Is Birmingham still a place for innovation?


Is Birmingham still a place for innovation?

History has illustrated that when information can be shared more freely it facilitates great advances of knowledge and innovation. Key events such as the development of the printing press through to wireless communications and more recently the huge impact of the internet has produced a significant effect on how we understand the value of knowledge, how skills can be accessed to provide a radically different industrialised perspective.

These developments have facilitated the growth of virtual networks and a trend of self-organising knowledge capabilities. Some businesses are beginning to harness the power of this new way of working, one such business is Zulu Creative, a Birmingham-based full service marketing and design company. 

I established Zulu 10 years ago as a self-organising skills based network to provide high-level talent around a client’s project requirements. Our structure allows Zulu to take a fresh approach to each client’s solution. We are not tied to a traditional employment skills base, we can spend time and effort understanding the business need. We then utilise our network structure to bring the best in the business together to execute the project. Our clients get the best advice and only pay for the skills and capability they need. 

But it doesn’t stop there. We find increasingly our clients want us to stay part of the program providing advice and support as the projects evolves and flourishes. This makes a lot of sense because it also provides the flexibility to evolve, modify and learn for the implementation process and builds commitment for the long-term.

This approach may not be new. The high point of the industrial revolution saw the Midlands become a hot bed for guilds and business fraternity networks that enabled knowledge-exchange that in turn facilitated innovation which provided the foundation for the region’s success and prosperity. The present difficult and unpredictable economic environment has proved challenging for a wide range of business sectors. Whilst the Midlands traditional manufacturing base has witnessed some success the outlook presents more challenges. Historically the Midlands has been seen as a place of innovation and entrepreneurism,  however in more recent times this has given way to an impression of decline, a retrenchment with the business landscape being seen as conservative.

As an example, a recent article in The Economist on Birmingham and its fortunes since the Second World War seemed to cement this. The article bore the headline ‘Second City Second Class’ and claimed a history of indifferent management, the decline in manufacturing and a shoddy transport infrastructure were just three of several reasons why Britain’s second city was lagging behind. Certainly the years since the Blitz have proved turbulent for Birmingham and the current economic climate is playing no small part in that. But I believe there is much going on in the city that proves the lie to this view and here’s just one example of the creative, long-term thinking that is doing so.

Less than a decade ago Rover cars went out of business. A company employing thousands of people at its massive complex in Longbridge went under. For those who worked there, for Longbridge and its neighbouring suburbs the future looked bleak.  Anyone who has not been to that area since those grim days of 2005 would walk away rubbing their eyes in disbelief at the physical transformation that has occurred there since, and the resulting sense of confidence it has imbued in people round there.. 

The new Bournville College has made its home there and St Modwen has started creating Austin Park, at the heart of its Longbridge town centre plans. This is a £2 million public park – the first to be built in the south east of Birmingham in 50 years and which will be of a similar size to St Philips Square in Birmingham city centre. Longbridge is a £1 billion project covering 468 acres, aiming to create 10,000 jobs through a diverse range of industries at a technical park, 2,000 new homes, the new town centre, parks and public open spaces. It is just one example of the importance and potential of forward, flexible thinking at a time when the business and industrial landscape is changing more quickly than at any other time.

Perhaps even more significantly Birmingham schools and Universities are recognised as some of the best, as creativity is often found on the intersects of traditional knowledge parameters. This must be a positive sign for Birmingham’s future. There is still a place for the traditional approach of innovation and entrepreneurism, but it needs to be rediscovered through the nurturing of the regional knowledge economy – bringing the best of the Midlands together, eroding the traditional boundaries of organisation and accessing skills to deliver effect.


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