Creating the ‘Silicon Don Valley’ dream – in South Yorkshire

American business guru Bruce Katz visited the Advanced Manufacturing Park to give a speech on innovation districts to business people.
American business guru Bruce Katz visited the Advanced Manufacturing Park to give a speech on innovation districts to business people.
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Standing on the site of Catcliffe’s advanced manufacturing research centre, it is hard to imagine it was ever a busy opencast mine.

Previously Orgreave Colliery, it has always been home to industry, although today it is innovative technologies such as 3D printing and waterless washing machines rather than coal.

Now there is a new vision for the sprawling mass of land, which has become an acclaimed Sheffield University site, to be the country’s first ‘innovation district’.

It sounds complex – and it can be – but what it will hopefully mean in the long run is more housing, jobs and businesses for the Sheffield and Rotherham region.

The aim is to make it a hub where people want to live, work and socialise, rather than a corporate campus only accessible by car, for business purposes.

This means creating public squares where people can gather to share ideas as well as walker-friendly transport systems, make it accessible to cyclists and create amenities such as homes to make it a ‘next generation Silicon Valley’.

It is a far cry from the current development, which has plenty of offices and a wind turbine but not a coffee shop in sight – although a pub did recently open to serve a progressing housing development.

Business Iceotope, which creates cutting edge liquid cooling technology, was one of the first businesses to move in to the wider advanced manufacturing park in 2007.

It has had to recruit staff from across the country and bosses hope creating the innovation district would help to keep talented graduates in the region – rather than them moving elsewhere to seek work.

Founder Peter Hopton, himself a Sheffield University graduate, joked: “It could certainly be the Silicon Don Valley!

“There are very talented graduates who leave university and work in call centres because they don’t want to leave Sheffield – I hope an innovation district would work closely with graduates.”

The innovation district concept was launched as US cities expert Bruce Katz – a former adviser to President Obama – visited Sheffield to launch the council’s first international economic strategy.

His visit was seen as a major coup for the city and came after he met Coun Leigh Bramall at a conference in Cannes.

He was keenly interested in the advanced manufacturing park and focused on that as the first delegate to visit as part of the strategy.

Mr Katz said a lack of skilled workers was the ‘biggest impediment’ to growth in the US and innovation districts were a solution.

A new district in Boston has created 4,000 jobs in a ‘relatively short’ space of time.

He said: “That’s happened because companies want to have access to an area that’s very close the downtown of Boston but also a hothouse of ideas and entrepreneurs, so each individual company can grow and be part of a broader network. So job growth can be quite substantial relatively quickly.”

Mr Katz, who was making his third visit to Sheffield and led a packed lecture with the university at Sheffield Cathedral, said he had seen progress.

“I’ve seen a lot of renewal in Sheffield from the last time I was here, so the whole change in the public realm from the transit station up to the town hall is just wonderful.

“But I think why I came was to see the AMP and this is really quite remarkable.

“The collection of companies and researchers and entrepreneurs in a relatively small geography, all around advanced manufacturing, so this is a model we are keenly interested in the United States.

“Innovation districts supercharge innovation because they enable companies to have greater proximity and density to other companies, researchers and universities or amenities.

“They also help move along unskilled workers into many of this advanced manufacturing firms through apprenticeships and a focus on skilling that we have seen here.”

In the lecture, internet giant Google was said to have encouraged workers to move across America as there was affordable housing at a new innovation district.

Near the centre at Catcliffe, work has already begun on creating 4,000 new houses.

Paul Woodcock, director of planning and regeneration at Rotherham Council, said: “What the experts are saying is that we have got something really special here and we don’t shout about it enough – that’s a very British thing but we are worse here than other cities.

“The AMP is just one part of the project, there are 4,000 houses that are already on site and being built and we’ve been working on that to make that happen.”

There are now assessments and studies to be done on deciding what the district needs to flourish, with both Rotherham and Sheffield Council chiefs pledging to work together.

One big element is transport – with hopes of the Rotherham tram train link possibly passing through.

Currently just one bus serves the AMP and improving that situation is also expected to be a focus.

The big question will hang over funding, with the scheme likely to cost tens of millions of pounds, and local authorities already struggling with Government cuts.

It is likely to be paid through a variety of private, public – including university – and Government cash.

Coun Leigh Bramall, cabinet member for business at Sheffield Council, told the launch: “Ultimately if we need to we will go to Government and say we need this because it is not just in the region’s interest, it is in UK Plc’s interest.”

n South Yorkshire isn’t often compared with California.

But Fremont, Alameda County, and the AMP, Catcliffe, were mentioned in the same sentence as the only two places in the world with the same focus on advanced manufacturing.

Kelly Kline, economic development director in the city of Fremont, said the US counterpart had also suffered major job losses after the closure of an autoplant

She said: “But Fremont is back, the resurgence is noticeable. It’s fun to compare and contrast some of the similarities and differences but I think these are the only two areas in the world that are this far along in understanding the importance in what they have got.”