New beginnings

Wales is making up for lost time and tackling its innovation deficit with the implementation of its Regional Technology Plan. Steve McCormack reports on the progress

The UK’s first European-funded initiative aimed at improving the innovation and technology performance of regional industry has been operating in Wales for just over nine months. Its early successes and overall effectiveness in encouraging the development of the skills, products and the processes to compete with the world’s best are attracting widespread interest.

Last June, Wales became the first region in the UK, and one of the first four regions in Europe, to be awarded funding by the European Commission to develop a Regional Technology Plan (RTP) – part of a long-term innovation and technology strategy and implementation programme. Wales is further ahead than any other region in the implementation of its RTP.

At the recent RTP conference in Cardiff, David Rowe-Beddoe, chairman of the Welsh Development Agency and the Development Board for Rural Wales, said that competitiveness through innovation was the key to success in the changing global economy. `Our groundbreaking work is now held up by the commission as a blueprint and an inspiration for other regions – 20 of which are now developing their own innovative strategies and a further 30 are organising projects to encourage innovation and the drawing up of technology transfer plans.’

The aim, he said, was to foster a real culture of innovation, and tackle the `innovation deficit’ which handicapped the Welsh economy.

The scheme was set up following a pilot report and intensive consultation early last year. The report revealed that the region had the lowest per capita research and development expenditure in the UK; that links between academia and industry were poor; and that innovation was low on the list of priorities among many of the principality’s companies. The consultation process was seen as important in building a consensus behind the plan.

This approach appears to have succeeded, with support coming from all sides of industry, academic funding organisations, local authorities, training and enterprise councils, all parts of the educational sector, and other public and private sector bodies throughout Wales. Crucially, support appears strong from the private sector, including automotive, which has grown by 17% in the past two years and is forecast to grow by 20% to the end of the century.

According to Professor Kevin Morgan of the University of Wales, Cardiff, Department of City and Regional Planning, the RTP recognises the shortfalls of past regional policy, especially often conflicting requirements of overseas investors, and indigenous small and medium sized enterprises.

`It sees the need to overcome the old binary thinking of the past – should we support large foreign firms or should we support local firms? The answer in the RTP is that we should support both types, because the interdependency of these two segments of the economy are important.’

The RTP set out six priorities for improving the competitive strength of the Welsh economy and 66 projects were identified which supported these priorities for action. Fifty of the projects have been delivered, or are in the process of being delivered. They cover a wide range of subjects and services, from funding aid for small companies wanting to buy state-of-the-art equipment or technology consultancy services; to initiatives covering education and training; and programmes to promote information technology and other aspects of innovation and business support.

Flagship projects launched include:

{{* a national innovation challenge competition* a development programme for the Welsh Opto-electronics Forum* a Teaching Company Scheme to improve supply chain innovation* a technology implementation project for smaller companies* the establishment of multimedia advice/demonstrator centres* a programme for the continuous updating of workplace skills.}}

The WDA manages several projects and provides logistical support to help the plan’s implementation. Tony Newson, WDA technology programmes manager, says `we are helping projects to negotiate for finance and resources. We are working with the steering group to develop the plan and to introduce a continuous monitoring and evaluation programme.’

The RTP will influence some of the major spending programmes in Wales, including European Structural Funds, the WDA and Higher Education Funding Council for Wales.

At the conference, European Commission representative Dr Mikel Landabaso praised the progress made, which has inspired `a new generation of Regional Innovation Strategies actions in the Union. `Cooperation and competition are increasingly becoming the two sides of the same coin in the field of innovation in a progressively global economy. This is why one of the objectives of today’s European regional policy is to help regions to cooperate regionally in order to be able to compete globally,’ he says.

Supporters are keen to point out the practical benefits. `This is not just about blue sky research – it can affect the bottom line, cutting costs and enhancing productivity,’ says Ian Spratling, chairman of the RTP steering group and CBI Wales.

Keynote speaker at the conference was innovator and entrepreneur Professor Christopher Evans. `With the RTP we now hold the initiative in Wales. The European spotlight is on us – the opportunities are fantastic,’ he says. Looking forward to 2010, he set `achievable’ targets for the principality, including a £10bn high technology industry sector employing 35,000 people and comprising hundreds of successful small and medium companies in growth areas such as telecoms and medicine.

Ultimately, the success or failure of the plan will depend upon maintaining the initial momentum.

Six priorities for improving the competitive strength of the Welsh economy