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Regionalism And The Very High Skills Knowledge Economy

October 12, 2005

Which is the more challenging?
Is it to install, say, a number of large-scale commercial manufacturing units for similar but complex products in several sites across Europe? Or to bring to functionality, as other possible example, a particle accelerator (synchrotron) involving resources from many separate locations, but on one site?    And who, in each case, should lead the development of the programme?

A personal response to regional issues around the very high skills knowledge economy

These notes are intended to invite discussion of current issues / praxis in knowledge management and ecology.    In a possibly reckless move, I have therefore summarised each point as a ‘Maxim’. 
Debate about these six Maxims will be welcome.  

Project management or scientific know-how?
Answers to these questions will depend on one’s previous experience and general perspective, but it might be supposed that generic project managers would be assigned to the first task, whilst there is a chance that senior scientists might be assigned to the second.

For some observers the first project has a mystique which is less pronounced than the second.

Almost certainly the first scenario will be led by straight business considerations, the bottom line, whilst the second might well be predicated upon general perceptions around the quality of the knowledge and skills which it is anticipated will result from, as well as contribute to, the development of the programme.

Complex risks and opportunities
But a sense of mystique around science will not always be appertain. A person taking the contrary view might argue that in both instances there are opportunities and risks which overall give these projects similar complexity.

This person might, for instance, be an experienced programme manager who recognises that even the most highly academically able people are essentially a resource which requires extremely skilled direction (for example, the hi-tech A380 airliner is designed and partially constructed across Europe and then assembled in Toulouse on a commercial basis).

New thinking and new funding?
Our experienced programme manager will also know that bringing together even an ambitious ‘normal business’ project is inevitably also a proposition which requires new thinking at some points.

But what may be less likely is that a person with this perspective is, at least historically, also one who decides how to invest very large amounts of public funding in taking forward Big Science projects.

Input or output?
Of course, these scenarios are parodies; but do they have a modicum of truth, alongside the stereotyping? Is managing science different?

Is there, or has there historically been, a largely unexamined general notion that the management where very high-level knowledge and skills is anticipated output should somehow be approached differently from that where these attributes are used mainly as input, usually for business / commercially-led objectives?

A look at the differential senior management of a range of public and private Very High Level Knowledge and Skills (henceforth VHLK&S) organisations suggests this assumption may indeed be the case; and history is littered with projects led by outstanding scientists, artists and academics which ended in disaster.

Maxim No. 1 is therefore:
VHLS&K project leadership and direction is not a badge of honour or a reward for diligence; it is a task and competence in its own right.
Appoint top people because of their proven project management training and skills, not because they are eminent in their own specialist field.

Contexts and frameworks
But we also need to ask how these possibly stereotyped (mis-)understandings about project leadership impinge when, to look at another scenario again, they relate to, say, public sector interests such as the nation’s health economy (i.e. to ‘health economies’ as under the aegis of strategic, regional and national formal Health Authorities).

What are the major frameworking elements when we consider delivery of VHLK&S in the overtly public and not-for-profit sectors? How can and should public funding be allocated?

Decisions with high impact
Such questions are not just of academic interest. Real decisions are constantly made about when, where and how to invest enormous amounts of money in widely varying projects which are recognised as involving visible VHLK&S.

Examples which come to mind of relatively recent practical decisions about U.K. investment in high skills and knowledge include:

· in the private sector, the funding of biotech, IT and major retail developments;

· in the higher education / business sectors, funding for physics, nanotechnologies, etc;

· in the public sector, funding for cancer research, the arts, tax and legal services – as well as, for instance, infrastructural developments in transport and other utilities.

Vacuum or special case?
In my experience these decisions have frequently been made in a vacuum from the contexts and impact they may have on local, regional and national economies; or, if a ‘special case’ for VHLK&S investment is made, it is predicated on ideas of less expenditure resulting in greater benefit in those locations (regions) where economies are most vulnerable.

Whilst it must be emphasised that VHLK&S is far more than ‘just’ science – it embraces, as we have seen, the whole gamut of economic and social activity, including business, the professions and the arts and culture, as well as more technological enterprises – a look at one important recent example of how decisions may have been made on very high Big Science funding illustrates this complexity.

Complex decisions: the Daresbury case
It is common knowledge that the campaign by the Daresbury Laboratory in the North West region of England to gain the DIAMOND synchrotron was not successful (it eventually went to the Rutherford Appleton Laboratories in Oxford, despite agitated pleas from a number of quarters).

As one who was involved in the political campaigning, my own view is that:

· the significance of regional issues was ultimately grasped too late, especially by regeneration and national governmental agencies;

· most politicians (but certainly not all) at every level did not understand the potential regional impact of this ‘academic’ bid (which they saw as distant from their core interests and sphere of influence), nor did some lead scientists see that they would need to work with politicians;

· there was too little timely collaboration between different academic institutions and, especially, with those other agencies which are differently funded (such as those which are hospital / health-based, as opposed to research embedded in higher education institutions – there is very little collaboration between science research commissioners in respectively the Departments of Trade and Industry, and of Health; indeed, their respective criteria and processes for the evaluation of research proposals present very different emphases);

· there was an understanding that perhaps some aspects of the ‘world-class’ basis of the bid would be challenging – but no clear plan for how demonstrate that required improvements could and would be made to guarantee bid viability (nor, indeed, much understanding that this might be a valid, if unusual, position from which to make a case at least politically, if not elsewhere); and

· there was certainly little public acknowledgement of how difficult it is for particular university departments in science outside the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Oxbridge and London to maintain their hard-won recognition of excellence – which of itself has huge impact on the regional economy.

And, in part because these issues were not adequately addressed, a great opportunity for the North West of England was lost at that time. (Happily, however, lessons have also subsequently and fruitfully been learned.)

Science across the private to public spectrum
It is also however interesting to see more generally how various VHLK&S projects and programmes are originated, funded and developed. As we move through the spectrum outlined above we see that the bottom line and stakeholder profile also moves.

For the private sector the imperative is shareholder interests, but by the time we reach the public sector the major interest is generally far more political and location-embedded.

Locational costs and benefits
One aspect of this shift is that the additional benefit of developments in particular locations (e.g. regions of the U.K.) to the localities themselves does indeed become more critical when the project is public sector funded, but such beneficial positioning is not without cost.

For instance, it may be claimed it is ‘cheaper’ to take a science project away from the Golden Triangle of Oxbridge and London. Such notions need to be examined very carefully, and it is perhaps more realistic when evaluating proposals to look at longer-term benefit, rather than at how much less the project might cost initially.

Maxim No. 2 is:
Add-on local or regional benefit from VHLK&S development does not come cheap; to achieve optimal results requires appropriate additional investment.
If you expect to gain special benefit on the basis of a ‘cut-price’ bid against others more attractively positioned, you will probably ultimately be disappointed – something some funders need also to appreciate.

Sector distribution and services
Beyond this lies also the issue of sector distribution. Is it enough simply to buy in one or a few sectors of the VHLK&S economy, and hope that these will attract the rest?

Will a sub-region with, say, a decent university (or two), orchestra and museum be able to make best advantage from the addition of just a bio-tech development or science park? Even if we blithely assume that somehow these other given, essential (and, importantly, also VHLK&S) cultural amenities can exist whether or not they have adequate support, the answer is probably that it will not.

The critical role of other specialist professional services must also be recognised. (Who will advise on intellectual property rights, compulsory purchase orders or start-up funding arrangements?)

Maxim No. 3 is thus:
Optimal synergy at local and regional levels results from VHLS&K in critical mass; it does not occur in dilution.
Single sector development alone probably will not work.

Politics and perceptions of (dis)advantage
There is however a quasi-political problem in terms of delivery of critical mass VHLK&S in some regional locations. Several of the U.K.’s regions are areas where educational and vocational levels are relatively low, and where local people may have little truck with any development not addressing direct issues around ‘deprivation’ and / or basic community, work and educational requirements.

For people in areas of disadvantage ideas of excellence and elitism may have similar (and distant) irrelevance or non-resonance. Yet the same decision-makers who must choose whether to attract VHLK&S to their region have to answer to (and perhaps seek re-election by) the very people who hold no candle for such esoteric activities.

Perceived priorities in areas of deprivation
The most challenged local and regional areas therefore suffer the double disadvantage both of particular economic vulnerabilities, and of populations who may not see attracting VHLK&S as a priority.

In such a position local / regional politicians and leaders need to be especially deft and persuasive, for instance, by nurturing a sense of pride of place which encourages local people really to value and use their VHLK&S cultural amenities.

This is a challenging task – a venture, e.g., in which I have been much involved in Liverpool’s Hope Street Cultural Quarter – helping disadvantaged communities to understand that less overtly visible VHLK&S developments such as I.T. and bio-tech are also critical to their local economies and the future wealth of the area.

Maxim No. 4 must be:
Effective decisions about local and regional investment in, and development of, VHLK&S requires wide experience, energy, vision and leadership; it must be a team effort between the community and their decision-makers.
Making progress with VHLK&S requires re-location from one’s comfort zone – in taking things forward decision-makers must also take forward through transparency, example and dialogue the vision of the community at large.

Local talent and skills
These community contexts take us also, of course, to a special consideration – that of communities indigenous to a given location who have, or are acquiring, VHLS&K. Many of these will groups will include graduates from regional universities, or people who have migrated to the area because of particular employment opportunities.

This inward migration is especially likely to apply to people with skills of relevance to the public or not-for-profit sectors, such as health or the arts, where most professional salaries are relatively low.

Perceiving potential – or not?
Yet the significance of this pool of talent is frequently not appreciated by others in the locality; examples are often seen of parochial politicians who see students as a ‘nuisance’.

Then there are policy makers who believe that it is necessary only to track the entry point employment (‘destination’) for all graduates together, as if first degrees and Ph.D.’s were the same and can equally be retained by small-scale hothouses for ‘entrepreneurs’.

This is surely a vain hope in a context where the best way for the most highly trained and talented young people in the regions to double their incomes and gain high level experiences is simply to get a job in London…. and here we need to remember there is very little ‘balancing’ contra-flow of talent from the South East and M4/40 Corridors.

Maxim No. 5 is therefore:
Haemorrhage of VHLS&K from regional locations is a significant problem which must be adequately monitored and addressed; there is a likelihood that a ‘converse example’ may be set if serious and sustained efforts are not made to retain this talent across the board.
It is a serious mistake to imagine that a general regional policy of ‘keeping wages down’ to attract inward investment will not also result in the loss of many of the most talented to more lucrative and interesting employment elsewhere – with all the ‘messages’ this gives out to local people, whatever their levels of skill.

Sharing benefits
And this leads us to the final point in looking at the pay-off for regional investment in VHLK&S. The benefits of such investment must be shared by those who come with the required skills / knowledge, and those who are already indigenous to the location.

The benefits of such investment must be shared by those who come with the required skills / knowledge, and those who are already indigenous to the location.  The responsibility for ensuring that this is so lies at every level of the local, regional and national body politic.  Decent local amenities are a matter of local provision; sensible business and economic support services are often a (sub-)regional responsibility;  and in the end serious infrastructural investment can only be made with the consent and facilitation of national government.   When all these elements (or planned future elements) are aligned everyone benefits.  The evidence is that programmes of all sorts are more likely to succeed when initiation and delivery are seamless;  and presumably this applies as much to regional renaissance through academic and professional VHLK&S as to, say, commercial development of a chain of bakeries. If alignment is absent, the outcome is more in question.

And finally to Maxim No. 6:
Planning at every level from individual organisation or company to national policy is best effected with a light touch – there is ample evidence that projects are much more deliverable when they have some autonomy and relativity of scale. 
Nonetheless, if local, regional and national intentions for, and delivery of, infrastructure are not cohesive overall, regional investment in VHLK&S where the economy is weak probably will not work.

It is difficult to escape the impression, when all the observations above are brought together, that there is, or has been, a confusion on the part of some about the ways in which policy on VHLK&S and that on regional development, especially of the more ‘challenged’ regions of the UK, impinge; policy making at (sub-)regional and national levels is not helped, for instance, by governmental departments which, despite the move to ‘joined-up’ policy, apparently operate in silos.

The future is, however, always more important than the past, and this is what we should now consider.   Identifying the main factors which can positively influence potential major regional investment in VHLS&K must be our most pressing task.

For me, this first task is primarily about mapping, and sharing ideas and information:

1      Make sure you know where all the major points of regionally-based VHLK&S are, how they are organised and supported, and in what ways they have particular regional impact.

2      Recognise that proper regional infrastructures are essential if VHLK&S impact is to be effective.

3      Examine the synergies between all (not just the obvious) different parts of regional VHLK&S.

4      Refine graduate – and other more experienced professional – destination data so that it really tells a story about who stays, who returns, and who doesn’t.

5      Inform, inform, inform – everyone who needs to know about all this, and others too.

6      Promulgate knowledge economy excellence and opportunities;  share the vision!

The list could go on, but how to develop it is something we may all wish to debate……

A version of this paper was prepared for the The Knowledge Economy Network event in London, on 21 July 2005. 

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