A delegation from the Moravian-Silesian Innovation Centre in Ostrava – accompanied by representatives of local companies and institutions – travelled to the English city of Coventry in the run-up to Christmas on an inspirational fact-finding mission to learn more about how innovation policy works there. The mission included visits to Coventry University and a pioneering local technology centre.
The UK is often considered a model for the creation of innovation ecosystems. This is partly due to the national ‘Catapult’ programme which has supported the establishment of innovation centres throughout the country. These ‘catapult centres’ boost the local business environment and offer a platform for companies to collaborate with researchers in their region – and they have made an important contribution to the stability of Britain’s economy.
The Manufacturing Technology Centre
The MSIC’s first stop on its tour was the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), located on a newly built industrial zone just outside Coventry. The MTC is an independent research and technology centre that was founded in 2010 with the aim of bridging the gap between industry and the academic sphere. The buildings are strikingly modern in their style, and the project as a whole has cost an estimated 40 million GBP. Security throughout the complex is provided by a sophisticated scanning system which takes visitors’ fingerprints and creates a visitor card (with a current photograph) for each person. Our guide was Harald Egner, who has a wealth of experience from the renowned Fraunhofer Society in Germany. He outlined the centre’s history and emphasized the key role played by major companies (such as Rolls-Royce and Airbus) which contribute substantial financial support to the centre.
We also viewed the various types of equipment and technologies at the centre. The MTC views aviation as a major potential area for future technological developments, and it is increasingly focusing on this key industry. Currently it offers state-of-the-art laser technologies, 3D printers, robots and cobots – all of which are used exclusively for commercial contracts and research purposes. Most of the MTC’s employees are not on full-time contracts; their workload fluctuates due to flexible demand.
The MTC is also well aware of the importance of training young people in various fields of technology. It offers training programmes targeted at secondary schools, in which students can learn practical skills using selected equipment and technologies. The training programmes include a strong competitive element which helps motivate the participants; the most proficient students can win grants to attend prestigious UK universities, as well as guaranteed employment at the centre.
Inspiration from Coventry University
The next stop on our tour was Coventry University – specifically its innovation centre. It is common practice in the UK for universities to have their own in-house innovation centres. This setup offers numerous advantages – primarily the availability of leading experts in a range of fields, which means that R&D-based projects can be implemented with maximum efficiency. One inspiration here for the Czech Republic is the large number of spin-off companies which have emerged from Coventry University’s innovation centre – several of which have achieved international success. It was interesting to discover that the centre’s business support programmes are very similar to the programmes run by the MSIC, with the aim of creating an effective and easily accessible business environment throughout the region.
An example of collaboration between the innovation centre and industry
We saw how the innovation centre’s programmes work in practice during a visit to RDM Group, which develops self-driving vehicles. The company is a long-term collaborator with the innovation centre and has benefited greatly from its programmes. The newly developed vehicles are currently being tested, and should be ready within several months. Unlike American autonomous vehicles, which use GPS systems matched with road scanning, RDM’s vehicles work by uploading a map directly into the vehicle’s software. The RDM products are not designed for normal road use, but they are ideal for use in parks, shopping malls, at major sporting events and for similar applications. We had the opportunity to test one of the vehicles – a memorable experience for all.
Coventry – smart city of the future
Smart cities are one of the hottest current trends in the UK. Coventry is set to become a model smart city, supported by a number of projects which have been up and running for several years. One example is an unmarked road junction where drivers have to slow down and agree with other drivers (by means of eye contact and gestures) which vehicle has right of way. Another smart project navigates drivers to available parking spaces; most of the spaces are chipped so registered drivers do not have to look for a ticket machine in order to pay. Coventry’s citizens get to vote on all the smart projects, and the involvement and enthusiasm of the local community has been huge. In the future, the city centre will develop into an all-pedestrian zone (with self-driving vehicles also operating there). Coventry is investing considerable sums of money in digitalization projects, and the city is confident that the future return on this investment will be substantial.
Ostrava and Coventry have much in common. Both are industrial cities which have undergone major restructuring, and both are bouncing back successfully from the decline of their traditional industrial base. Coventry’s example shows that modern technologies – combined with close cooperation among cities, regions, universities and industry – can help to create cities of the future that can act as beacons for the entire country. We look forward to developing the same model here in Coventry’s partner city – Ostrava.