Saturday, 25 August 2012

Towards a Localised Approach for the ‘Golden Triangle’: A Comparative Study of Three Different Situations

My name is Sam Vasili. I have just graduated from Manchester and having (just about) made it through the minefield of an undergraduate dissertation I am going for round 2 with an MSc. I would like to do a comparative study looking in (some) detail at the different environments and externalities of three different high-tech clusters in the South-East of England (Cambridge, Oxford and London). However, I’m not sure how realistic this is given that I am essentially working by myself and I do not have much in the way of funding…. the student loan only goes so far. Anyway, in an ideal world I would look at the different levels of ‘innovative-activity’ in each respective cluster in an attempt to make some form of policy recommendation, and hopefully identify potential areas of investment. 

It is apparent from previous academic research that there are no ‘best practice models’ that can be applied to a multitude of different regions. Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) tried and failed, and (slightly more worrying) successful innovation-intensive locations suffered as a result. Enter localism and the realisation that innovation policies should be contingent on local situations. This is good a thing. Funding is now being allocated to improve areas where we are ‘world beaters’, this is also a good thing. However, this does not mean that we should ignore the age-old problems of social deprivation, inequality and wealth distribution. Perhaps a ‘trickle down’ economy is not sufficient. As identified by Centre for Cities, there are growing disparities between cities in the North-East and university towns such as Cambridge. Even within the realms of a potential South-East super cluster (the ‘Golden Triangle’) there are clearly very different levels of ‘innovative activity’. The problem with these kind of issues is they fall into the "too hard" category. If someone had a rational way of sorting this stuff out they would probably be onto a winner. In practice, most clusters are accidental, often caused by huge government spend for entirely different objectives (e.g. funding world class academic research, organizing national defence). 

Nevertheless, we seem to be identifying areas of potential growth. However, it is also apparent that this growth will not filter out as much as we would like but will remain centered around local ‘situations’. We have identified science parks/innovation incubators/catapult centres as helpful policy tools. However, it is also apparent that polices which attempt to kick start a ‘phenomenon’ from scratch (e.g. Pfizer site at Sandwich) are a somewhat fragile entity. The exception to this (perhaps) being Sophia Antipolis – we would be hard pressed to find an environment that could compete with the surroundings of the French Riviera …. Blackpool doesn’t quite have the same appeal.   In the UK we are now in the process of selecting our ‘key players’, but the experts advising government on where to look for these ‘key players’ seem somewhat interrelated. Leading high-tech clusters are being identified but it is becoming ever more apparent that no two clusters are the same. This has left UK government with difficult discussions about where to invest and how to justify it. Societal impact is indeed a tough nut to crack. 

Having said this, there are processes, stories and ‘tricks’ that can be learnt from successful clusters. For example, the phenomenon of the ‘entrepreneurial academic’ has been a key driver in the Cambridge Cluster. This phenomenon has evolved over the last 40 years as serial entrepreneurs have learnt how to become more efficient, more commercially aware and better connected. Cambridge is now extremely well connected and it is these social interactions between the industry veteran, the second time entrepreneur and the fresh-faced university student that are so fundamentally important. As identified by academics charting Cambridge’s growth - social networking has been paramount to its development.  There is strong evidence of knowledge sharing across sub-sectors within the cluster, as in the case of Abcam (the Amazon for antibodies). Abcam learned some ‘tricks of the trade’ from companies outside of the biotech sector.  One might argue it is now essentially an online shopping site masquerading as a biotech company. Whilst I do not wish to get into a debate about the ‘credibility’ of academic research one thing seems clear - Cambridge ideas may change the world but it is the ‘market-pull’ of these ideas that generates wealth. 

So, could social networking be the secret ingredient for success? It is certainly true that knowledge sharing, knowledge spill-over and social networking has helped in some situations. That is not to say it is flawless, companies will always be wary about losing their IP, trade secrets and employees to the highest bidder. However, with the right policy measures and infrastructure in place, networking definitely helps more than it hinders. As the saying goes - it helps to talk. The beauty of the Cambridge Cluster, however, is that it is relatively compact (a radius of around 10 miles). Oxford, with its industrial development, is somewhat more spread out. This has created ‘barriers’ as travel times between ‘hubs’ of high-tech activity seem to be somewhat of an inconvenience. As a result the ‘coffee shop’ interactions between like-mined people are few and far between. The London high-tech economy again seems to be an entirely different situation to either Cambridge or Oxford… I look forward to learning more about it. Whilst connecting the dots physically with spatial development may not be achievable or particularly sustainable (however you define it), the improvement of infrastructure links (transport, broadband etc) between our existing high-tech clusters and the encouragement of social interactions between the ‘creative class’ could have great potential for growth. Where exactly this potential growth will occur and the extent to which it will reach the UK population as a whole, however, remains to be seen. 

Now I am by no means an expert on this stuff and I am really just testing the water but if anyone out there can offer any advice on what’s being done already, where to look and how to go about it I would really appreciate it. The sort of things I would like to look at are: 
  • The different environments of the three respective clusters (planning policies and restrictions, lifestyle – ref Florida, Blazer et al., transport links and connectivity, other infrastructure etc.)
  • Cluster maps (Cam Cluster, Tech City…. is there one for Oxford?)
  • The makeup of firms in each location by size (according to European Union criteria: employment, turnover and assets), sector and IP activity – the Oxford Firm Level Intellectual Property database seems like a good place to start (am I assuming IP activity is a definitive answer for ‘innovative activity’?)
   Equally, if I’m completely barking up the wrong tree do let me know.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Pussy Riot: Misguided Martyrs?

It could have been worse: Unsurprisingly, members of the all-female Russian punk band Pussy Riot were jailed this week to two years in custody, but the prosecution had been pushing for three. President Putin may be hoping that his statement in London that the three should not “be punished too harshly,” will be interpreted as benevolent intervention; in reality, the trial has only served to draw media attention back towards Russia’s increasingly autocratic and repressive political system. It is becoming increasingly apparent that free speech is not something that the Russian political elite are keen to hand out.

Across central Asia and the Indian sub-continent in Burma, a country that until recently matched the repression of Russia in its Soviet heyday, the military junta has astonishingly announced a lifting of the press censorship laws. Simultaneously, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has sought refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy out of fear of extradition to the US, for blowing open American secret diplomatic and military documents. Whatever you say about Assange, and the sex charges he faces in Sweden, the likelihood of him ever emerging from a US jail if he enters are slim. All in all, a big week for free speech; but did Pussy Riot’s protest have any positive effect?

As seems to be consistent with Putin’s approach to the rights of the individual in Russia, he did himself no favours with Pussy Riot. As The Economist has argued “the longer the members of Pussy Riot sat in pre-trial detention, the greater their profile—and their legend—grew at home and abroad.” Since successfully winning a rigged election, Putin (and his regime) have taken several steps against opposition groups, from a law introduced in June upping the fine for street protests to £12,000, to charges being levelled against opposition leader Alexei Navalny for embezzling a state timber company.

The Pussy Riot trial is certainly not an isolated incident therefore. What they have achieved, in quite dramatic fashion, is to bring a fresh dose of infamy to Putin’s regime within the international community. Everyone from Madonna to the Sex Pistols has been queuing up to support them. However such an outspoken international reaction may only play into the regime’s hands: Inconspicuous amongst the regime’s recent laws is one that forces all foreign NGOs in Russia to label themselves ‘foreign agents’; a move indicative of the Cold War ‘foreign conspiracy’ mentality used by the regime to justify its authoritarian existence. International support for the band will only add to this.

This is especially so when the group’s actions and the charges laid against them are considered: The group chose to stage their anti-Putin protest in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, and were found ‘guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.’ Though highly successful in shocking the regime and bringing a wave of international interest to Russia, the group has received relatively little domestic support. Although recent polling by the Levada Centre shows that many questioned the court’s objectivity and saw the hand of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin in the prosecution, fewer are ready to support Pussy Riot: 51% held negative or hostile views toward the group’s actions, another 20% were neutral or indifferent (The Economist). The most significant divide is generational; support for the band almost entirely resides with the country’s young – their actions may thus serve to galvanise elderly support for the regime.

Moreover Pussy Riot may have accentuated a trend already occurring under Putin; the collusion of the United Russia party and the Russian Orthodox Church. As The Observer has said, Putin and the Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill I, have “struck a deal”. Putin has returned state support to the church with aid for the restoration of churches destroyed by the communists, and the return of priests to schools and universities. Kirill returns the favour by “making support for the Kremlin kleptomaniacs a quasi-religious duty.”

Pussy Riot performed a valiantly defiant protest against the growing squeeze on civil liberties in Russia and will become martyrs for the cause; however the likelihood is that they have only given ammunition to the reactionary forces in power.

Friday, 3 August 2012

A beneficial friendship: Egyptian-US relations

Hilary Clinton’s visit to Cairo in mid July re-affirmed the United States’ support for a democratic Egypt. Clinton and President Morsi discussed, what she described as the “broad and enduring relationship” between the United States and Egypt, which has been mutually beneficial for both nations over the years. Egypt has, in recent history, been an ally of the US and has played an important role in protecting the US’ interests in the region. Clinton’s meeting with President Morsi covered a number of topics that are pivotal to the relationship between the two countries, including, democracy, stability and most importantly Israel. The uncertainty that arose from the toppling of Mubarak certainly would have worried US foreign policy makers. The aspects of the relationship have changed, the US is no longer dealing with an autocrat that can be controlled easily, but now they must deal with a democratically elected President who is charged with upholding the interests of the people he represents.

Many might take it for granted that maintaining a good relationship with the US is necessary, but in Egypt there are a number of reasons why the US might not be seen as a friend. The US has an image of being a meddler in Middle Eastern affairs, a view shared by many across the region. The strong and unwavering support for Israel serves to alienate much of the region’s population further, not to mention the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition to this the strong relationships with the corrupt and authoritarian regimes in the region puts the trust of the US at quite a low level in the Middle East. Why then, should Egypt maintain a relationship with the US if all they seem to do is cause trouble in the region? Why shouldn’t the Arab world return to fighting for the Palestinian homeland?

Money is the answer. Egypt is one of the largest beneficiaries of US spending, and much of this is reliant on the peace with Israel. Even if Egypt wanted to go to war with Israel they wouldn’t be able to afford it. Egypt’s domestic issues are desperately critical. Poverty is rampant throughout and the economy is in tatters. With many tourists being put off by the scenes of a violent revolution, one of Egypt’s biggest industries has been hit hard. It is clear that now, more than ever, that Egypt could benefit from some extra money in order to stabilise itself.  This was part of Clinton’s support package and it seems that Morsi has taken it and has since give assurance to his Israeli counterpart that he will work for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The US believe that with Egypt secured as an ally, the region is stable as far as Israel is concerned, apart from the game of nuclear cat and mouse with Iran. At this point the interdependency between Egypt and the US is just as it always has been: necessary. If Egyptians were hoping for change then it will not occur in foreign affairs. It seems that some things cannot be changed by a revolution.