Each year since 2019, the Observatory has gathered together a wealth of data to provide a snapshot of how the Midlands is faring and where the key opportunities lie.
The 2023 report details a challenging twelve months across the Midlands and the UK.
The report is split into two sections, based on the business plan published by the Midlands Engine earlier this year.
The first half explores how the region fared in terms of our key economic drivers: increasing productivity; innovating across sectors; building infrastructure for growth and increasing investment.
More in-depth stats are presented in a thematic deep-dive section covering the Midlands Engine’s five key themes: Green Growth; Advanced Manufacturing; Food & Agri-tech; Med-tech and Life sciences and New Market Opportunities.
InterAct is pleased to continue working with Midlands Engine as the Network moves into it’s final year of research. Following the sucessful development of the Future of Digital Manufacturing Ecosystems ‘Scenarios 2040’ report, InterAct will be hosting workshops focusing on the agri-food and medical technology sectors followed by in depth case studies of three midlands based manufacturing firms outlined in the report.
Discussing planned collaboration, InterAct Co-director, Professor Jan Godsell said: “At InterAct, we’re committed to working with businesses to help shape and co-develop our research to achieve the greatest benefits for regional and UK wide manufacturing.
By focusing our case study on the Midlands, we have a unique opportunity to support the thriving industrial base here and enable them to establish future systems of digital manufacturing – creating more resilient and prosperous supply chains which will enhance the productivity of the region and provide a blueprint for wider applicability to the rest of the country.”
InterAct researchers from the University of Sheffield based ‘Future of the Economy’ team led by Professor Vania Sena hosted the first of their Discovery Day events at the AMRC Factory 2050 on 16th November, 2023. Opened in April 2017, the venue is a fully reconfigurable assembly and component manufacturing facility for collaborative research, capable of rapidly switching production between different high-value components and one-off parts for prototyping and research and development.
This half-day workshop offered InterAct stakeholders from across the manufacturing and industrial digital technology sectors a chance to be introduced to part of the core mission of the Future of the Economy workstream.
The Discovery Day delved into the significance of advanced manufacturing zones, particularly in regional development, primarily focusing on South Yorkshire. The practical implications of these zones, the decision making behind them, and the strategy used was examined in detail by guest speaker Joseph Quinn of the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority (SYMCA). He shed light on the transformative potential of these zones in terms of job creation, economic growth, and innovation.
Joseph Quinn presents on the work of the SYMCA
Professor Sena explained to participants the initial findings of the team’s research and understanding of the multifaceted impacts of investment zones on the future of the UK economy. They then had the chance to pose questions understand the challenges and opportunities in advanced manufacturing, a theme intrinsically linked to the economic landscape and outlook.
Following this session, attendees were invited to take part in a tour of the exciting and innovative facilities within the AMRC Factory 2050. Putting into context the overall mission of InterAct to help facilitate the introduction of new industrial digital technology into manufacturing, visitors were able to engage with a variety of cutting edge technologies with input from the AMRC staff.
Attendees examine one of the industrial technologies on display at the Factory 2050
The routine of commuting five days a week to and from an employer’s office now seems somewhat old fashioned. Flexible and remote working have become much more common – and popular.
One global survey found that 68% of employees prefer flexible working. In the US, when given the option of remote work, 87% of employees take up the offer. It has also been estimated that up to 25% of workers in some of the world’s largest economies could work remotely for three to five days a week without any loss in productivity.
Traditionally – and during COVID lockdowns – remote working meant working from home. But research suggests that much of the recent uptake in remote work is occurring in “co-working spaces”, where people from different professions and organisations work side by side.
These spaces provide flexible access to shared workspaces, with a range of facilities such as decent coffee, good wifi, digital printing and postal services. They range from basic to funky in design, some with natural features or social spaces equipped with table tennis and pool tables, boxing bags and PlayStations. Dogs and other pets are often welcome.
Some are run by large global companies while others are set up by local independent providers. But they are all designed for workers in search of a flexible approach, a decent location and an appealing working environment.
Part of this appeal comes from the social interaction they provide, reducing the isolation of working from home. They may also be located more conveniently than traditional places of work, reducing commute times and helping parents manage childcare commitments.
The main feature of a co-working space is that the people who use it come from different backgrounds and are not employed by a single company. Such a diverse community can open up new opportunities for collaboration and the exchange of ideas – and even the potential for new commercial partnerships.
Indeed, some research suggests that co-working spaces are similar to “industrial clusters”, where groups of businesses in similar sectors are concentrated in a particular location, such as the Square Mile in London, or the area near Silverstone in England nicknamed Motorsport Valley.
Co-working spaces can be good for employers too, broadening their geographical reach. They may be cheaper than traditional office space, and provide a flexible option to scale up or down depending on economic circumstances.
And while most co-working spaces are designed for desk workers, there are an increasing number of manufacturing and engineering companies getting involved. Spaces which provide access to things like CAD software, 3D printers and lathes are particularly useful for small design or artisan businesses.
A role for policy?
This ease of access to tools and technology can encourage start-ups, or promote the re-emergence of small scale manufacturing in “left behind” places. In the US, for example, there has been a political push to promote co-working spaces as seedbeds of entrepreneurship.
In Italy, a similar policy in Rome has received the same kind of encouragement, while Ireland’s government announced plans for investment in 400 co-working hubs in rural areas to create a national network of facilities.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has also expressed interest in the potential of co-working spaces to boost regional development.
But so far in the UK the role of co-working spaces has largely been absent from any political party’s vision for developing regional economies. Instead, it seems to have been largely left to local authorities and businesses to take the lead.
In Stoke-on-Trent, for example, a new co-working space development has been launched in a partnership between the local government and private sector investment. Elsewhere, Devon County Council coordinates its own network of co-working hubs.
They have understood that the move towards more flexible working is surely here to stay. For many, it provides a sense of freedom and independence in their working lives.
Overall though there seems to be a lack of strategic thinking from the national government on the funding and location of co-working spaces. In tough economic conditions, this may turn out to be a significant missed opportunity.