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Legacy and Opportunity: Industry and Innovation in the UK 

Levelling Up 2.0
Bim Afolami headshot

Bim Afolami MP

Member of Parliament for Hitchin and Harpenden 

Within Curia’s book ‘Levelling Up 2.0: A Blueprint for the Future’, Bim Afolami MP discusses the UK’s levelling up agenda, with a focus on the collaboration between the public and private sectors. 

No country punches above its weight on knowledge, science, and innovation quite like the UK. We produce more high-quality scientific research papers than the United States, Germany, Italy, Japan, or France. The research and development ‘golden triangle’ of Oxford, Cambridge, and London remains the worldwide benchmark for quality and reliability. From Francis Bacon’s innovations in the scientific method, through Swann’s telescope, Stephenson’s steam engine, Bell’s telephone, Berners-Lee’s Internet, and to latter-day success stories such as the AstraZeneca vaccine, the inventions that shaped the modern world are overwhelmingly British.  

Our scientific assets and culture of innovation are not just reliable, they could be key to the levelling up agenda. While the ‘golden triangle’ and the South East host about 46 per cent of all UK R&D, too little is made of the other 54 per cent. Liverpool, Manchester, and Leeds are all home to new and exciting ideas in aerospace, aviation, and chemical engineering. Strengthening these secondary hubs of innovation and offering more opportunities for the cross-pollination of ideas will enable us to distribute the investment already in this country more broadly. In doing so, we can start to build those resilient reputations, not just resting on our Oxbridge laurels but using the reflective glow of our existing successes to incubate the excellent work being done elsewhere.  

Levelling Up Book
Curia’s book can be purchased here.

Breaking Down Barriers: Unlocking Potential and Innovation

As important as these jobs are to our communities, the rise in homeworking also provides the opportunity to harness human capital remotely. Many jobs can be accessed with just a laptop, and with stronger transport links and improved broadband, there is no reason why businesses cannot source their engineers and computer programmers from Middlesborough or Mid-Wales rather than Mile End. Opportunities are no longer confined to London, which reduces the flood of talented graduates into the capital’s crowded and expensive rental market.  

Many people worry about this trend, myself included, and there is, indeed, a concern that remote working might reduce our prosperity in the UK over time. Yet these fears are mostly unfounded. The opportunities in science and technology, which require creativity, curiosity, and firm technical knowledge, will come to the UK ahead of most other places. Why? We have a long, hard-won heritage and expertise in these areas, which cannot be easily replicated elsewhere.  

Crucially, jobs in science, technology, research, and engineering are what will revolutionise the rest of our economy by improving our flagging productivity – particularly if these jobs are married to an expanding industrial and manufacturing sector.  

Britain’s manufacturing sector was hit hardest by the Global Financial Crisis of 2008/9 and has seen a year-on-year productivity decline of 0.65 per cent per quarter, according to research conducted by economists at the Bank of England in late 2022. 

New methods, techniques, and technologies are what drive productivity by allowing our workforce to produce more in less time. This, in turn, drives up income and increases the overall production of that part, creating a surplus that can be exported to international markets. 

Producing Real-world Outcomes Through Collaboration 

Ensuring best practice is the key to solving our productivity puzzle. By putting the latest discoveries into place, we can sustain a core of high-quality, high-tech industry while our communities benefit from stable, long-term careers. 

Central to this is the need to reconsider the role of the state. Conservatives need to reconcile with the fact that a modern dynamic economy requires agile and active government that can set strategic policy and significant funding priorities, with a focus on long-term economic returns. The private sector can innovate and drive economic dynamism and value due to the unremitting logic of the profit motive. However, with the partnership of an effective state, some of the major strategic needs of the country – e.g. levelling up, energy security and transition, and improving education – can be met. 

Even with all of this said, it is difficult not to be struck by the potential that we have yet to unlock. With long-term thinking and long-term strategy, science has the potential to steer our long-term realignment towards the economy of the future. 

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