Hidden Potential? The Role of Universities in the Development of Space-Related Innovation Clusters

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Professor Simon Collinson outlines the important role of universities as both R&D producers and skills developers within the development of space-related innovation clusters in the West Midlands region. 

This blog has been produced to provide insight into a City-REDI / WMREDI project looking at the development of a Space Cluster in the West Midlands. The project is led by Dr Chloe Billing and colleagues:

View more work from the Local Space Cluster Development Support Programme

Universities and Region Innovation Ecosystems

A dynamic regional innovation ecosystem enables some regions to adapt faster or better than other regions. Universities, as both R&D producers and skills developers, are an integral part of this ecosystem, particularly when new technology or R&D-based opportunities appear. The alignment (or misalignment) between university R&D strengths and local firm-level innovation is a key component of this dynamism. A close match between the R&D and skills produced by local universities and demand by local firms and strong ‘absorptive capacity’ enables the region to exploit and benefit from new knowledge, expertise or technology for improved competitive advantage. The alternative, in less well-aligned ecosystems, is where graduates leave to work elsewhere and university R&D outputs are exploited by firms elsewhere, nationally or internationally.

The Birmingham city-region economy was an increasingly attractive place for both businesses and talented employees to invest, work and live in the pre-COVID period. We know this from data on inward investment and graduate retention. More students, from outside the region studying in local universities, stayed to work in this region after they graduated than in the recent past. This attractiveness was driving the economic and cultural renaissance of the city-region before the economic shock stalled the growth momentum.

In the case of new and emergent industries which are R&D-intensive, the role of universities is even more important. This is why it is helpful to map the R&D projects and education programmes across the group of local universities, against the demand for firm-level assets and expertise, in a new or emergent industry sector. By comparing this with similar combinations in other regions we can estimate the relative competitive advantage of one place against another. To some extent, this helps shape national and local R&D investment policies and other interventions which, under conditions of limited resources (i.e., always), need to accurately target particular growth policies towards places with particular kinds of comparative and competitive potential.

Mapping the Regional Space Sector

In our research on the regional space sector, mapping local university R&D and educational programmes and understanding how much these involved collaborations and the co-production of knowledge and expertise with and/or relevant to local firms, proved to be a very good place to start. Our ‘university asset mapping’ shows that R&D programmes, closely related to new opportunities in the space sector, exist in the West Midlands region. For example, the UKRI-funded SWIMMR (Space Weather Instrumentation, Measurement, Modelling and Risk) project, which will deliver improved monitoring capability to the UK’s Met Office, involves a national consortium led by the University of Birmingham. The ‘Enhanced Assured Location Simulator Leveraging WiFi and GNSS Sensor Fusion’ (ELWAG) project is the focus of an Innovate UK project led by Spirent Communications and WMG at the University of Warwick. It aims to help intelligent vehicles and smart devices to gain more accurate location awareness by integrating Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) and WiFi signals.

Similarly, an analysis of teaching programmes in regional universities focused on subjects like engineering, technology, physics, ICT and computer sciences, but including more specialist modules such as telecommunications, data analytics, navigation, GIS, or earth observation gave an estimate of the local skills ‘supply-side’. This revealed, for example, that Coventry University is a significant source of the right kinds of skills for this industry.

The downstream space sector, particularly space applications and data services businesses, employs the majority of space sector workers (79%) and has grown at an average rate of 5% per annum in the last 5 years. Demand is likely to increase. So, regions that have a ready supply of talent are likely to attract investment from firms that are expanding or moving into the space sector. The West Midlands has the second-largest cohort of students outside of London studying in these subject areas. This makes it attractive for investors in this emerging industry.

Challenges Ahead

But a number of challenging questions still remain. First, how much of the R&D in local universities is transferred, or spills-over, potentially via graduates, to benefit firms in the local space innovation ecosystem? Second, is this revealed alignment, between universities and business, any greater than in other comparable regions? Do the university contributions give support particular patents, technologies, processes, capabilities or knowledge that provide sustainable competitive advantages, again compared to combinations elsewhere?

It is worth trying to resolve some of these questions, if only to get a slightly clearer vision of what the future might bring for regions that need investment and jobs, now more than ever.


This blog was written by Professor Simon Collinson, Director of City-REDI and WMREDI.

Disclaimer: 
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI / WMREDI or the University of Birmingham.

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