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Entrepreneurial Britain: Can entrepreneurial clusters in towns and cities invigorate the UK economy?

A new initiative called Entrepreneurial Britain is supporting entrepreneurial culture in towns and cities across the UK; its purpose: to help invigorate the UK economy.

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Entrepreneurial Britain: Can entrepreneurial clusters in towns and cities invigorate the UK economy?

A new initiative called Entrepreneurial Britain is supporting entrepreneurial culture in towns and cities across the UK; its purpose: to help invigorate the UK economy.

The opportunity is simple to define: entrepreneurial towns and cities could transform the UK economy. Achieving it is another matter, but Entrepreneurial Britain seeks to help realise this opportunity by highlighting the importance of entrepreneurship in towns and cities across the UK.

But before we go any further, it is worth asking why and how? How do entrepreneurial clusters emerge? How do they develop? And why are they important?

Why clusters? How do entrepreneurial towns and cities begin?

Sometimes the answer lies with history. It seems London emerged as the World's number one financial hub, leaving Paris behind, around 1848 after a financial hit suffered by France when it lost a war against Prussia. But it became a globally important financial centre long before that.

Sometimes the initial spark that creates an entrepreneurial hub can be formed by random circumstance — like in the tale of two cafes. They are next door to each other and are identical. A passing couple flip a coin to see which cafe they will stop at. Another passing couple note one cafe is empty another has two people in it, so they select the one that already has customers. In this way, one cafe can become brimming with life, the other deserted.

In this way, success can be self-fulfilling. Maybe it is like that with entrepreneurial clusters too. One town has an entrepreneurial ecosystem which acts as a magnet, pulling in more entrepreneurs and startups, making the ecosystem an even more potent draw to new businesses.

But maybe the forces of randomness are given a helping hand. If it wasn't for Stanford University, Silicon Valley might simply be known as the Santa Clara Valley, an obscure area in California known only by locals. Frederick Terman is often known as the Father of Silicon Valley. Back in the 1920s, he was a member of the university's engineering faculty, when he helped establish a local vacuum tube laboratory and encouraged students to stay in the Valley after completing their studies, setting up businesses, which he sometimes invested in. William Hewlett and David Packard, who founded Hewlett Packard were among his students.

Or returning to London, why did an entrepreneurial cluster form around Shoreditch and the Old Street Roundabout, now known as Silicon Roundabout? It seems there is more than one reason; but it is probably no coincidence that just a few yards from Silicon Roundabout is the Bunhill Fields, burial ground, where among others, John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim's Progress, Daniel Defoe author of Robinson Crusoe and the poet William Blake are all buried. The region has long been a centre for radical and free thinkers, its emergence as a centre for tech wizardry seems to have built on legacy going back centuries.

Whatever the reason for an entrepreneurial cluster's origin; once it begins it as if the entrepreneurial zeal takes on a life of its own.

Covid entrepreneurial clusters and entrepreneurial towns and cities:

Maybe Covid is one of those moments — a moment akin to 1848 for the city of London, or Frederick Terman beginning his academic career at Stanford.

Covid is accelerating a move towards digital and remote working. But when the dust has fallen, and the virus itself is relegated to history books, what then?

What's seems likely is that we will see a kind of evolution of remote working. When it works it will continue, when it doesn't, people will return to offices.

But Francesca James, CEO of the Great British Entrepreneurial Awards, (GBEA) the company behind the Entrepreneurial Britain initiative, reckons we will see a compromise. "People enjoy the flexibility of home working," she says, but "miss the structure and more definitive lines between work and home."

Entrepreneurs often say that they get inspiration from their peers — this partly explains the rise of co-working centres; the most famous of which is WeWork. Like-minded people working near each other, often on entirely different projects, can seek solace in each other's company. Creativity often needs the right environment. Some people find that the creative juices simply don't flow when they are working from home, but that when they work alongside fellow entrepreneurs their appetite for success and drive to create and perfect their ideas becomes ravenous.

In such co-working centres, support groups, and support services emerge. Finance is attracted, experts circulate, advice flows, and mentors gravitate.

Francesca believes that we are approaching a point when business centres will increasingly be local to where people live.

She speculates that a local supermarket, disrupted by online shopping, might become a co-working centre.

If Covid is hastening the demise of the high street as a shopping centre, then what might fill the void? If the answer to that is entrepreneurial ecosystems, then actually new life and endeavour might be injected into the local town centre.

The same might apply to out of town shopping centres — as they close what will fill their place? Will co-working move in as out of town shopping moves out?

It's a bold vision, but one that could be of enormous value if it is realised.

According to research from ATOS, the UK economy could receive a £34 billion boost by 2030 a year "if the local economies of towns and cities were to realise their full entrepreneurial potential."

The Answer

ATOS sees the partial solution in supporting creating enterprise zones.

Francesca James says she wants to shine "the spotlight on towns and cities outside of the capital, as well as London, where there are brilliant programmes of activity and amazing people doing brilliant things."

But she warns that unless you are embedded in the local entrepreneurial ecosystem system, you might not be aware of the support services that exist.

Entrepreneurial Britain itself will consist of an annual awards ceremony sandwiched between two days of a conference.

In one respect, it will be a bit like the Eurovision Song Contest — the host city each year will be the winner from the year before.

"There is no secret sauce to creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem," she says, "but identifying those traits that make that area entrepreneurial, then working out the road map and process and the key people and organisations in towns and cities will be vital.

"We believe they we can open the door to economic growth and take a town, city or region from surviving to thriving."

The award ceremony and conference will, among other things, look at:

  • local enterprise partnerships, 
  • enterprise zones, 
  • science parks, 
  • business services within a university,
  • accelerators and incubators, 
  • smart city status, 
  • availability of local funding, including local government grants available and local business angel networks.

GBEA itself was founded in 2012. "We have a rich history in celebrating entrepreneurs," says Francesca. "Three years ago, we took GBEA into the regions and the more we met entrepreneurs in their towns and cities the more it opened our eyes on the potential. We began to understand the need to encourage, champion and support entrepreneurial towns and cities in trying to realise the potential of entrepreneurial Great Britain."

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