from all corners of the community, that will be critical to attracting investment by major technology corporates and enable rapid growth by local firms.

“We also need to address infrastructure challenges – affordable housing and employment space, congestion and mobility – to ensure we can accommodate the very best innovators in years to come and earn our right to be seen as a global force in innovation.”

UWE vice-chancellor and chair of the West of England LEP Prof Steve West added: “This is a landmark study for us in the West of England, a real wake-up call. It is telling us how fantastic we are. 

“But it is also telling us how much more we could achieve if we all work together to realise the potential that is identified here – and that means all of us recognising and getting behind the strengths of our business communities, innovators and entrepreneurs.” 

The report was launched in Future Space, part of the University Enterprise Area on UWE’s Frenchay Campus, by co-author Christine Doel, pictured top.


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