Skills for Innovation Workshop – A Reflection

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Fumi Kitagawa shares some of the findings from ‘Skills for Innovation’, a workshop which took place at The Exchange in Birmingham on 24 April 2024, organised by City-REDI with colleagues from the Centre for Innovation Management Research (CIMR), Birkbeck, University of London.

The day started with a series of research presentations, followed by a panel discussion with policy experts on ‘Skills for Innovation’, and a talk on the  ‘Innovation Skills Framework’ by the Innovation Research and Caucus (IRC).

City-REDI hosted a one-day workshop on ‘Skills for Innovation’ with the Centre for Innovation Management Research (CIMR). We are increasingly aware of the “importance of attracting and supporting people as vectors of innovation”. However, innovation research often pays more attention to ‘technology’, particularly ‘high technology’ as sources of innovation, rather than people.

Researchers at City-REDI and CIMR share the same interest in researching innovation and engaging with public policy debates. One of the workshop’s aims was to share our research activities between the two centres, showcasing research and impact activities on ‘Skills for Innovation’, and to explore the scope for future collaboration and policy engagement. Building on the breadth and depth of our research, we aimed to highlight policy-relevant issues related to skills for innovation by bringing challenges from policy and practitioner communities together.

Bringing in Skills and Innovation Together

Speakers: Abigail Taylor (City-REDI), Kostas Kollydas (City-REDI), Marion Frenz (CIMR).

In the first session, we highlighted gaps between policy and evidence/research and discussed solutions and future opportunities. UK’s innovation and skills issues can be captured in the sectoral differences and local/place-based characteristics of the labour market.

In the context of levelling up, we note the variety in the research and development (R&D) workforce and skills demand with complex demographic factors at play. We need more granular data on business support as different types of firms need different types and forms of training, particularly for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and micro businesses.

Roles of Ecosystem Actors

Speakers: Juliane Schwarz (City-REDI), Federica Rossi (CIMR), Chloe Billing (City-REDI)

With regard to the different types of skills and training needs, we opened up discussions on the nature of varying actors and intermediaries in innovation-skills ecosystems

Intermediaries help actors in the ecosystem through networking, innovation support and ecosystem building. Accelerators, for example, provide physical infrastructure with business support, and a variety of relational connectivity.

Ecosystems are organised differently – for example, studies on digital innovation intermediaries reveal many ways that intermediaries are structured: e.g. local or non-local; centralised or decentralised; sector/technology/company focused. Set in a specific space industry context, there is an imperative to identify effective models, best practices, implementation strategies, and success factors for better skills development through collaboration between academia and industry, which would help translate skills and infrastructure into innovation.

Migration, Retention and Return of Graduates

Speakers: Anne Green (City-REDI), Helen Lawton Smith (CIMR)

University-related mobility, both from home to university, and from university to employment, can impact an area’s growth and productivity. Graduates can contribute to the region through human capital, innovation, entrepreneurship, and knowledge spillovers. Graduate migration and retention dynamics need to be captured in the long term throughout individuals’ life courses.

Different higher/tertiary education systems (e.g. England, Ireland) have different dynamics and lessons that can be learnt cross-nationally. Policy interventions and planning may play important roles in stimulating local demand and creating collaborative opportunities to bring skills back. Different types of universities and local labour market characteristics affect such processes, possibly leading to ‘high growth’.

Regional Policy on Skills Demand and Supply

Speakers: Matt Lyons (City-REDI) and Huanjia Ma (City-REDI)

The dynamics behind inter-regional (or international) migration can be explained by the mismatch between the needs of the local labour market and an existing skills pool which may not have all the skills required. Understanding the demand for workers with different skills quantitatively is key to informing skills policy and/or targeted skills training. More specifically, by deploying the Macro-Economic Input-Output model, it is possible to understand the impact of skills shortages on firms’ productivity and innovation. Focusing on digital skills alongside analysing the regional distribution of digital skill shortages and economic impacts would help identify future regional training policy implications.

What are ‘Innovation Skills’?

Speaker: Jen Nelles (Innovation and Research Caucus)

What do we mean by innovation and skills respectively; and what do ‘innovation skills’ comprise? Jen Nelles and her colleagues at Innovation and Research and Caucus (IRC) developed the Innovation Skills Framework. The Framework links tasks and skills in innovation processes,  encompassing different contexts. Using the Framework, skills and qualification provision (e.g. apprenticeships and technical skills), and curriculum through higher and further education, can be mapped out and built upon. Building on the Innovation Skills Framework, the IRC team is developing a new framework – Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Commercialisation Skills Framework.

Defining skills is not straightforward. One of the key questions is – how do we define the concept and ensure precision in our work and policy discussions?

What Do We Need to Do for Innovation and Skills?

A panel discussion with speakers: David Gaughan and Steven Heales (West Midlands Combined Authority); Greg Wade (Universities UK); Chris Millward (University of Birmingham), with discussions and reflections from Anne Green, Helen Lawton Smith, Rebecca Riley and many others, including online participants such as John Goddard and Mark Walker.

The following themes came up during the discussion:

  • The fragmentation of governments and governance affects practices. The skills agenda sits within fragmented policy contexts, cutting across different government departments and funders.
  • Innovation, adoption and diffusion are all important. Intermediate technical skills at process levels in SMEs are as vital as high skills. We need to understand the skills required, and demands, as part of the supply chain.
  • Industrial transformation and diversification is ongoing and affecting skills needed. Innovation and business needs are changing. If the specific skills needs aren’t met in the area, would the innovative businesses stay? The nature of skills needs and demands are changing – e.g. AI and law specialists. International competition and value chains provide key challenges for existing industries (e.g. the automotive industry in the West Midlands region).
  • Levelling up and devolution contexts. The skills agenda is one of the key policy areas for the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) in the context of Levelling up and devolution. Skills, training and investment drive productivity and growth across the West Midlands through skills training, upskilling and reskilling by engaging with communities.
  • Universities can play a role in connecting different actors in the innovation-skills ecosystem. Links can be strengthened with national funding of FE sector and adult learning. Learning from different national tertiary systems will be valuable (e.g. Ireland, Wales, New Zealand).
  • A better alignment is required between local needs and knowledge/skills provision, as well as a joint-up strategy at a national level.
  • A better understanding of innovation-skills ecosystems is needed. Skills dynamics are more than transactional.
  • The relationships between firms of different sizes and nature require a better understanding. For instance, large corporates or headquarters and local SMEs, and their recruitment, skills need, training and development.
  • There are ‘skills for innovation’ and, more broadly, the need to understand ‘skills that innovative businesses need’ in a concrete way to enable economic impact from innovation.
  • Understanding skills beyond STEM and manufacturing would be important, including professional/business services and the roles of humanities and social sciences.
  • It is important to capture the definitions of skills with precisions specific to individual contexts.
  • Finally, a key question remains – how do we measure different forms and types of skills need/demand and training provision?

We had many great discussions throughout the day, and we appreciate the contributions of the presenters, panel discussants and all the participants for sharing their expertise, insights, observations, concerns and good practices.

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 author and not necessarily those of City-REDI, WMREDI or the University of Birmingham.

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