19 April, 2011 - 08:42 By Tony Quested

Following the food chain

Forget the Columbus myth. The humans who first populated the Americas – the forebears of the native Indian peoples – had taken part in a migration of epic proportions from Eurasia via Beringia, a land bridge which formerly connected the two continents across what is now the Bering Strait.

Falling sea levels created the Bering land bridge that joined Siberia to Alaska for an exodus which began about 60,000-25,000 years ago. Early Paleoamericans marched thousands of miles across the ice from Asia and soon spread throughout the Americas, diversifying into many hundreds of culturally distinct nations and tribes.

They were following the food chain – mainly mastodon – which were following their own food chain. The paradigm for human diaspora has barely altered in those many thousands of years although these days people tend to follow Mammon rather than mammoths, however woolly the proposition being trailed: Jobs – especially well paid jobs; good housing and standards of living are now the prey.

The supply and availability of steady jobs, decent housing and good standards of living are themselves dependent upon clusters of industry and technology. In former times in England, as the industrial revolution rolled inexorably across the land, the work was to be found variously in agriculture, maritime pursuits, the textile mills, the mines – tin, copper and coal – as well as spin-out cottage industries.

Copper in Cornwall, coal in Yorkshire and Nottingham, textiles in Lancashire and Suffolk, wool in Leicestershire, shoes in Northampton and so on. One by one the sources of home-grown wealth have vanished and along with them the industries they created – crippled either by exhaustion of raw materials or the ability to more cheaply manufacture products in other countries, a trend accelerated and facilitated by ease of modern-day freight transportation and travel.

As the balance of industrial power has changed, so the drivers of employment in England have altered. Brain has replaced brawn in the equation. Innovation and inspiration rule where once production and perspiration prevailed. Universities now provide the fountainhead from which spring the new wealth and job-creating technology clusters. They also provide generations of labour for the clusters they inspire. While they attract global talent, in the form of students and Dons, the territory in which they are rooted retain the lion’s share of the benefits.

These seats of research also act as magnets for international trade as global industrial and technology giants seek to leverage what remain unique sources of innovation that are relatively cheap to harness.Just as natural resources once dictated which regions of England were poor and which were wealthy, so hotspots of education and technology create the modern-day diasporas that are informed by where people CHOOSE to live and work.

Freedom of choice is easier for a generation benefiting from better health, plentiful travel options and the availability, through lines of credit, of available capital. And in a knowledge-based nation, the internet and other forms of instantaneous media now allow people to benchmark their own lot against the relative fortunes of others in different parts of the country – indeed the world – a comparator denied to those living through the first industrial revolution. People living on the seashores of Kent might have loved to share the spoils of the copper mine owners of Cornwall – had someone floated a message in a bottle around the coastline to make them aware of this east-west divide.

Similarly, there are no records to suggest that Bournemouth made much of a gain when coal was being hoiked by the cart load out of Sheffield and Rotherham pits at their productive pinnacle. Regardless of the march of time, it seems the haves and have-nots, in terms of regions, continue to be fashioned by market forces rather than points of a compass. All of which historical and anthropological fact makes it even more odd that the Coalition Government’s stated reason for scrapping Regional Development Agencies, such as EEDA, was that: “Despite collectively spending £17 billion since RDAs were formed in 1999, the gap between the greater South East and the rest of the English regions has widened.”

Ignoring the obvious, that regional development agencies will focus on developing their own regions, who would seriously believe that denying funding support to intellectually or materially rich areas would automatically bring success to those regions that are intellectually or materially poor? Certainly not anyone who has run an internationally successful, sustainable business or absorbed and understood the strategies of one.

Globally successful clusters that generate jobs and wealth form around intellectually successful seats of learning that attract funding and research alliances from global corporate heavyweights.

The East of England has seven such world-leading universities with Cambridge the world number 2 – second only to Harvard. Such naturally evolving circumstances such as exist in the region cannot be synthetically replicated in what is regarded a deprived area in another part of the country.
The early Asians marching from Siberia to what we now know as North America would have found some innovative applications for their rudimentary weapons had they been urged to stop following the mastodons and head for another part of uncharted globe that offered an exclusive diet of insects and ice cubes: “Just so you don’t create a geographical divide, can you guys spread out across the planet please?”

Which brings us onto the other indisputable truism of international business today that the Coalition’s policy on business sadly takes no account of: Supply and demand. The driving force is this: X runs a multi-billion dollar conglomerate that could go to the wall or fail to exploit a lucrative opportunity unless he finds Y product. X doesn’t care whether the company that has the solution is in Bangalore or Badger’s Mount – they just want the product. The cost of shipment is chicken feed compared to the potential fall-out if they don’t get their hands on it. Geography is totally irrelevant; it’s an intellectual property play. Which, via an inviolate and virtuous circle, brings us back to where we started – market forces. 

Private enterprise will decide where it cares to trade and with whom.

When Microsoft decided in 1997 to create its first research laboratory away from its Seattle mothership it chose Cambridge because Bill Gates wanted to leverage the brainpower of Cambridge University. Microsoft then used the success of the Cambridge model to open in China and India. When global healthcare giant Genzyme broke the American mould and went for a manufacturing operation separate to a research hub but in the same region – to put a development kick into its R & D play – it chose Haverhill in Suffolk to manufacture a blockbuster drug and Cambridge Science Park as a research hothouse.

And when Pfizer decided to shut down R & D sites all over the world, it chose in parallel to inject $65 million into a regenerative medicine base between Cambridge and Essex to leverage the East of England’s world lead in stem cell and genetic science. It is now setting up a new unit in Cambridge. World leading Chinese medical universities in Taiwan and Hong Kong want Cambridge to establish a centre for Traditional Chinese Medicine. Japanese companies have chosen the region for major healthcare and games industry plays.

European energy giants have headed to Norfolk and Suffolk to exploit world-leading opportunities in new sources of renewable energy. Right across the East of England map – in Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire, in Bedfordshire and Essex, in Norfolk and Suffolk, you can name an industry and match it with an overseas giant that identified the region as a springboard to inter-continental growth. It is no-one’s fault that the East of England is in such global demand; it is not unfair; it’s a fact of life. So who would want to risk destroying such a model? Well, if the financial cap fits!

The Coalition has replaced RDAs with Local Enterprise Partnerships, starved of cash, vision and va va vroom.

Even start-ups with a given technology only have a tiny window of opportunity in which to raise cash fast and project their technology to global customers; more substantial players exist by having a widespread and global customer base. The vast majority of internationally successful businesses in the UK have achieved what they have by targeting products for which there is a proven market to customers who want to buy them. They validate or vanish.
They haven’t lent on a local Training and Enterprise Council, local authority or even – excellent as they are for some purposes – their chamber of commerce. And, by and large, they don’t want to know LEPs. It’s a flawed concept, cobbled together with insufficient dialogue with successful entrepreneurs.

Effectively, what the new Government has spawned will be not Special Interest Groups but Self Interest Groups.
The only saving grace is that, although the new Government hasn’t a clue what jewels it holds in the East of England crown and how best to realise the value of them, global commercial giants well appreciate that they hold shares in a bottomless mine crammed with assets.
They are more than happy to sift between the gold and the diamonds – it has to be hoped they don’t leave the natives with nothing but dross.

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