Are you listening Sir Bob – Birmingham wins the RCUK Urban Living Partnership Call – a new big boost towards Birmingham as the collaborative future city

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Richard Kenny is Head of Strategic Development at Birmingham City Council and has joined the City REDI team on secondment at the Business School, University of Birmingham. Here he narrates some of the journey so far in responding to this Call and tries to put his finger on Birmingham’s initial success in engaging with RCUK and Innovate UK in their radical joined up approach to future cities, urban living and innovation. 

Banging the partnership drum is not always easy in times of tough austerity. Nor easy when your large and complex organisation is under persistent ‘Kotterist’ internal surgery albeit as a response to hugely important issues, such as getting services right for the protection of vulnerable children, preventing radicalisation within self-governed schools, and securing strong corporate performance and financial self-sustainability.

So it was against this backdrop that we heard we had won the Urban Living Partnership Call from RCUK and Innovate UK, as one of the five pilots. This made it particularly pleasurable. There is no better recourse to such difficult pressures than a real counterweight demonstrator. And on this occasion at least, as on perhaps many under reported others, it all came together.

So in such a tumultuous context and when such thankless activities can be mistakenly dismissed by the ‘chiefs’ and by the ‘front-line fire-fighters’ as ‘academic’ or  marginal to the core, how did this success happen?

First of all this was a clever Call. All the research councils, coming together in a joint call, with Innovate UK, seeking integrated approaches to challenges faced by urban areas to help realise ‘our’ visions for urban living, provided enormous scope. It also usefully sought to leverage research knowledge and capabilities to generate new products and services and business opportunities and to co-produce sustainable change in urban living with communities. This leverage is something I had already been doing with no budget for some time but without capacity to scale. And to top it all, the Call also asked that Bids secured the support and active involvement of the relevant local authorities.

So the first step was to take maximum advantage of this last point. We needed a strong united council. So I only agreed to coordinate the Bid if I could secure the confidence of the politicians. In a big council like Birmingham multiple bids can readily emerge both by accident and by design as partners and well intentioned officers pursue multiple avenues. On such a broad Call it made even more sense to turn off all this ‘noise’ early to prevent duplication and fragmented efforts and to rather ask people to join in one process. Councillor Lisa Trickett, Cabinet Member for Sustainability at Birmingham City Council was prepared to support the coordination efforts and direct everything that needed doing through me.  And she provided astute community leadership, reaching outwards, making all the connections, holding all the people and organisations to account, stimulating their energy and engagement, brokering the conflicts and interests, getting the balance right.

Second, we attended the sessions with RCUK and Innovate UK. I registered as one of the few local government representatives amongst many universities at the Urban Living Partnership national meeting on 20th October, with Nottingham, New Economy Greater Manchester, Edinburgh and Belfast, as the others. At these sessions there was scope to network, receive ‘pitches’ and talk and listen to all the different research councils as well as Innovate UK. Understanding the underlying intentions of the call owners is an obviously fundamental point but once the bid-writing processes get underway and academics seek to embed their specific nuances and niches, too often those intentions can begin to fall away as trading takes over. This rolls nicely into the next factor.

Third, the University of Birmingham, through CityREDI and Prof John Bryson, with the full backing and support of Prof Chris Rogers, acted to lead the Bid. This was a formidable duo that operated an inclusive approach. This involved workshops on Future Cities, based on the Foresight model, led by Chris, and on responding to the Call, led by John. This facilitated and joined-up early active citizen-led cross-sector engagement with the formulation of a strong formidable team that crossed four universities – Aston, Warwick, Birmingham City as well as Birmingham  – and with contributions from other parts of the public, private and third sectors and at different spatial levels. It is the very first time the four universities have ever jointly won a Bid.

On hearing the news of success Prof Jon Coaffee at the University of Warwick said “it is great that such a collaborative effort has been successful, especially where the bid was co-produced with city stakeholders.Hopefully great collaboration will bring a great opportunity and Warwick will bring significant urban resilience and big data expertise to the team“.

Prof Alister Scott at Birmingham City University added “this bid offered the opportunity to work as researchers, policy and practice communities in a different way within a unified research team to tackle challenges that cut across our usual academic and working silos.The workshops provided a pragmatic way to chart a collective course forward and to work under John Bryson’s leadership to build a powerful team that covers Birmingham’s economic, social, health and environmental opportunities. I am delighted and proud to represent BCU as part of this team”.

Prof Bjorn Birggson at University of Aston said “this is a fabulous practical start for the universities in playing a meaningful role in supporting devolution and I particularly want to pay tribute to the council that really did work in new ways – basically as a genuine facilitator and as a supporter of its people and its places“.

Prof John Bryson worked tirelessly and turned all the contributions into a highly innovative Bid. A new inclusive process innovation framework was produced to enable co-innovation with citizens and communities that crosses sectors and disciplines.

Fourth, the consortium of support proved to be as joined-up and whole system as the Call, with all sectors very well represented.

Councillor John Clancy, Leader of Birmingham City Council wrote in support of the Bid:

“As Leader of the Council I am seeking to rapidly transform the future council model into ‘future city’ and to strengthen its co-creation capabilities and impact with our neighbourhoods as well as across the wider conurbation. This Call and our Bid together provide the means to do this in the context of the largest local government in the country”.

Nick Page, Chair of the West Midlands Combined Authority Public Sector Reform Group welcomed the proposition particularly given its potential contribution to transforming public services and closing the public sector funding gap. “Whilst we recognise this Call was aimed at cities it is wholly reassuring that Birmingham has taken into account the implications for the wider conurbation and devolution geography as a whole and included the relevant partners in the process”.

 Andy Street, as Chairman of the GBSLEP has agreed as part of the Bid to Chair its Innovation Panel to provide a commercialisation challenge to the emerging ideas.

Fifth, at the interview at RCUK, in Swindon John, Chris and I provided a comprehensive response to the Call. We received a rigorous cross examination from a strong  Panel against this challenging brief. Because we had all shared the experience and been in the same discussions our responses knitted a rich tapestry.  As an all-male ‘threesome’ my biggest fear was what I thought would be our weak emotional intelligence until John answered an early question with the answer –we were all ‘Boppers’ now – builders of outcomes for people.

So now the hard work starts – delivery. With an initial £400K (and the prospects that there may be scope for more) plus the leverage, one of the most whole system-driven integrated and innovative challenging projects begins. It will need to feed off and weave into a series of on-going priorities and demonstrators under way in the city. A first step is now to co-locate the project with the four universities and partners coming together in one place, to help make Birmingham a great place to live and work in.

One thing is for sure this demonstrator augurs well for future collaboration for devolution.

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