Smaller Cities Embrace Smart Specialisation – The Exeter Success Story

By Richard Ball

Governments have recognised that cities are engines of growth critical to economic performance and national recovery in the current climate. The large conurbations naturally make the headlines as the “core” cities receiving support towards economic development, but there are smaller cities, which are comparatively and proportionately for their size, punching “well above their weight” where people work, trade and innovate in exciting organisations directly driving significant economic growth. Some have seen very impressive employment growth over the last decade and have bucked the trend in terms of recession forecasts with a credible track record of job creation, business formation and survival.

They are true exponents of “smart specialisation”, one of the pillars of the European Commission`s “Europe 2020” strategy to deliver smart and sustainable growth. Focussing on selected assets and their strengths which produce much more valuable results, they have avoided the temptation of trying to appease everyone by spreading their attention and investment thinly over disparate activities.

I will refer here to the Exeter economy but there are others. It is a city economy that understands its position and is working to use that knowledge to set out its future, building its strength sustainably in a national and international context. Between 1999 and 2009, Exeter’s economy grew at 6.6% per annum, substantially above the national average with 4,500 jobs created in the city between 2008 and 2010 whilst other areas were experiencing marked reduction. When Exeter prospers the wider region certainly benefits, as the travel to work area is extensive and well served by road, rail and air infrastructure

The approach of the mature partnership between the private and public sectors in the city has been about genuine collaboration, pursuing quality not mediocrity and supporting the city’s key assets. Most notable has been the growth and enhanced reputation of the University and the professional and business service sector, both critical to the diverse mix which puts the economy in a good position for the next set of developments.

The University of Exeter has recently been invited into the Russell Group, recognising its world-class research, academic excellence and links with business. In an increasingly global higher education market, they attract the very best academics and students from around the world as well as investment from multinational, research-intensive businesses. It is high in the world rankings and consistently in the top 10 of various national rankings in the UK. The University is engaged in a £380 million investment programme in its buildings and facilities with a focus on excellence in world-class standings.

Exeter has seen a step change in its economic performance and is well placed to play an even more important role. It has demonstrated other key elements of smart specialisation, the importance of agility, an advantage of not being too big, and public and private partners agreeing and working to a clear, comprehensive, proactive and responsive plan with accountability and responsibility in place alongside frequent monitoring and risk mitigation. Strategic developments are being brought forward which will deliver large scale and broad based growth making a meaningful contribution to rebalancing the economy. A new science park and other highly visible and accessible employment sites are ready and available.

Economic growth is also being pursued hand in hand with housing development to ensure successful and sustainable development including the largest low carbon district heating network outside of London reducing costs and the carbon footprint.

The overall development programme for the city`s economy is geared to the creation of some 26,000 jobs over the next 12-15 years. A study undertaken last year concluded that the estimated investment in delivering all developments in the programme equates to more than £3.9 billion.

Exeter is facing up to the smart specialisation challenge. Leadership is certainly being provided by serious public and private sector champions, and high levels of professionalism and determination. The other key is effective innovative collaboration across all stakeholders – public, private, voluntary sector, and academia to harness, encourage, promote and support commercial but also public, political and societal entrepreneurial activity at all levels.