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In order for innovation to be successful, it needs to be a collaborative, open process where the tools are available to everyone. Joanna Birch – Director of Innovation, Enterprise and Employability at Birmingham City University – explains how the University is taking steps to make this happen.  

Pictured: Joanna Birch – Director of Innovation, Enterprise and Employability at Birmingham City University



Developing innovations in a timely, affordable way  


The Government’s UK Innovation Strategy outlined the need to nurture interactions between universities and business, as well as knowledge sharing, in order to drive innovation in business 


However, too few businesses currently excel in adopting existing innovations. Regionally, businesses in the West Midlands have historically lagged behind the best performing English regions. 


There is evidence to suggest that smaller businesses struggle to invest in innovation, something many institutions are trying to address.  


I believe innovation is about creating a viable new offering. As such, anyone can innovate. The key is to understand some of the key skills, to ensure that the new offering is developed in a timely, affordable way to a market that will appreciate it.  


The challenge offers a number of questions, namely: 


  • How do you support an individual in having the confidence to innovate? 
  • How do you guide them in that process so that they can go from idea to market quickly enough to make it financially viable?  
  • How do you do both of these things while the individual is focusing on the day-to-day running of their business?  


At BCU, we are very passionate about helping with this, working with partners and making it feel more accessible.  


Collaborative innovation is key  


At the recent UKSPA conference, I spoke about the importance of collaborative innovation in an increasingly complex, challenging world. 


Innovation is often defined as a process of identifying problems that matter and systematically working out unique solutions to solve them.  


Increasingly, the problems to solve are getting more complicated, requiring multiple disciplines, insights and solutions.  


I was exploring how key principles of collaboration conversation, experimentation and openness are central to a new innovation approach, in order to address problems with increased creativity, engagement and interaction.  


At BCU, our STEAM-based innovation looks to see how we can create spaces to support radical openness. This goes beyond an organisation, discipline or hierarchy to recognise the potential of everybody in the room, defining new ways to move forward.  


At the conference, I explained that radical openness, when supported and encouraged, can realise some very interesting results that open up new opportunities and cement different ways of working.   


I also highlighted that to be truly successful that ecosystem has to transcend individual organisations to work seamlessly for the benefit of the businesses, individual and organisations that engage.   


Transforming lives through collaborative practice  


STEAMhouse, our centre for collaborative innovation, has taken eight years to develop.  


We have had to establish not just the building, but also understand the innovation techniques, skills and learning approaches that will materially support individuals (whether they be students, academics, practitioners or a business).  


As a practice-based, creatively inspired institution, we wanted to ensure that we created a concept which supported our mission to transform lives and played on our rich heritage of arts and creativity, as well as our well-established practice in STEM.  


Central to all of this was the use of our principles of collaboration conversation, experimentation and openness.   


It’s allowed us to identify the problems and create a systematic approach to help others develop some amazing solutions so we have truly lived and breathed the innovation ethos. 


In the past three years, STEAMhouse has supported the creation of 63 new businesses in the West Midlands and beyond, helping them to create 75 new product ideas with some amazing results.  


In early 2022, we are opening our new STEAMhouse innovation campus, a breath-taking, five-storey building replete with state-of-the-art facilities which will help drive innovation and bring together practitioners, creatives and businesses from different walks of life in order to think differently, do better and achieve more.  


Delivering a certified innovation programme  


Innovation in business is better and more impactful when it’s supported by individuals who understand how to make it happen. 


At STEAMhouse, we have lots of technical specialists, equipment and workshops to support them, but the key to long-term sustainability is to build up capacity so they can keep driving innovation at the end of the process. 


BCU has recently been accredited by the Institute of Innovation and Knowledge Exchange (IKE), who work with some of the UK’s leading innovative organisations.  


In order to be accredited, we had to go through a rigorous assessment process based on IKE’s Investor in Innovations standard. This provides benchmarks for an organisation’s innovation output and provides key recommendations for continuing to grow.  


We are now able to offer the IKE Innovation Practice Certificate, a certified innovation programme and a crucial milestone that allows us to train up individuals, whether they be students, practitioners and businesses, to build up their innovation knowhow. 


These individuals can then take what they have learned and use it to drive innovation in their business. This will be key to unlocking regional potential.  


Find out more about how Birmingham City University supports business by visiting their business support platform, BCU Advantage, or by getting in touch with STEAMhouse here.