Posted on Wednesday 11 April 2012 by Ulster Business
The NI Science Park’s CONNECT programme is based on a model that helped turn the ailing economy of San Diego into a high tech centre to rival Silicon Valley. But are there other policies, strategies and programmes from around the world that Northern Ireland could replicate or emulate to inject some life into the local economy, and how could the lessons from these places be applied at a local level? We asked some experts for their views
When the proposal to create a science park in the heart of one of Baltimore’s most disadvantaged communities was first mooted back in 2003, I have no doubt that many an eyebrow was raised. Baltimore was not known as a biotech location and the district in question seemed better suited as a filming location for gritty TV drama The Wire than one you could ever imagine acting as a magnet for high-tech, high-growth industry.
Almost a decade later, however, and the University of Maryland BioPark has not only helped revitalise Baltimore’s economy by positioning the city at the very hub of the East Coast bioscience corridor, but it has done so while delivering direct, tangible benefits to some of the city’s poorest citizens.
The secret of this success and what I believe we can learn most from is the fact that four very different organisations – the City of Baltimore, the highly prestigious John Hopkins Hospital, the University of Maryland and Baltimore City Community College – each had the vision to see the potential benefits in collaboration.
The project began when the City of Baltimore agreed to sell a 4-acre largely derelict site in one of its most deprived inner city neighbourhoods to the University of Maryland. Significantly, the sale was agreed for a nominal fee of just one dollar. This action was crucial in defining the future direction of the project in that it ensured a strong community development mission was embedded at the very start.
The purchase of the land paved the way for the University of Maryland to take the first tentative steps towards creating what would become a significant regional cluster of bioscience companies and medical research centres. Work began in expanding its campus westward into a part of the city characterised by poverty, poor housing and long abandoned commercial properties.
The BioPark had a major strategic advantage in that it was located close to the internationally renowned John Hopkins Hospital. The Hospital’s strong support for the initiative and its world-class reputation for excellence in both medical research and in the treatment of disease were vital in attracting both mature and emerging bioscience companies to the city.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Baltimore example is that, rather than excluding the local community, the BioPark has succeeded in providing education, training and employment opportunities to some of the city’s most disadvantaged citizens. This is due in no small part to the involvement of Baltimore City Community College. The college aims to educate and train people for employment, with an emphasis on employment in ‘new economy’ jobs.
The Community College took the innovative step of specifically recruiting students from disadvantaged backgrounds who had left school with poor STEM scores. By simultaneously providing remedial tuition in science, technology, engineering and maths, the students were able to complete a STEM degree programme while at the same time working to raise their grades in STEM subjects. This initiative opened up a whole host of opportunities for students for whom the chance of higher education or employment in the high-growth industry sector would not have been possible.
The relationship between the College and the BioPark was cemented further by the fact that students undertake internships in the BioPark, thereby gaining invaluable work experience and developing relationships with potential employers.
I believe that we could learn a lot from Baltimore’s success. Belfast has three great hospitals, two great universities and a fantastic further and higher education college in Belfast Met. Our new state-of-the-art Titanic Quarter campus is located in the heart of Northern Ireland’s new economy and our entire business model is linked to the employment and skills agenda. Our even newer, higher-spec e3 economic development building in North and West Belfast will play a significant role in modelling innovative and emerging technologies.
Somewhere along the line, somebody in Baltimore had the vision and the conviction to start a process which has boosted the local and regional economy and ensured a steady stream of skilled, work-ready individuals for years to come. What is really important is that it also met the specific needs of a disparate group of stakeholders. It is quite simply what Americans sometimes refer to as a ‘win-win’ situation and one we could certainly seek to emulate here.
Neil Gibson from Oxford Economics says that although specific policies are hard to replicate because they are ‘of their time’ there are lots of lessons that could be taken from the Scandinavian economies: “The big lessons that stand out are around education and a more professional attitude to economic development coupled to a culturally different society.”
1) Complete commitment to education – Finland’s education results are so far ahead of ours – with a ‘leave no-one behind’ mentality. There’s no reason not to replicate that. It is a devolved matter and the amount of people leaving without qualifications is surely something, even with a big lag time, the Executive could have done something about. However, to do this the quality of teacher and their social status etc, would need to change.
2) Importance of R&D, innovation, university collaborations and not ‘handing out money’. Very talented support agencies are staffed by highly qualified people – in other words taking economic development and the issue of public support more seriously than we do.
3) Interestingly these are places with big public sectors by choice – so it is not always a case of small government good, something for us to think about in Northern Ireland.
4) There are cultural differences that are hard to change – things like flatter pay structures and a broader range of graduates flowing into a wider set of companies. Our pay structure funnels the best into certain directions.
5) Finland’s Nokia story is an interesting one in terms of the supply chain and skills it built up. We are trying to tell a small business story but can they ever provide the scale of change we need? Possibly, but big business matters in Scandinavia.
6) Peripheral location and temperature clearly show that some of Northern Ireland’s excuses are just that - excuses.
IoD chairman Mervyn McCall has long extolled the virtues of Singapore’s economy. He said in a recent speech: “When I took over as chairman of IoD in May last year I spoke about my vision of Northern Ireland becoming the Singapore of Europe.
“That aspiration is based on the belief that Singapore has a number of similarities with Northern Ireland and is a role model to which we can look for inspiration and guidance.
“For instance, its development into a vibrant and resilient economy of just five million people was based on necessity. It had a small domestic market – like ourselves – and was forced to open itself to external markets.
“Singapore has a clear focus on business growth – based on low taxes, a global vision regarding exports and FDI. We’re not exactly the same as Singapore but we are compact enough, with just 1.7m people, to ensure that our private sector and our political administration are capable of working together to deliver a strategy for growth.
“However, change is needed if we are to emulate Singapore’s steady growth. Here it is the government’s job to create the environment for businesses to start up, grow and prosper. Imagine what we could achieve if you could start up a business in three days as you can in Singapore.
“But the over-riding characteristic we need to develop is our capacity and our ambition to become an exporting region. Much of Singapore’s success as an advanced, technological economy has rested on its ability to attract a large amount of inward investment. I’m talking about confidence. Singapore has it in abundance, but we can’t find it.”
John Hartnett, CEO of the Irish Technology Leadership Group in the US, thinks the island of Ireland should follow the lead of Israel, which has more than 120 companies listed on the NASDAQ stock market.
He said: “For all the challenges it has faced, Israel is recognised as a tech industry leader. It has 120 companies listed on the Nasdaq, that’s more than anywhere across Europe.
“You need a clear focus in Northern Ireland – it is not just about FDI but about creating your own multibillion dollar companies. The listing of a major company each year can create a lot of jobs.
“Israel’s success is down to a combination of focus and ambition. In Northern Ireland the focus needs to be on getting government and Invest Northern Ireland putting a focus on key areas Northern Ireland can win in. You can’t ‘peanut butter’ it and invest across all industries – focus on a few things you can do well.
“Large companies always start as small companies. Wouldn’t it be great if Invest Northern Ireland had identified three or four or five companies that could IPO in the next five years?
“Israel has focused on the US and Silicon Valley as a market. What they have done is successfully leverage the Israeli diaspora to help young Israeli companies. It is something they do exceptionally well, in fact probably best in the world.
“In Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland we have a huge untapped diaspora, which is something many other countries don’t have. That’s what we are tapping into at ITLG. ROI has started to go after this strongly. Northern Ireland needs to up its focus on a diaspora strategy for Northern Ireland to leverage the people in the US who have history and ties to Northern Ireland. This does exist.”