In November last year Prime Minister Theresa May outlined a new Industrial Strategy in her first speech to the CBI Annual Conference. This speech focused on the need to boost innovation and investment in UK industry - particularly in light of the vote for Brexit. It included the announcement of an Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) which promises an additional £2 billion per year for research and development by the end of the current Parliament. A Green Paper, "Building our Industrial Strategy" was then published in January this year.
The ISCF is to be overseen by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) - a new body which will be taking over the work of the existing seven Research Councils, Innovate UK and the research and knowledge exchange functions of the HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England).
[If, like me, you find all this a bit confusing there is a great description of how things are changing in this post by Prof. Gill Evans of the University of Cambridge, along with some of the concerns it has raised in academic circles. There is also an irreverent but equally informative post about the UKRI by Prof. James Wilsdon of Sheffield University]
The head of the UKRI has just been announced but the body will not be fully operational until April 2018. In the meantime Innovate UK and Research Councils have been gathering input from UK industry and research organisations to help determine how best to use the Challenge Fund.
In January Innovate UK Knowledge Transfer Network ran a number of workshops to garner opinion on which challenges the ISCF should address. Getting the chance to attend one of these workshops was not easy. The events were necessarily organised at short notice but had over 2,500 applications to attend. Only a small portion of these could be accommodated in the 8 workshops that were held across the UK.
COMIT was lucky enough to be able to attend two of these events on behalf of its members (in large part due to the efforts of COMIT director Iain Miskimmin). The one in London was attended by Tony Shooter (COMIT chair for technology) and the one in Cardiff attended by myself.
In typical KTN fashion the workshops were well organised and focused affairs. A number of "Strawman" innovation challenges had been drawn up by the KTN based on areas where:
The global market is potentially large, or fast growing and sustainable
The UK has capabilities to meet market needs in terms of research strength and business capacity
There are significant social and economic benefits
There is evidence that government support will make a difference.
An important aspect which was reiterated a number of times was the need for the innovation to lead to economic value and to "resonate with the public". From COMIT's perspective this is particularly pertinent to the construction industry due to its large size (£105 billion per year or approximately 6.5% of GDP) , the scope for innovation and the almost universal human impact of the build environment.
After an introduction to the event (see a video and the slides) the attendees were divided into groups and then further into tables of 6. Each table considered and provided feedback on one set of six Strawman challenges (potentially including suggesting different challenges!). The groups then voted informally on the areas they felt were most significant.
One of the areas identified by Innovate UK was Integrated & Sustainable Cities and it was this area that COMIT provided input on. At the Cardiff event two of the other representatives on the table were from organisations familiar with COMIT - one was a construction member and the other an academic partner.
The six Strawman challenges suggested by Innovate UK for this area were (summarised):
The City as a Lab - understanding root causes of urban policy issues
The Hyper-connected City of the Future - positioning UK as a leader in future city technology
The Well-being City - improving health and independent living in cities
The Digitally Built City - data-driven build & management & whole-life performance
Urban Air Quality - impacts & mitigation of sources of air pollution
The Trading City - supporting the UK in becoming the slickest trading nation
This lead to a lively debate on my table at Cardiff, not just about the relative merits of the Strawman challenges but about what form a challenge should actually take in order to present a clear, deliverable benefit - both socially and economically. I
There was a range of opinions but it is probably fair to say there was general agreement that the Well Being City captured the most desirable outcome, but that The Digitally Build City was seen as the most fundamental enabler. In the end we created a new Challenge that we called A Better Built Environment that encompassed the main aspects of the Strawman challenges.
From my perspective it was encouraging to see how fundamental many of the issues that COMIT has dealt with over the years are to innovation in this area. The description of the Better Built Environment challenge that our table created had several similarities to COMIT's remit, such as the need to "de-risk" the innovation process via a "proving factory" - i.e. case studies.
Hopefully, if the other workshops around the country lead to similar conclusions then some of the £4.7 billion additional funding for UK innovation will be spent in construction.
It was somewhat depressing but not altogether surprising to find a poor gender-balance at the workshops - or at least at the two that COMIT attended. This was particularly true at the Cardiff event - as one of the few women there commented she was faced by "the usual sea of grey suits". The event in London seemed better, but as a rough estimate only about 30% of the attendees were women. At the Cardiff event it was closer to 10%.
Given the nature of the selection process it is likely this is a reflection of the actual gender balance in the industries being consulted. This suggests that a major challenge to innovation in the UK, but probably not one envisioned by the ISCF, is improving diversity in the work place.
Have Your Say
The workshops run by Innovate UK are only the beginning of the process with regards to consultation on the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and COMIT will continue to watch its progress with interest. With regards to the wider Industry Strategy, you can make your own views known by completing a government online survey which is open until 17th April 2017.