Can Birmingham support home-grown innovation?

Birmingham is not short of talent, far from it. It is bursting at the seams with ideas and creativity.

 Just look at its universities, creative centres, or places ranging from Birmingham Science Park to Digbeth’s Custard Factory.

Only recently it has emerged that Centro, the regional transport authority, is considering radical plans for a city centre cable car system to move passengers between the three major railway stations in Birmingham.

Pie in the sky, some might say, yet there is a similar scheme in London and it demonstrates imaginative thinking even if the feasibility study that is currently underway ultimately were to say ‘no’.

Birmingham has stated that design and innovation is critical, so why is it being overtaken by other UK cities?

Places such as Manchester. Edinburgh and Cardiff would appear to have overtaken the Second City having invested in local creative services that have developed a brand and given them a platform to promote themselves nationally and internationally. 

Witness the scalp Manchester claimed when the BBC moved 2,300 jobs and £155m of operations, including the flagship Breakfast Show, to Salford Quays in 2011. OK, so there are calls to move that particular show back to the capital amid fears it can’t attract the guests, but the point is that Manchester won the job in the first place.

How many times has local government (and business) in Birmingham underinvested in creative input (design, marketing, research, new product etc)? And when they do they look elsewhere (London Creative’s for example).

After working for a long time in a corporate environment in London, I set Zulu up in Birmingham because I thought the city was under-represented within the creative market.

After almost nine years of business what strikes me now is the lack of confidence that Midlands-based business shows in the local creative community.

We have known a number of organisations and perhaps most surprisingly our own city council that have felt it necessary to go to other cities such as London in order to procure creative material.

A good example is the new Library of Birmingham project in Centenary Square, which will replace the old Birmingham Central Library in nearby Paradise Circus.

Anyone who walks past the site can see what a magnificent structure it is going to be and a worthy addition to the city once it opens in 2013, but I can’t help but feel this was a golden opportunity missed, for local talent to be given the chance to shine.

Instead it became the subject of an international design competition, run by the Royal Institute of British Architects.

The eventual winners were Mecanoo of Delft, in Holland, who were chosen from a list of more than 100 applicants – an interesting counter-balance to places such as Scotland which places a significant weighting on the location of a company bidding for business.

Obviously factors such as cost, competitiveness, and tender legislation play a very large part in deciding who gets the job, but you are still more likely to be awarded a contract if you are based in Scotland. Is this an approach that can be done locally?

John Lamb of Birmingham Chamber of Commerce said in the Midlands that tends not to be the case.

“Many businesses do try to use local companies but in these price-sensitive times the most competitive bids tend to win,” he said.

John said the Chamber was firmly of the belief that Birmingham has a healthy and growing creative sector which is gaining a strong reputation nationally.

A 2009 survey showed that the level of Gross Value Added (GVA) of the sector in the West Midlands was £38,000 per employee, only marginally behind London.

“It’s highly varied in Birmingham and includes design, advertising, video games, film, publishing and, of course, the many industries in the Jewellery Quarter,” he said.

“However, the sector does change rapidly. The latest Birmingham City Council survey (2010) showed that the sector employs 34,000 in Birmingham, about seven per cent of the city’s workforce.

“Big strains have been put on the sector through recessionary trends but it has a big advantage over London by being able to offer competitive rates free from extremely high property rentals in the capital.”

At Zulu our experience has shown many Midlands organisations are often better and more cost effective than London or Manchester based agencies. 

But I have to acknowledge that perception plays a big part. Sadly, I believe you are better off basing your company outside the city in places like Warwick or Stratford because they have a better image than Birmingham.

It has sometimes been frustrating providing ‘white labelled services’ to London agencies that are marking up the work by four or five times and then selling it back to some large business in the Midlands because they feel it’s better value!

If you are considering any marketing activity in 2013 get in touch with our professional panel for free advice and guidance on how to get the best out of your business – contact 0121 308 4280 

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