For the first time in the new year – but not for the first time in his premiership – Rishi Sunak delivered a speech against a challenging economic backdrop this week.
Growth – and the best way to achieve it – continues to percolate in political and public discourse, with fears of a global recession, mounting social challenges and economic turmoil front of mind for many businesses across the capital and the UK.
It was against this backdrop that we welcomed both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition to the Here East campus and its innovation centre, Plexal at the heart of East London to deliver their priorities for the year ahead. As the Labour leader pointed out, both statesmen chose to deliver their New Year’s speech a mere 40 metres away from one another.
Both parties were aligned on more than just their choice of venue. Innovation was evidently the north star of both governments’ agendas. The prime minister went as far to say that we need to put innovation at “the heart of everything we do” – which undoubtedly resonated with those in the room. Starmer’s policy commitments to clean energy – and his future facing rhetoric – all point towards a similar theme.
This is innovation beyond the traditional sense – not just about gadgets and the next piece of tech kit, but creating the conditions for growing businesses to scale and thrive. It’s about using innovative thinking to tackle some of our most pressing global challenges, and commandeering a culture of creativity to generate growth.
Innovation, when used to its full potential, has knock-on effects for our productivity, our jobs and our wages. It is no surprise that both government and opposition want to capitalise on its benefits.
Take the current healthcare crisis. It presents an opportunity for start-ups to create a lane for themselves by providing the most effective technology-driven solutions, making a positive impact.
The UK has developed an impressive healthtech sector, and examples of innovation like robotic surgery and remote diagnosis are ready to be deployed and can make a real difference in healthcare. This is an obvious area where new approaches are needed, and we know our NHS is in urgent need of reform. But it goes beyond that.
It’s important we stop thinking of innovation as an abstract, nebulous concept, but rather as tangible, world-ready solutions that are being developed all over the country.
And we have proof that it works. In fact, we see it everyday at Here East and Plexal.
Here East was borne out of the bid to transform the former Press and Broadcast centre in the Olympic Park – a vast piece of infrastructure – into a home for global technology companies, start-ups, academic institutions and creative businesses. Our ambition was to create an environment where an exciting network of businesses could work, share ideas and collaborate with each other as they grew and flourished.
Over 10 years on since winning the bid for the site, there are now over 5,400 people – 3,800 who work for businesses on site and 1,600 who study. We have global institutions such as the V&A, UCL and Loughborough University London. Businesses like Ford, Sports Interactive, Esports Engine and MatchesFashion have all joined us on our journey, making the campus what it is today.
By creating an ecosystem where businesses were given the licence to collaborate and grow together, and cross paths with new businesses or disruptors, we knew we could create something special for London.
And we did just that. Data from Oxford Economics from last year showed that activity at Here East supported close to 10,300 jobs across the UK, sustaining £317m in wages and contributing £700m in GVA towards GDP. Businesses based on campus cited the collaborative environment as a major boost to their ability to grow their employee base, increase their revenue and expand their offering.
This is a compelling and powerful legacy – and it proves that innovation and collaboration are not simply buzzwords, but elements at the heart of delivering real and sustained societal change that can transform local areas, cities and the nation as a whole.
Building an economy on the principles of innovation works. It might be a microcosm, but we can learn a lot from bringing together the best and brightest businesses, and observing closely how this translates into economic growth. It’s good to see that both political sides have realised it’s time to unleash innovation on the nation.