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A brief history of science parks

David Gregory | 17:07 UK time, Wednesday, 21 November 2012

This week is the 30th anniversary of Birmingham (formerly Aston) Science Park. So since the raison d'etre of this blog is "science is the answer" can science tell us if science parks are actually a good idea or not?

They've certainly proved popular. Aston was only the third science park in this country but in the three decades that followed they've spread right across the Midlands.

Like all ideas they've fallen out of favour and then made a comeback. In China, India and Singapore they are now seen as essential to progress.

But do the actually work? Especially as many are directly or indirectly funded by us.

I spent an enjoyable time talking to Shirley Hamilton of Techniplant. They were one of the earliest companies to set up on Birmingham Science Park. With support and help they've gone from little more than two people and a desk to a thriving company that's still looking to expand. There's no doubt too that the high-tech processes they create have been very beneficial to Midlands manufacturing as a whole. There are plenty of other similar success stories from science parks all over the region too.

In the 80s it was hoped a science park in a city like Birmingham could bring forward a who new sector of industry to replace declining manufacturing. But that didn't happen. So just what impact have our science parks actually had in the wider economy?

Well actually it's hard to say because there's not a lot of data about although I'd hesitate to suggest that's because Universities don't want to do the research because they're worried what they will discover about the science park that bears their name.

It is slightly easier to find those who criticise the whole concept though. Prof Stuart Macdonald of Aalto University in Helsinki was happy to chat with me over the internet. In the past he's studied Aston and Warwick business parks. He says the highest priority of companies isn't access to academics or the latest research, it's good parking.

Prof Macdonald also says people fixate on the wrong things when it comes to the science park concept. He says the aim for many is to replicate the success of places like Silicon Valley in California but that people grab on to all sorts of odd ideas about what that might involve. Including he says usually having an "inspirational" duck pond on the park. In fact you can trace the duck pond from Silicon Valley to Warwick to brand new parks in Shanghai.

Sadly that's about the most concrete piece of evidence I've really been able to find about the wider impact of these parks. For Birmingham Science Park they can point to the creation of 130 jobs and sixty new companies in the last three years alone and a new £35 million expansion coming soon. But might that have happened on an ordinary industrial estate? Providing there was plenty of parking it's certainly possible. Duck pond or no duck pond.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Business parks and industrial estates are ideal locations for many businesses, but they do not have the incubation facilities that are typical of the most progressive science parks and innovation centres.
    Birmingham Science Park’s Entrepreneurs for the Future tech incubation centre is one of the most active in the country. It provides ambitious local entrepreneurs with a varied programme of mentoring, support to fine-tune their business plan, a wide range of networking events, and crucially, access to sources of finance and angel investors.
    For eligible start-ups, we are able to offer a free six month package of office space, broadband, telecoms, IT support - plus all of the business support activities - which is worth £10,000. This is made possible due to ERDF European funding; although the Science Park is owned by Birmingham City Council, it does not receive finance or grants from the Council.
    Well over 60 start-ups have launched their business at Birmingham Science Park over the past three years, creating 128 new high value jobs and directorships in the process. The initial investment into a number of the young companies now totals over £2 million. This is what science parks are about; boosting the local economy by nurturing dynamic and sustainable companies.
    In addition, we can point to many successful initiatives that we run with local universities. The BSEEN (Birmingham Skills for Enterprise and Employability Network) programme is delivered by Aston University, Birmingham City University and the University of Birmingham, and the Aston University element is located here at the Science Park. It enables entrepreneurial graduates to access a programme of early enterprise support that can then lead onto next stage incubation through our Entrepreneurs for the Future centre. This importantly gives graduates access to all of the formal and informal networking opportunities available at the Park.
    Birmingham Science Park also works closely with Aston Business School, the local universities Entrepreneurs Societies and the computer science and digital gaming course directors and students at Aston and Birmingham City University respectively. In addition we do a lot of work with schools, colleagues and academies, which all add to the vibrancy of our fantastic tech community.

 

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