Levelling Up the UK with Information

The UK government has committed to a strategy for levelling up economic activity across the UK.[1]

While I am not a geographer or an economist, one need not be to see ways forward on this strategy. The Internet has been seen as a force that might reconfigure the geography of work – what jobs go where, such as is evident in trends toward working from home. But since many business and industrial networks depend on different face-to-face networks of communication for such activities as negotiation, bargaining, and motivation, the geographic of economic activities might still be oriented towards concentrations.

That said, listening to the debate in the UK, I have been struck by two general themes of the debate that need to be challenged.

First, levelling up is sometimes conveyed as if it was an anti-London and romantic notion of democratising economic activity. But it should not necessarily mean evening up across the UK. It primarily needs to create opportunities for centres – concentrations – to flourish outside London and the Southeast.

Japan has had its Tokyo problem, which is analogous to the UK’s concentration of economic activities in London. These centres become magnates for more activities moving into these centres. No one should want to put a brake on that synergy, but other centres need to be identified, encouraged, and better supported across the UK. These could complement and help the UK economy grow.  

However, it is generally the case that all economies are regional. For example, consider the Detroit auto industry, the Hollywood film industry, or Silicon Valley. When there is a concentration of business, economic, or other activities in a region, it naturally attracts and evolves into a larger concentration as those who can support and work in that industry see more opportunities. The most important communication remains face-to-face and local networks that develop formally and informally around a manufacturing plant, a film studio, chip factory, or a university need to be respected and nourished. These are not evenly distributed but they need not all be anchored in London.

Secondly, it is not all a matter of throwing money at levelling up. Yes, transportation networks need to connect centres across the UK and that takes a lot of money. Insuring that existing rail and other transportation networks are efficient and less expensive would work wonders. Building new transportation networks like the High Speed 2 (HS2) would certainly add value in creating economic activity around its development and better connecting centres across the UK.

However, better information could also help foster these emerging regional concentrations. Perhaps this is already being done. But to explain.

On the one hand, the Internet and other new media are often seen as undermining the geography of economic activity. If you can communication and transfer information so efficiently that there is no need to co-locate. There are serious limits to this logic. First, concentrations of business and industry seem to continue, despite great progress in digital media and communication networks.[2] Similarly, while working from home has risen dramatically during the pandemic, it has declined but at a higher level than prior to the pandemic. We asked people in a global survey about the benefits of working in different locations and working from home was perceived to be more productive, but also bringing disruptions (pets and kids) and problematic in keeping them in touch with the office and their colleagues. This is behind a growth in hybrid workplaces that still build on coming into the office a few times per week, making location a continuing factor.

Therefore, it is wise to be open and supportive of concentrating economic activities, but they can be more widely distributed and sometimes more specialised. If we could more rapidly identify and nurture emerging centres of economic activity, such as around gaming, new technologies, or publishing, then the very knowledge of these developments could foster more concentration in these emerging centres. The placement of a BBC studio in Leeds, for example, is likely to foster the development of a regional concentration of work in the TV news and entertainment industry in the Leeds region.

Perhaps this process simply happens organically. A new business in film production simply recruits talent, which attracts other talent, in film editing, production, sales, distribution, script writing, and so on, which then fosters the start-up of another company that produces film that can rely on some of the same talent. And so on. But imagine being able to visualise these conglomerations of expertise and skills in particular areas. It might be more efficient and effective than simply word of mouth and informal chat of where the action is in a particular business or economic development area.

Is someone or some agency already doing this in the UK? Apparently, the UK government wants to foster five growth areas: digital, life sciences, green technology, financial services, and advanced manufacturing. From my perspective, this would suggest that it would be most helpful for the government or industry associations to map where these activities are emerging across the UK. Can these organically emerging centres be built on to create the synergies that could derive from concentrations. It would also suggest the value of identifying other kinds of economic activities emerging outside London and the Southeast that could be supported if only by greater awareness of their very existence.

Communication and information technologies can support economic activities by empowering business and industrial enterprises to more efficiently and effectively communicate. But they can also be used to identify and visualise the developing geographic of economic activity in ways that could reinforce their development. Simple point. Maybe its being done or has been done, but it is one strategy for levelling up that won’t require major financial support.

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/levelling-up-the-united-kingdom

[2] Grillo, F., Dutton, W. H., Cobo, C., (2015), ‘Change and Stability in the Economic Geography of Information: The Distribution of Jobs over Time and Across Industries in the Internet Age’, Symphonya: Emerging Issues in Management (symphonya.unimib.it), n. 1, pp. 44–62.

One thought on “Levelling Up the UK with Information

Comments are most welcome