We recently interviewed Mat Hunter, Co-CEO at Plus X to uncover what we look for when exploring locations for new innovation hubs. Here’s what he had to say.
“In 2009, the number of people living in cities overtook those living in rural areas for the first time, confirming the theory that we are becoming urbanised as a species.
“While there are struggles with cities, be it to do with noise, pollution or a lack of nature, they offer a sense of opportunity for businesses and individuals often unavailable in rural areas.
“The reality is that not every city is even, especially in the UK. The imbalance in this country feels wider because London is so huge in its agglomerative effect. Even our second city, Birmingham, and subsequent larger cities such as Leeds, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh don’t have the agglomerative effects that London has. But, that is definitely starting to change.
“The explosion of the internet allowed smaller cities access to global infrastructure on a level that wasn’t available before. This enabled people, wherever they were based, to do amazing things on the global internet stage and achieve small business growth without having to go to London to make it happen.
“Centralising innovation is no longer seen as a good idea. Previously the thinking was that we must make London a global city and that the UK must punch above its weight in the global world. For that to happen, the thinking was that we must make London a success as the UK’s only mega city, meaning it received more investment.
“People are only now waking up to the fact that this massively disadvantages anyone who lives outside of London, which is essentially the majority of the population. What we need to do now as a country is just relax. London is thriving and it will continue to do so, so let’s spread the resources out elsewhere.”
Why Cities Need Innovation
“Innovation breeds success and productivity. By building Plus X innovation hubs, we are trying to accelerate those agglomeration effects, create opportunities, and shift the focus to new areas to help them grow. It’s like building a little bonfire; you get your embers together and create a little bit more heat in those cities so that then you can get the better jobs.
“The general vision for the country is how do we increase the spread of high-quality jobs across the UK? While our universities are spread out across the country, if the area does not offer up promise for those students once they graduate, they will often migrate to the South or London to find work.
“At Plus X, we want to help grow the idea that you can start your business in your city and not need to migrate to London when you need it to grow. The presence of spaces like ours helps to prevent brain drain, meaning these great universities across the UK don’t lose their graduates and researchers, and to spread high-quality jobs more evenly across the country.
“One of our key mantras is that talent is everywhere, opportunity is not. When we’re looking for our next base for an innovation hub, we look at places to establish as innovation cities, where there is an abundance of talent but less available to help businesses thrive and employees stick around. Truthfully, we can go anywhere. What we’re looking for are places with potential that need more support.”
Innovation Cities and Levelling Up
“Levelling up is a vision that has been around for decades. All the way back to the early eighties, figures like Michael Heseltine in Liverpool and Richard Lee in Manchester have been pushing this concept.
“At Plus X, levelling up is at the heart of our ethos. While we’re ensuring that we’re spreading out, it’s still crucial to cover the fringes of London and the South East. Levelling up is seen as a Northern challenge, but it’s going to be crucial to the existence of coastal and other communities too.
“Brighton is a very good example of a city with a cyclical season dynamic, that has lost its position in the fishing industry, and it has a very real concern about not getting sufficient levelling up funding. Coastal communities are often known as areas of deprivation, so levelling up is much more complicated than the idea of North vs South.”
What Makes a City Innovative?
“While we’re always looking at how we can be in regional cities, we’ve got to ensure that it’s a good fit for all concerned. To make a city more innovative, we need the support of its local authorities. We research how much these institutions really believe in innovation, because we can’t do this alone. Our vision is to work with cities to create innovation districts, rather than just enforcing space that does nothing to benefit the location it’s in.
“In cities like Glasgow there’s lots of innovative activity, whether it be the Clyde Gateway or the University of Glasgow or the Glasgow School of Art, they’re all working together to drive innovation. Scotland, of course, has immense heritage in innovation, so it’ll be to do with talent, but also about those other institutions working together. This is where Plus X can come in and help them deliver their vision. A Plus X innovation hub by itself in a city or even a town that hasn’t decided that it wants more innovation would be really hard work.
“There’s no set recipe to explain what makes an innovative city. It’s not about having a specific sector presence, and it’s not even always necessary to be a university city – it’s more about the attitude to innovation. Do you want to collaborate? Do you want to innovate? That is the heart of it for me. I’d much rather our innovation hubs be in cities that were seeking innovation and collaboration, than one that was averse to the spirit of what we do. It’s more of an outlook rather than a set of specific characteristics or demographics. It’s all about attitude.”