COLLABORATION

University-led regeneration: How universities are transforming communities

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Manchester has transformed since rebranding as an education destination.

As the UK Conservative party readies itself to wave goodbye to yet another leader on Friday, Theresa May’s – and her predecessor’s – legacy will be around for a long while yet.

The Tories’ austerity measures have gutted council funds, cut local services, and ravaged community amenities. This has been particularly harsh in northern regions of England where cuts have fallen hardest on deprived communities.

A January report from the Centre for Cities thinktank shows that the poorest areas have borne the brunt of council spending cuts. Local authority spending has fallen nationally by half since 2010, with areas such as Liverpool, Blackburn and Barnsley facing average cuts twice that of their counterparts in the more affluent south.

With funding drying up, local services have been put under mounting pressure as they struggle to meet demand with dwindling resources. Local economies have stagnated as opportunity and government support for businesses and entrepreneurs takes a hit.

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The measures have left a gaping hole in already struggling communities, and robbed many of the opportunity so vital in thriving economies.

Thankfully there has been a somewhat unlikely candidate step into the breach and, through collaborations with local business and campus development, provide the social boost that councils are no longer able to provide.

Universities have been a driving force behind the regeneration of many of the UKs most disenfranchised neighbourhoods – whether through supporting local startups, allowing firms to use their expensive equipment to test-run innovations, or putting skilled graduates into the workforce.

Others have also been investing big in the built environment, producing enterprise hubs and world-class centres to give new life to formerly marginalised suburbs.

Manchester University’s latest investment does just that. The £1.5 billion (US$1.9 billion) Manchester Innovation District – or Manchester ID – will transform a tired central campus into a shining development, complete with residential blocks, commercial units and multinational tenants.

Through ID Manchester, the university will have a stake in residential accommodation in the city, as well as office blocks. The hope is this will ease some of the pressure on housing as more of Manchester’s thousands of graduates are choosing to stay on in the city.

“This site is about us saying, ‘what do we want for us, what do we want for the city’, because if the city’s thriving, we’ll thrive,” President of Manchester University, Nancy Rothwell, told the Financial Times.

Thanks to the region’s four universities, Manchester has successfully rebranded itself as an education destination, shaking of its industrial past. With that not only brings students, but companies eager to capitalise on a skilled workforce and the latest research and innovations coming from academia.

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The potential of this combination has investor flocking to support projects like Manchester ID, bringing more capital to the region.

While Manchester ID is still in the planning stages, another innovation district on the other side of the world is already seeing the fruits of their labour.

The Melbourne Innovation District brings together students, researchers, social-impact businesses and startups. Partnering with the University of Melbourne, RMIT University and the City of Melbourne, the project was announced in 2017 and has driven investment in the knowledge economy by leveraging the knowledge in Melbourne’s northern CBD.

According to the Mapping Victoria’s Startup Ecosystem report, the district accounts for 21 percent of knowledge-sector jobs in the city.

The state of Victoria is home to the most startups in Australia, with a combined value of more than A$1 billion. Only 34 percent of those, however, partner with universities or research institutions.

Melbourne Innovation District is working to change that, with plans to attract more small businesses and social enterprises to build the talent pool that feeds innovation.

To make the location more appealing and improve the lives of community members, the district plans to develop public spaces and resources designed with civic participation in mind, such as cycling networks, free Wi-Fi and smart-sensor technologies.

By bringing universities and businesses together, innovation districts are transforming neighbourhoods and giving people back the opportunity they rightly deserve.