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How do UK 'Science Cities' compete globally?

Pictured: Heather Fearfield (facilitating) with Dr Bruno Holthof (Oxford University Hospitals) and Bernie Foulkes (LDA Design)

What do we have to do to compete globally with science discovery and university-hospital powerhouses?

This is a question when one looks for instance at the Life Sciences Corridor in the Greater Boston Area (home to over 730 science companies and employing close to three quarters of a million people) and the best of Chinese research cities?

Our final panel of our Cambridge forum tackled this issue, drawing on both built projects and plans in the making across Oxford, Birmingham and Cambridge.

The Chief Executive of the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Bruno Holthof who is currently developing a masterplan with Oxford City Council for a new a science and innovation park in Headington, Oxford was an important contributor to our event and said:

'Professor Sir John Bell, who recruited me in 2015, said Cambridge is far ahead of Oxford and we want to catch up. I am proud to say we have been working closely with Oxford Health - the mental health trust - Oxford Brookes as well as big landowners like Christchurch and Magdalen colleges - on developing a plan for how we develop brownfield sites within the ring road and quite close to the city centre.

'Our challenges are similar to Cambridge - it's difficult to recruit and retain nurses, catering and cleaning staff given the cost of housing and the lack of space. There is a clear vision for the master-plan now that the different stake-holders are coming together. As a hospital trust we are cash-poor but we have lots of land assets, like Addenbrooke's. The Headington sites do not feel like a proper science park, but far more like a parking lot. The are many old buildings, not fit for purpose.

'We are competing not with Cambridge but globally, with the Boston area hospitals and universities and with China. Happily two weeks ago the city council approved housing for 250 units on one of our sites, which will help hugely with staff affordability and mobility. Like Cambridge, too many have to travel for 60 minutes plus to get to work. Our focus is now on a masterplan to drive quality of building and place for research, innovation and wealth creation. We want to make sure that Headington has a contiguous life sciences campus, not a disjointed and dispersed one, so that the Old Road, Warneford and Churchill sites can connect with the Oxford Science Park in Cowley.'

Master-planner and urban designer, Bernie Foulkes, Director at LDA Design, commented on how important it is for research parks, universities and hospital campuses to look outward and not inwards:

'Sometimes big institutions forget their responsibility, as they are creating a piece of city. We are essentially talking about people and place. When we talk about the importance of 'sticky' places we mean places where people can meet and these are the places of exchange and ideas. I rarely see in the design brief a focus on making the spaces in between just as important as the buildings them-selves.

'The master-plan we have worked on for UCL on the Olympic Park is interesting because the university is determined to engage - across a new East London campus - with the quite deprived communities that surround the area, and to make its work accessible. We created something called the 'fluid zone' at ground floor level - making it a destination, rather than keeping people out. It's worth noting that fifty per cent of King's Cross is public space, and that a lot of successful districts have this balance. You also need places of tranquility and reflection.The vision for how you create new innovation buildings and centres is so important, because you are essentially making a piece of city.'

While UK cities have to compete globally for talent, they continue to attract international investment, especially where there is an overlap beween real estate and life sciences innovation. Partner in the Cambridge office of law fiirm Mills and Reeve, Nick Finlayson-Brown remarked:

'The Belt and Road Initiative and restrictions imposed by the Chinese government on speculative overseas investment in volatile assets (such as real estate) has resulted in far more nuanced investment strategy by Chinese investors. The private investor has been largely replaced by state owned enterprise investment in buoyant sectors such as technology and life-sciences. No more clearly is this illustrated than in Cambridge and the wider “Golden Triangle” with the convergence and cross-fertilisation of the academia, health, and technology sectors into life sciences, med-tech, AI and machine learning.

'TUS Park’s collaboration with Trinity College to redevelop part of the Cambridge Science Park with incubator facilities in a deal reportedly worth £200 million is tangible evidence. However, the traffic is two-way and we are seeing more clients having the confidence to take their business into the Chinese market. We expect the importance of China to the Cambridge, Oxford and wider UK economies only to increase in the years to come.'

On connecting to other cities, Innovation Birmingham's Chief Executive Dr David Hardman, said:

'Innovation districts in cities will be a significant way of driving the future economy but the UK needs to look at connectivity over bigger distances. HS2 will link the Kings Cross knowledge quarter to Birmingham's tech and creative districts but the danger is that this midlands city will become a dormitory for London. I don't want to knock the potential of the Oxford to Cambridge Arc but there is a bigger opportunity for linking Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and Liverpool. That would really start to change the economies of those cities.

The 'bump-ability factor' and multi-disciplinary nature of the Cambridge Biomedical Campus was cited by Astra Zeneca's, Head of Corporate Affairs, Dr Sabine Jaccaud, as catalysts for the organisation's move from the North West to an altogether different type of environment. Bruno Holthof agreed that this was an aim for the new Headington research campus in Oxford:

'We are making a conscious decision to build smaller communities that can interact well on our new campus, connected to green spaces. When Sir Peter J Ratcliffe won the Nobel Prize for Medicine recently he cited the community and café space at the MRC Weatherall Institute as being of great aid to communication and sharing of ideas so we will try to emulate that. We are inviting industry to the spaces operated by the Trust and the University, and we are trying to break down barriers between the NHS, industry and academics.'

Join us at our Oxford 'Science Cities' conference at the HB Allen Centre, Keble College, Oxford University in April, when we will return to these important conversations.

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