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Alessandro Columbano

Alessandro Columbano, academic lead at STEAMhouse and senior lecturer at the Birmingham School of Architecture & Design, reflects on a recent news piece and shares what we can take from it as a region.

‘How Eindhoven Became Innovation City’ goes the title of the article in the Guardian.[1] With a population of just 227,000, it is dubbed as a progressive and active city by fostering a strategic partnership between business, government and knowledge institutions (or a triple-helix as they refer it as) to improve urban living conditions.

They are exploring and developing prototypes for a number of infrastructural systems like smart home districts, on-street monitoring to improve safety, street air filtration systems and 3D printed concrete houses. They all embrace advanced digital technology and data farming to achieve their outputs. Each project has at least two of the three partners from the triple helix approach. And they all help give the impression that the city is about innovation at an urban scale that affects civic society to an unprecedented level.

Keep reading on and it expands on the key ingredients that has helped Eindhoven position itself as a place where urban innovation can thrive: post-industrial land, having a strong manufacturing base, a strong identity to its manufacturing heritage, a prominent technical university, a multicultural population, cultural events that draws in thousands of people every year.[2] Looking at these characteristics, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for Birmingham, the city of a thousand trades… workshop to the world. Eindhoven even has its own motto derived from its industrial heritage with Phillips Lighting; Eindhoven, The City of Light.

But these slogans aren’t helpful or accurate to get a real picture of what is happening on the ground. There needs to be a more detailed and nuanced understanding of what makes the city tick, what can make it push for bold moves to move its civic society and infrastructure forward. As a post-industrial city, it needs to learn to be agile at the same time of utilising its manufacturing base. While this sector has reduced in real terms over the past few decades, it is still a growing industry in the region.[3]

Eindhoven cycle island

Learning from cities like Eindhoven is essential to consider new approaches to a sustainable city and ideas to innovate its manufacturing and enterprise sector. Since STEAMhouse opened this summer, there have been a number of projects, events, discussions and exchanges of ideas – stimulated by the STEAMhouse programme and workspace:

  • Diversity is a positive asset to harness, but needs to move beyond the idea that multiculturalism is attractive for tourism. The experiences, ideas, culture and ways of doing things from different communities help generate new technical and cultural achievements. We as a city need to give more access to a broader range of citizens and not just to students.
  • Major infrastructure (like HS2 and 5G network) needs to be presented to the city more than in just economic terms. How does it change our city? What opportunities can it bring? What do we need to invent to make it work well? How will it affect or improve our quality of life?
  • Funding for innovation, if from these triple helix partnership models, needs to be transferred into a separate trust or organisation. One that is liberated from the bureaucracy within institutions and authorities that inevitably slow progress.
  • Make knowledge public. See what happens when you get members of the community to exploreAlessandro networking at STEAMhouse really complex social or technical ideas. This is one of our key aims for STEAMhouse, a building that demonstrates how a university can engage audiences beyond its student community.
  • In areas where rapid deindustrialisation has occurred, regeneration tends to focus on cultural tourism or the installing new service industries. But to make cities truly liveable and attractive to live in, it needs to focus on the wellbeing of citizens and welfare.
  • Manufacturing is not a dirty word. The industrial manufacturing Birmingham is known for doesn’t need to be replaced – it needs to be transformed to be more relevant for the challenges for today (housing, wellbeing, recycling, transportation to name just a few). Urban Manufacturing is a way of doing this, BCU are leading on the UrbanM project which looks at collaborative making.
  • Post-industrial land and brownfield sites can be test beds for new modes of living, self-build techniques and to integrate sustainable systems to make the city greener and improve air quality.
  • Connect the canal networks and improve their landscape to be treated as one large park across the city. Some of these ideas are being explored to tie in with infrastructural projects already proposed.[4]

Cities like Eindhoven are seen as progressive because they’ve organised themselves into unusual partnerships to disrupt their standard way of doing things. The process of consultation is necessary on large projects, but mix these up with genuine participation from members of the community or those from other disciplines, and you can see the results in innovative approaches to how we can help regenerate the city.

STEAMhouse exteriorAnd we are not alone in Birmingham. Institutions, from Higher Education or otherwise, are increasingly playing major roles to regenerate its social, economic and civic infrastructure.[5]
Facilities like STEAMhouse help make it more visible to the wider general public as well as let them engage with the city in a more open and democratic approach.


Interested in contributing to developing our region including how it’s spaces get used and developed? Join like-minded people at our next STEAMlab.











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