Urban manufacturing insights through peer review – a design-led process

Birmingham City Council

It is not only the destination that is important, but the journey

In the midst of the relentless momentum of the project lifecycle, the peer review experience has offered a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect upon the policy challenge that we have set ourselves in Birmingham to consider: ‘How Birmingham’s collaborative maker space (CMS) infrastructure can encourage its SME’s to become more innovation active, with a particular emphasis on prototyping’

The EU’s regional innovation scoreboard notes that the West Midlands is the joint lowest performing region in the UK – the regions’ science & innovation audit from 2018 identified that 44% of firms lacking innovation. If Greater Birmingham were to close this productivity gap through innovation, this could grow the economy by an astonishing £4bn per year!

But how do you achieve this? How do you understand the necessary steps to bring about these sorts of changes? This project provided a unique opportunity to expose various stakeholders to the virtues of collaborative maker spaces, fab labs and incubators in a variety of European cities, while pairing this with local policy meetings to gain further insight into collaborative incubation (Think of places where STEM & Arts experts meet to invent new products), Investment in R&D, leading on to commercialisation – all achieved using innovative products & services. But this leads to a question – how to take the plethora of ideas and make it work for Birmingham?

At the request of Birmingham city council, Birmingham City University (BCU) has applied a design-led thinking approach to the Birmingham challenge over 2 days. As part of this process, Birmingham was linked up with a mentor, in this case Lisbon City Council, capital of Portugal). This was because Lisbon has strengths and weaknesses that mirror those that Birmingham faces as a city – especially the well-connected ecosystem and successful fab labs.

Design-led thinking is a process that helps you break down and understand an issue – then developing creative ideas to find a solution. In this case the issue was; what steps were required to boost the city’s innovation capacity? The solution was to use 3 participants in the review process: The facilitator (BCU) the peer reviewee - Birmingham City Council (BCC) and the peer reviewer - Lisbon City Council (LCC).

It then went through 3 steps:

  1. Defining the challenge: This was where BCC set out the context of the challenge, breaking it down into digestible chunks. 
  1. Idea generation: where the LCC helped BCC to prioritise its top 3 challenges
  1. Prototyping: BCC then found activities which addressed the challenges through identifying potential project ideas, governance or strategy changes and the like. 
  1. Testing: BCC was then asked to consider practical issues such as:
  • Who writes the policy and how is it approved?
  • What are the timescales & which committees / budgets are involved?

Thanks to this innovative process, here are some of the solutions that were presented:

  1. Ensuring that future ERDF calls for proposals (those that focus on R&D & innovation) include a provision for collaborative maker space (CMS) activity, and specifically mention fab labs with the aim of supporting open access, allowing the funding of CMS focused projects.
  2. After this is ensured, supporting 2 types of projects in particular that are hoped will come forward.
    1. Innovation inactive SME’s – helping them access the maker spaces
    2. Long term collaboration between maker spaces & the business support ecosystem.

This design-led process, which gave the chance to pause and analyse how best to approach the challenge that has been set, was particularly useful as it allowed the formation of a timeline with relevant stakeholders. These recommendations now need to be put into motion.

Meetings with local stakeholders groups such as the GBSLEP, Greater Birmingham Chambers of commerce, Innovation Alliance & Maker Spaces are the first steps to make this happen. This offers the chance to further discuss the action plan that has been created through this design-led process and identify ideal crossover for collaboration. The next calls for ERDF funding are just around the corner and project proposals will come soon after – this will be a time for great expectations and hopefully some good results thanks to the work done to prepare!

For more information about the urban manufacturing project click here.

Heather Law
Birmingham City Council