This blog was first posted on the Planning Resource website on 28 September 2011.
There is a clear message that comes from the modern literature about competitiveness. In a knowledge economy, competitiveness is closely tied to innovation. However, innovation is not a linear process from men in white coats in laboratories through to a commercially successful product. Indeed many innovations that are brought to the market come from companies that do not have an R and D function. Rather innovation comes from multiple feedbacks, absorbing messages from customers, sharing tacit knowledge, a willingness to experiment. Thus regions can be important catalysts for innovation. How do we build these insights into plans for growth?
The planning system and economic growth
In England the government aspires to see the planning system deliver economic growth. With growth in recent months failing to reach even the minimal levels predicted, and unemployment on the rise, this is no surprise. However, in putting such emphasis on condensing national guidance and championing the presumption in favour of “sustainable development” strategic and tactical errors have been made.
Tactically, the wrath of the countryside preservationists has been triggered. House prices are threatened! The angst is all the more bitter because of the promises made to the shires in the name of localism and the removal of housing land allocations and regional strategies.
More important is the strategic error. If we are to have planning for growth, then we need to have a clear picture of the kind of policy instruments and procedures that stand half a chance of delivering it. Random permissions for inappropriate development are not a prescription for success.
What is the territorial dimension of innovation and competitiveness policy?
“Innovation” is mentioned three times in the NPPF, and two of these relate to architectural design. The economic reference to “innovation” is a passive one: plans need to find enough land in the right places “to allow growth and innovation”. Quite simply, if we are serious about planning for growth this one-liner in the NPPF is woefully inadequate.
Planning for growth should be a proactive process. Logically it would start with the question “What is the territorial dimension of our innovation and competitiveness policy?” There is a potentially lively debate to be had about whether we are talking about UK policy or policy for England and for the devolved administrations, but let’s leave that to one side for now. The basic point is that neither innovation policy nor planning policy addresses the question. Yet logically there needs to be a territorial dimension to innovation policy and an innovation dimension to planning policy.
In these blogs I have regularly put the case for place-based policy-making, as advocated, most notably, in the Barca Report. To plan for growth, up-to-date understanding of research on innovation needs to be translated into place-based policy and action. The ESPON project on Knowledge, Innovation and Technology (KIT) could be one starting point.
The idea that innovation narrowly equates with research and development investment in high technology firms is now widely challenged. This is not to argue that R and D is irrelevant or that we should ignore the potential for spin-off products from experiments in university laboratories. It’s just that if we are going for growth that cannot be the whole picture, and should not be the be-all and end-all of a planning policy. Similarly, universities are indeed important, but their role is much more diverse: they can particularly help in the diffusion and absorption of knowledge, for example.
Different routes to innovation for regions
The team working on the ESPON KIT project distinguish between different types of innovation. There is product innovation, which typically has strong spatial concentrations, both between and within countries, including here in the UK. There is also process innovation, and here the UK performance is weaker, especially outside the M4 corridor. Marketing and organizational innovation typically has a more diffuse pattern, and involves things like energy or quality improvements. “Green technology” potentially is a component cutting across these three types, or can be seen as a fourth area in its own right.
The KIT project finds that different regions do innovation in different ways. Yes, some do follow the classic R and D / universities / high technology route; but others seem to work by networking and getting new knowledge from other regions, or by imitating innovations made elsewhere.
Finally, the literature also points up the role that public procurement can play in stimulating and supporting innovation. A planning policy for growth would connect spending and innovation.
Plans as bridges
Another important idea in open innovation systems is the importance of bridges that connect the different players. This is a role that plans could play. An evidence base is essential to understand the potential and weaknesses bequeathed by innovation histories in any place. Appropriate priorities need to be set that are tuned to local condition and institutions. Some will seek to build on current strengths, others to catch up. Such policies need to be forged through a process of multiple dialogues.
Embedding innovation in plans for growth means more than nodding through applications for science parks. Even if it can successfully support regional and local innovation networks, the planning system will still be faced with difficult decisions on development. It is a sobering thought that a major sources of innovation and increased productivity in recent times in the USA has been in retailing, led by companies like Wal-Mart. These innovations have accelerated the decline of traditional town centres and increased car dependency.