Innovation Strategy could be turning point in a Northern Fourth Industrial Revolution

By Professor Juergen Maier CBE, vice-chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and co-chair of Made Smarter UK


For a long time, I’ve been banging the drum for the North to take the lead in the UK’s fourth industrial revolution, first as CEO of Siemens UK and now as vice-chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership.

Embracing innovation and levelling up R&D investment would raise productivity across the whole of the North of England. It would create thousands of well-paid jobs in the industries of the future, unlock billions in growth and help us tackle some of the decade’s most pressing challenges – not least climate change.

Last week business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng came to Yorkshire to launch the government’s Innovation Strategy with a new plan to rebalance R&D investment across the UK.

Kwasi Kwarteng meets Lloyd Tinkler, Technical Fellow – Electrical Machines, on a tour of Factory 2050 at the AMRC.

After years of business leaders making the case for an innovation-led plan for growth, it finally sounds as if they’ve been listening. The strategy rightly recognises manufacturing and digital technology for the significant role they play in promoting innovation, productivity and prosperity.

Making the speech at the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), the business secretary was able to see for himself what has been achieved in the past 20 years by businesses, government and our world-class universities working together to drive forward change.

In 2017, I led a government-commissioned review into industrial digitalisation with the aim of boosting growth across the manufacturing sector. We could increase exports, create 175,000 highly skilled jobs and unlock £455bn over the next decade if we invested in a national digital ecosystem and upskilled our workforce.

As part of the plan, we set up the Made Smarter programme, an initiative designed to help manufacturing businesses prosper through digital tools. After initial success in the North West, we’re now extending the programme to Yorkshire and the North East and in last week’s announcement, the government promised to work with us to scale up the programme further – a commitment I really hope they follow through on.

It’s a step in the right direction, one that could see us create thousands more skilled, productive jobs such as those being created through Nissan’s £1billion electric vehicle investment at its plant in Sunderland.

The battery plant will create 900 jobs at Nissan plus 750 at Envision – and an overall 6,200 when the impact on suppliers is included

We also saw significant backing for advanced materials and manufacturing. The Advanced Machinery & Productivity Institute, based in Rochdale, was awarded £22.6 million to foster innovation for the UK’s advanced machinery manufacturers – a huge investment in R&D for the M62 corridor cluster between Manchester and Leeds.

We now have the beginnings of an innovation supercluster here in the North of England. The AMRC in Yorkshire, the Royce Institute in Manchester, the CPI Catapult in the North East – these places are all starting to act as a genuine counterweight to the pull of the South East’s ‘Golden Triangle’. After all, it is here in the North that we have the history, the expertise and the tools to lead a fourth industrial revolution – with a flourishing green economy at its heart.

While it was promising to see the report identify the potential opportunities from Sustainable Energy and Environment Tech, we need more ambition on hydrogen technologies and the carbon capture and storage initiatives being led by HyNet in the North West and Drax in the Humber.  We need this greater ambition to decarbonise energy generation, industry and transport, as well as to ensure we build world-beating industrial clusters across the North that create fantastic well-paid jobs.

Moreover, without a workforce equipped with the right skills to develop these industries, we don’t stand a chance of decarbonising the economy. We need to create many more apprenticeships and support employers to reskill our current workers in order to maximise the economic potential of our path to net zero.

Now the Innovation Strategy has laid out our core priorities, we need the ambition and the funding to match. As we recalibrate post-COVID and post-Brexit, this could prove a turning point in transforming the Northern Powerhouse into an engine for innovation, prosperity and growth for the whole of the UK.

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