On 19 July, the CBI in partnership with Virgin Media O2 Business, hosted its final regional roadshow event.
Hashi Mohamed, Contributing Editor at Tortoise Media, was joined by businesses to discuss how clusters can support the UK’s international competitiveness and spur economic growth.
Leading business figures from across the UK came together to share their insights on the role of clusters in boosting the UK’s international competitiveness. Creating the right environment in which government and business can partner to deliver high value interventions is crucial to get more firms exporting and attract investment to more locations.
Clusters have the potential to put the UK on the international map thanks to successful areas such as the Oxford-Cambridge Arc. With its globally renowned universities, spin-out companies and innovation ecosystem, there is huge potential for this national mission, to translate learnings across the country and connect with other regions to drive UK economic growth.
Read the sense maker guide
The sensemaker guide provides background and an overview of clusters in the UK to help stimulate thought.
Event readout written by Hashi Mohamed, Editor at Tortoise
CBI Clusters ThinkIn: How can regions and nations help the UK become internationally competitive?
Our sixth & final CBI Clusters ThinkIn, in partnership with Virgin Media O2 Business, set out to answer the question: How can regions and nations help the UK become internationally competitive? Despite being held virtually due travel disruption on the national network, the choice of the Oxford-Cambridge Arc for this session reinforced the importance of building an internationally renowned proposition
Ahmed Goga, Director of Regional Policy & Clusters at the CBI, opened the session by emphasising the importance of developing clusters that have the potential to be world-leading. The ambition of the CBI to have a world class cluster in each of the UK’s regions and nations will drive “better investment, better innovation and long-term growth”, he said.
Alistair Meadows, Head of Investor Clients at JLL, argued that “the UK is actually starting from a strong base.” He cited the fact that 50% of all investment transactions are international, which has been the case consistently over the past 10 years.
Dan Metcalf, Director of Marketing and Communications at Harwell Science & Innovation Campus, also had experience to support this. He said: “Brookfield saw an opportunity in the UK because [...] there is a good foundation with assets and market leading capability in science and technology, but there is definitely a lot of room for growth.”
As with the previous Thinkins, narrative & storytelling was determined as central to capitalising on this opportunity. Alison Young, Global Export and Investment Specialist at Connected Places Catapult, said: “there is a narrative that the UK is open for business, and we do have good relationships historically with lots of key markets globally which places the country in a really good place.”
However, there was general consensus that there was a bigger opportunity to leverage what the UK has. Alison Young highlighted London and Manchester, stating that “the same old places [...] get a lot of airtime.” Her sense was that this could be a missed opportunity with other places not stepping forward with compelling investment propositions that are attractive to international markets. More broadly, there was also a need identified for a coherent story about UK regions and their potential.
Michael Anstey, Partner at Cambridge Innovation Capital, agreed: “the Oxford Cambridge Arc desperately needs a better narrative. We host investors weekly who have no idea what’s going on in this ecosystem [...] When we tell them what we do in a crisp, articulate way, it’s very compelling.”
Sam Markey, Ecosystem Director at Connected Places Catapult, hypothesised that the reason that the Oxford-Cambridge Arc narrative hadn’t excelled more substantially is due to the wider region, with places, such as Milton Keynes and Buckinghamshire, that are not internationally recognisable being rolled up into the positioning of the Arc. Michael Anstey, emphasised that “everyone in the world has heard of Oxford and Cambridge, and I think we should leverage that massively. With the best will in the world, the other parts being described as the Arc will not register to international investors and it shouldn’t be held back by a lack of leadership and articulating the narrative of what we have here.”
Jim Wilkinson, CFO at Oxford Science Enterprises, argued that the narrative piece will likely come naturally as the levels of investment in Oxford & Cambridge spinouts continue to grow. He commented: “the average investment in an Oxford spin out went from £60million a year over a 20 year period, and last year it was £1.4billion [...] Most of that is coming from abroad.”
Alongside narrative, Michael Anstey also highlighted the importance of finding investors who are willing to take a risk on innovation for the UK to be globally competitive. Alistair Meadows referenced the UK as a place that already does attract ‘conviction capital’, citing the three reasons for this as: “transparency, legal & tax structures, and world class academic institutions.”
Annie Gasgoyne, Chief Economist at the BBC, offered perspectives from the creative industries sector which is also internationally focused and vital to the UK economy. She shared: “Inward investment from the likes of Netflix and others is off the back of a really strong domestic performing sector, and the advantages that the UK have in terms of skills, capacity, English language, and the marketability of that around the world.” She also emphasised how the success of Media City in Salford rested on using the BBC as an anchor within the creative industries cluster there, with buying power and a pool of skilled talent. Once this is established, and other businesses within that sector have co-located around the anchor, foreign investment follows suit.
Rhodri Davies, VP Operations at Oxford Nanopore Technologies, raised another recurring theme of leadership as key to clusters’ success. He said: “You need really, really fantastic cluster managers that do that promotion that some of the smaller companies can’t do for themselves.” Alastair Meadows emphasised the value of leadership places to succeed, citing both Manchester and Birmingham as cities located in regions with visible metro-mayors who have built a profile for their locations.
The importance of consistency within the political environment and a commitment to the long-term was also an essential ingredient for successful and internationally competitive clusters. Matt Allen, Marketing Director at Bidwells, described the Oxford-Cambridge Arc as “once flavour of the month,” before the levelling up agenda shifted focus away from the area. “That was terribly short-sighted as you need to keep backing your best performing and internationally competitive locations as much as seeking to support investment into areas not as successful, as they attract investors into the country in the first place,” he said.
To close the session, Richard Tunnicliffe, Regional Director at the CBI, stated: “lack of central leadership has been one of the things that has really slowed down the development of the Arc over the past few years.” He concluded that clusters have enormous potential in helping the UK become internationally competitive, and that the role of the CBI is to use its “strong convening power to support cluster development.”
In order to unlock the regions’ full potential, the following success factors are vital:
- Shared economic prize: international investment in one region can subsequently benefit others
- Anchor institutions: world-renowned universities are hugely attractive to investors, and can help build the brand of a region
- Storytelling: opportunities cannot be fully leveraged without a clear narrative that shouts about them
- Strong leadership: local leaders can act as figureheads, whilst national leaders need to be consistent & committed to building regional narratives
- Great partner collaboration: co-locating around an anchor can build out a cluster, thus attracting investment
Listen to the podcast
In the last episode in our 'Clusters Think In' podcast series, Hashi Mohammed, Contributing Editor at Tortoise Media, is joined by Michael Anstey, Partner at Cambridge Innovation Capital, and Dan Metcalf, Director of Marketing & Communications at the Harwell Science & Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire, to discuss how successful clusters can help the UK’s regions and nations to become internationally competitive.
Find out about our event partners, Virgin Media O2 Business
Virgin Media Business and O2 Business have joined forces to reimagine connectivity – as a digital partner that helps UK organisations rise to the challenge of the new working dynamic between companies, consumers and their communities.
Virgin Media O2 Business plays a leading role in supporting the public sector and businesses of all sizes to achieve more, from small and medium organisations right up to large enterprise and wholesale partners. This includes offering a variety of managed connectivity services and flexible working capabilities, security, data insight, 5G private networks and cloud solutions, as well as wholesale services to other operators and partners.
Virgin Media O2 Business is committed to using the power of connectivity to share more with communities across the UK, taking action to close the digital divide and helping to build an inclusive, resilient, and low carbon economy.
For more cluster resources visit the CBI's Clusters Playbook.