Pro vice-chancellor, enterprise and business engagement, at Teesside University, Professor Jane Turner
Professor Jane Turner, pro vice-chancellor, enterprise and business engagement, at Teesside University tells Mike Hughes how its five-part digital blueprint for the region is becoming an essential catalyst for growth.
Change is one of the necessary and unavoidable elements of running a successful business, from keeping ahead of a fast-moving marketplace to expansion plans and taking on board seismic developments in rules and regulations, changing Government policy and, of course, new technology.
A key element in the next industrial revolution, digital defines the way we do business today, and Teesside University is pioneering a strategy that is uniting every corner of the sector to ensure the people who work in the Tees Valley have the skills the region needs for the future, so it can grow employment through creating new businesses and high value digitally-focused jobs.
As pro vice-chancellor for enterprise and business engagement, Professor Jane Turner is developing the University’s reputation as one of the UK’s leading business-facing educational establishments and an essential engine of innovation for her region – with digital at its heart.
“For traditional industries, the extent to which they adapt to digital change is a major factor in deciding whether they succeed, stall or fail in the future,” she told me. “Digital is now the driving force powering the growth of new businesses and new sectors and at Teesside we see the role that digital plays in our lives as an opportunity for the Tees Valley to put real power behind its ambitious plans for the economy.
“If we support businesses in building their digital capability, we can help them evolve so they can support the growth of the existing and emerging sectors we need for a strong and productive future.”
The region is already leading the way here, creating the opportunity to secure a national and international reputation for a digital cluster with cutting edge skills, attracting more businesses to come here and work in the supply chain that is linking so many digitally-focused industries.
To fully achieve the region’s depth of ambition, the University will be working with businesses to share knowledge, support innovation and develop skills, inspiring individuals and businesses to see the University and DigitalCity as a partner in a long-term strategy.
Turner says: “If the region is really to make the most of what Teesside University can offer as a driver for growth, we need our partners to engage more closely with us on three key levels.
“At Government level we will strive to ensure that politicians and policymakers recognise the strategic role we play in the future of the Northern Powerhouse. We have the capability to help deliver the Industrial Strategy and we must be seen as integral to the Government’s investment strategy.
“Regionally, we will influence and support the economic transformation of Tees Valley and the region. We will be at the heart of new economic strategy development, and act as the bridge between business and academia – all backed with investment and a commitment from all partners to promote and champion our strengths.
“And in business itself we will work with groups, networks and individual organisations who will see that Teesside University is a partner who can support their growth and help fulfil the potential we see for the whole of the region.”
At the core of this seemingly unstoppable drive to spot and develop opportunities and capitalise on the breakneck speed with which technology is changing, is the University’s flagship DigitalCity operation, a project which has already helped to create hundreds of new companies and jobs.
Towards the top of its extensive ‘to do’ list are supporting and enabling the digitisation of the manufacturing sector and healthcare; working to build the digital high-street to improve the quality of people’s lives, and leading the way in digital inclusion, particularly for women in technology.
“We’re bridging that gap by encouraging more women to come on our courses and to actively consider a career in digital, so that ultimately half of digital businesses in the Tees Valley have female leaders, explains Prof Turner.
“DigitalCity will bring together all of the digital knowledge and support at Teesside University in one place and then connect businesses with the knowledge, skills and expertise they need. We’re here to support digital start-ups, help small and medium-sized businesses who want to use digital to grow, and work with bigger companies to help put digital at the heart of their business.”
Defining the University’s wider digital goals are five key targets, which will form the foundations for sustainable success.
Prof Turner’s enthusiasm for these aims is clear, and she is keen to make sure a wider audience realise how the region can be transformed if it works together as a single digital machine.
“The continuous creation of new businesses is the lifeblood of any region,” she tells me. “They help underpin our strength in new sectors and drive innovation and competitiveness in our existing industries, while a vibrant start-up economy will keep valuable talent and skills in the region.
“Tees Valley’s target of increasing start-ups by 25% by 2025 is so important – and we are confident that it is achievable, particularly after a study by our LEP, Tees Valley Unlimited, showed that in recent years we have consistently had the highest business birth rate in the UK.
“We also have to give this thriving start-up community the opportunity to convert new ideas into new businesses. Teesside University has a critical role to play here: supporting our own students and alumni and ensuring the right resources are there to help individuals from our wider community.
“Within the University, we have opened the doors of the Teesside Launchpad – a space to share, test and develop new ideas and provide an environment to thrive. But our influence goes far beyond the campus. At Boho One in the town’s new digital district and at Fusion Hive in Stockton there are spaces for technology companies to connect directly with the knowledge and support available at the university and have a clear path to scale up.”
When those new entrepreneurs have been draw here by the dream of being an integral part of one of the most comprehensive digital strategies in the country, they will see that their ambitions are going to be understood and supported. But when success comes, they need to know that there is a long-term structure to support them.
“Getting more of our growing businesses to scale up and push even further ahead of the competition is just as important as being the birthplace of start-ups – if not more so,” says Turner. “For this to happen, businesses in our region need to apply technology and digital thinking to make their products more attractive to their markets. Providing businesses with the people who can identify and deliver those game-changing improvements is a major focus for DigitalCity and the university.
“There are outstanding examples here of how our partnerships are working, like Applied Integration, whose automated control systems are critical to the petrochemical, oil and gas, and nuclear sectors. It is working with our academics to radically redesign its project development framework and create new software, which will reduce costs and development time for critical systems.
“Teleware, a business based in Thirsk that helps improve customer service operations, is another. It is using our expertise in big data and machine learning to help develop a product which can tap into increasing demand for more sophisticated insight into customer experience to identify short and long-term problems, which could cost businesses money. It’s a piece of work that will play a major role in helping to double revenues over the next two years.”
“Examples like these - and there are many, many more - show that the availability of a digital knowledge base is key to ensuring existing and new businesses see our region as a place to grow. Our pledge as a university is to make it easy for businesses to find people with those higher skills and know-how which can help them become more productive.”
The UK Government’s own analysis shows that the Tees Valley leads the UK in the level of innovation funding that it attracts, which is helping transform the region and make it fit for the future. In its ambition to embrace the whole area and identify and build on its full potential, the university has seized the opportunity to cross different sectors and help them work together.
“Solving competitive problems faced by entire sectors is something that individual businesses are typically ill-equipped to do,” explained Turner. “The blend of investment, fresh knowledge and capacity is rarely available within an individual business. By using research to apply cutting-edge digital thinking to real-world problems, our work is helping build the sustainability of a range of industries from power generation, where we are increasing the efficiency of coal-fired power stations, to energy supply, where we are helping businesses use resources more sustainably. In the construction industry, our experts will reduce costs by an order of millions of pounds through the elimination of structural inefficiencies.
“These aren’t just ideas and principles - we are creating practical ways that businesses can grow. The National Horizons Centre is a ground-breaking multi-disciplinary skills and innovation facility helping with the application of digital technologies to the emerging bio-industries as well as to the wider advanced manufacturing sector, while our Technology Futures Institute is partnering with businesses now to find solutions to any issues that might be holding back their efficiency.”
This University-led digital revolution is the perfect partner for the national Industry 4.0 strategy – also known as the fourth industrial revolution – which focuses on increasing automation and data sharing across manufacturing supply chains. There are many businesses who understand what is happening and see its importance, but crucially only a minority have the knowledge and capability to implement the changes they need. The university’s vast experience is an important factor in making that minority an influential majority, as Turner points out.
“In our experience, some manufacturing businesses believe that achieving this kind of transformation requires huge investment in enterprise resource planning software and that extensive resources or costly management consultants are required to implement it.
“But we know that needn’t be the case. We can help make that change happen, often through knowledge transfer partnerships which are a formal arrangement between businesses and the university. Through this work we eliminate disjointed or labour intensive processes by putting new digital ways of working at the heart of their operations.
“We are working with small- and medium-sized manufacturers to identify and capitalise on digitised processes, while our academic experts have consultancy strengths that are identifying the priorities for digital working and providing undergraduates with the right knowledge to work within business.
“These are, once again, practical steps rather than only ideas and advice. We are working with business people every day to meet their needs and are committed to making a real difference to how Tees Valley businesses operate and view their future markets.
“We know that one of those real differences is making sure the skills are in place to make the most of those future markets, because a digital skills gap costs the UK economy £63bn a year in lost GDP, which is both a national challenge for the UK and a regional opportunity for Tees Valley.
“By developing more specialist digital skills here we can build the reputation of the region as a destination for businesses seeking this kind of expertise. We can also capture our place in national and international supply chains. At Teesside University our strength in specialist graduate degrees in digital and computing provides the talent that traditional businesses need in order to grow.
“In turn, those acquired skills will underpin the growth of our digital cluster by fuelling start-ups and providing them with the employees they need. Importantly, this includes addressing the lack of female leaders in the digital and technology sector. We can help grow female representation in the Tees Valley industry to 50% by explicitly promoting the role of women in tech companies.”
From classroom to shopfloor and into the boardroom, the trackable success of Turner’s team at Teesside University and DigitalCity is exactly what is needed in a region where there is a sense of urgency to build on its industrial firepower we have and implement the newest ideas and brightest thinking.
That start at student level is reflected in a digital and technology solutions professional degree apprenticeship which is being brought in, and already more than 200 people have improved their digital skills through a digital management MA, delivered in partnership with global business Hyper Island.
And all that work is being noticed by the people who matter to the regions economy – the employers. The skills on show are attracting businesses from outside the region to come and do business, like Amplience, a London-based retail ecommerce business, which chose to locate its development centre at DigitalCity’s Boho One because of the access it has to excellent digital skills. It now employs 45 people, including a number of Teesside University graduates.
Nifco Group, a major Japanese automotive component manufacturer, has worked closely with Teesside University on skills, R&D and innovation. This has helped the Stockton facility grow its order book and Nifco has recently chosen Tees Valley for its first R&D centre outside of South East Asia – global recognition of a massive team effort in the very best tradition of the renowned Tees Valley business spirit.
As Turner says: “The ability for Tees Valley to develop digital skills in its workforce is, without doubt, the defining factor in our ability to build a successful future economy.
“Every aspect of business growth depends on it and Teesside University makes it a key priority to provide businesses with those skills, supporting those preparing to enter the workforce and providing ways for those already in the workforce to develop digital skills.”