The North of England is one of those unique regions, where the mix of cultural, intellectual, social and economic capital enable people to do great things. From the industrial revolution to atomic theory and the computer, many of history’s most significant leaps forward have emerged from this place.
Time however, moves forward, and as our species gets more deeply connected the pace of emergence of these disruptive leaps has gone from being ‘once in a lifetime,’ to ‘once a quarter.’
By the end of any given year, there’s a good chance that at least one vertical business model (such as taxis) will have been utterly disrupted, and a whole basket of technologies (such as artificial intelligence) will be commercialising at an incredible pace.
The Next Northern Renaissance
Through my businesses, my teaching roles, and work with government I’m lucky to visit many of the world’s most innovative and exciting regions, from Silicon Valley, to Europe’s technology clusters, and even the commercial hubs of Africa, The Middle East and Asia. These are the places on our planet that regularly deliver ‘unicorns’ (firms with U$ billion valuations) and commercialise technologies that yield not only great change, but significant economic wealth in the process. Let me be clear, nowhere in the world will create another Silicon Valley, that place is unique; but there’s no reason why city-regions cannot create things of their own, perhaps even greater…
The ingredients for this are common:
Access to patient risk capital
Access to money isn’t the key issue - rather, it’s access to patient risk-capital…the money to explore, tinker and validate with the freedom and time to let concepts form. Whether we look at West Coast USA, or Berlin, Lisbon or elsewhere, angel investors and funders are prepared to put money into ideas, let those ideas form over time, and only then wrap around the financial structures to grow them. This patient risk capital is the lifeblood of the great innovation centres of the world.
You can have as many networks, ecosystems, co-work spaces, incubators and accelerators as you like, but unless they work together – and allow their people to collaborate freely, they are pointless. In every single unicorn-factory I visit, ecosystems are loose, open and rarely (if ever) need to make money. They encourage coffee-shop collaboration, they encourage serendipity! It’s a quirk of some of our European eco-systems, that they’re so ‘tight,’ and closed- often operating as silos that own their members, and that’s incredibly unhealthy.
Without a doubt, every successful city-region puts tremendous weight on academia and research - these are the environments where often the biggest conceptual and technological leaps emerge from. The difference is that in eco-systems like Boston, for example, the commercial world (at all levels) works much closer with academia, and entrepreneurship is something which all academic disciplines get really engaged with.
Everywhere wants to be ‘the next silicon valley,’ everywhere wants google, apple, facebook, yahoo, twitter et al to open an office…. if you go to any major economic conference, every city-region on earth is pretty much giving the same message. The ones that succeed? They’re the ones that focus completely on their unique skills set, what makes them brilliant now. Chances are, by focusing on that honestly rather than their aspiration, they’ll build a more concrete foundation. Just go back to 1960s and 1970s South Bay (now Silicon Valley) - it was focussed squarely on semiconductors and electronics, and pretty much nothing else.
Another defining factor of the great city-regions is the level of ambition, young businesses (I mean the age of the business, not the entrepreneur) in those regions are ambitious – they are not working on U$10 million businesses, they’re working on ideas, concepts and challenges that will scale to U$1 billion plus, potentially changing the world. We need to encourage this level of incredible ambition - not in the leaders of our networks and ecologies for marketing purposes, but rather at grass roots, in the geniuses who will build these businesses.
Our history has given us the gravitas to do something really incredible, but now we need to create a new Manchester method to change the world for the next century.
Professor Vikas S. Shah