Meet Fumi Kitagawa, City-REDI’s new Chair of Regional Economic Development.

Published: Posted on

Fumi reflects on her return to the University of Birmingham where her academic adventure began, what she learnt along the way about regional economic development and the challenges that lie ahead.

I joined the City-REDI team in April this year, and I was quite emotional when I arrived on campus in Edgbaston, looking up ‘Old Joe’, our good old Clock Tower. It felt as if life was coming to a full circle.

Here is my personal story and a bit of history of the world of ‘regional economic development’ as well as higher education policy changes in the UK over the last two decades or so…

My PhD adventure in the UK started on the Edgbaston campus in Birmingham in October 2000. I was an international student from Japan with no prior knowledge of Birmingham or the West Midlands region. I did survive and thrive – I carried out numerous interviews across nine English areas, with regional development practitioners, university leaders and managers, and individuals at the regional higher education associations, science parks, and a variety of intermediary organisations. Three years passed very fast.  At the end of 2003, I submitted a thesis entitled “Universities and Regional Advantage”. I graduated from the University of Birmingham with PhD in Urban and Regional Studies in July 2004.

To add some theoretical framework, maybe it is helpful to briefly revisit my PhD thesis, which looked at the Regional Innovation Systems and the role of Universities. What is the Regional Innovation System? Professor Philip Cooke and his colleagues highlight the systemic and interactive nature and “cooperative, trust-dependent and associational character” (p.490) of regional innovation systems. We can examine and evaluate the Regional Innovation System, it is argued, in terms of its competence capacity, valuing its degree of autonomy to develop policies, as well as financing capacity for strategic investments in infrastructures necessary for the development of innovation processes in the specific territorial context.  Furthermore, to better understand the Regional Innovation System, we would need to unpack the evolving nature of regional governance.

The territorial governance system evolves. My PhD thesis was written during an era of the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) in England (if you remember them!). To put things into the historical perspective, let me re-cite this diagram from a recent City-REDI blog “What is Next for Levelling Up?” (Riley, April 2023). The diagram below is entitled: “Key regional development institutions, policies and programmes from 1997 to 2018

Cited from Cook et al., 2019 Productivity Insights Network policy review report, original source SQW.

The above report and another City-REDI blog (Hoole, September 2020) depict the change over the two decades from the rise and demise of the RDAs, the introduction of local enterprise partnerships (LEPs), and to the more recent emergence of combined authorities as ‘regional tiers overlaying already multiple layers of local government institutions that span various administrative boundaries’. This highlights the complexity and evolving and multi-scalar nature of governance in regional economic development in England vividly.

Let me talk about another main theme of my PhD thesis – Universities. As Professor Michael Shattock pointed out in a recent Times Higher Education piece (July 2022), it is 30 years since the governance of UK higher education was decentralised to funding councils in England in 1992, Scotland and Wales: six years before full-scale devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There were many doubters at that point. Would decentralisation lead to excessive political control? Would universities suffer a loss of international identity? Shattock argues: ‘We have reached the end of the road for effective policymaking from the centre. The vitality of English higher education should be restored and enhanced by realignment with FE – and by entrenching regions as a key component of their governance architecture’. This resonates well with another City-REDI blog (Green, Millward and Taylor, 2022).

Back in the mid-2000s. After graduation, I embarked on my international adventure across the world – I went back and worked in Japan, both in higher education and government sectors. I had an opportunity to join for a short period of time as a post-doctoral researcher at the European University Institute in Italy (the European Forum programme “the role of Universities in Innovation Systems”), and then joined the Centre for Innovation, Research and Competence in the Learning Economy (CIRCLE) at Lund University in Sweden. I came back to the UK in 2010, and since then, have lived in different cities – Bristol, Manchester, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. Now I have come back to the city of Birmingham and the West Midlands region – where my adventure had all started. I am telling my colleagues – this is a bit of an epic journey!

In early May 2023, I was eating papadums (I love them!) at an Indian restaurant in the Centenary Square in the centre of Birmingham. I was having a chat with Professor John Goddard, Professor of Cities and Universities at City-REDI. I have known John from my B’ham PhD student time when he was Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Newcastle University with responsibility for city and regional engagement. I went up to Newcastle to meet John for one of the first research interviews, over 20 years ago! Back in mid-2000s John was leading the OECD’s project “Supporting the contribution of higher education to regional development”. When I was based at one of the Japanese government’s research institutes, I worked on this OECD project from Japan between 2005 and 2006. Through this project, I visited South Korea and Canada, where the international review teams had numerous meetings at provincial and regional governments, higher education institutions and their local communities and partners. With very different political, social and cultural contexts across these countries, the challenges for higher education and their local partners were the same – “Developing a common understanding of the mutual interests of universities and regions” and “Enhancing of institutional capacity to respond to regional needs and to shape the trajectory of territorial development”. Almost twenty years on, while munching piles of papadums, John and I talked about this earlier work with the OECD, and we agreed that we were still facing the same challenges.

It is an interesting time to work on research on innovation, devolution, and regional economic development in the UK right now. As part of the government’s Levelling Up agenda, there is an increasing attention to the place-based strategies to improve the ‘capacity to leverage University-based R&D for economic growth and social change’. It is a very interesting time to join the City-REDI team to unpack complex characters of Regional Innovation Systems and identify strategic future directions. The roles of Universities in the regional development processes – economic, social and cultural – have been and will be essential. It is this complex, interactive and evolutionary nature that makes this field a valuable and interesting space of study as well as practice.

I am looking up ‘Old Joe’ again – my epic journey will continue at Birmingham, in the West Midlands region, across the UK and, internationally.

This blog was written by Fumi Kitagawa, Chair of Regional Economic Development at City-REDI  / WMREDI, University of Birmingham.

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.

Sign up for our mailing list.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *