Supporting innovation at the local level: how to build a strong local innovation ecosystem

Over the years, major cities like New York and London have been centres for innovation and development, due to their dense networks of talent, resources and infrastructure. They have largely monopolised access to capital, drawing people from smaller cities and communities to live and work in diverse industries, and cultural centres, helping to foster creativity and collaboration and creating ecosystems where ideas can rapidly develop and scale.

However, we are beginning to see an increased interest in innovation hubs in smaller cities and communities. These local innovation ecosystems are attractive to entrepreneurs as they can provide opportunities for closer collaboration, reduced competition, personalised support and more cost-effective resources that can be hard to come by in larger cities. Additionally, these hubs for innovation are attractive to communities seeking to support local economic development and provide a better quality of life for community members.

But how can we create and support thriving ecosystems for innovation at a local level? In this article, we will discuss 3 key steps that you should take if you want to build a strong local innovation ecosystem – based on my practical experience gained from putting these steps into action for our clients here at Metta.

1) Understand Who and What You Are Working With

An essential first step is to identify the strengths and resources of the local community you seek to work within. Each place has its own unique makeup, in terms of culture, environment, economy and industrial heritage.

For one, understanding the community’s cultural fabric can help you tailor initiatives that resonate with local values, traditions and social dynamics, which can help foster stronger community engagement and support.

At an economic level, it is important to understand local industry strengths, workforce skills, and market demands which enable you to focus on areas with the highest potential for growth and impact, creating relevant job opportunities and ultimately boosting the local economy. Likewise, it is important to consider the environment in which you are operating within to ensure respect for and the sustainable use of your community’s natural resources.

Lastly, do not reinvent the wheel. Make an effort to identify and collaborate with the community’s existing assets, such as educational institutions, businesses, and research facilities. Proactively engage with public and private sector stakeholders who know the lay of the land, will be able to share knowledge and resources, and help develop and implement policies and incentives such as grants, tax breaks, and subsidies that will help to nurture the innovation ecosystem.

As an example, Metta recently led an innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem canvassing study in Kuwait City for the regional government. We surveyed and interviewed business owners and founders, as well as public sector stakeholders, academics, investors and more from across the country. We then took these findings and created a report which recommended possible strategies for Kuwait to move its startup and innovation ecosystem forward.

It was really important for us to understand the challenges that stakeholders in the country were facing and the values which were important for them – for example, a lot of interviewees put emphasis on building a greater feeling of community, as well as opportunities for collaborative working and community focal areas like coworking spaces. From this feedback, we created a list of recommendations tailored to resonate with the needs and wants of the Kuwaiti innovation ecosystem – to help guide future development and growth of startups and founders in the country.

Ultimately, the sustainability and success of an innovation ecosystem and the initiatives that arise out of it will greatly depend on how closely tailored they are to the needs and resources of the locale it will exist within.

2) Invest in local spaces and infrastructure to facilitate creativity and collaboration

A key next step that is often identified during the research phase is to invest in spaces and infrastructure that will bring people together, and encourage creativity and collaboration. While this can include investing in high-quality, functional office space, it is important to state that this does not necessarily mean the construction of new buildings – the redevelopment of existing real estate to create more functional spaces is often more efficient. The provision of reliable high-speed internet access, and public transportation services are critical ancillary considerations here.

At a time when remote working has become more common, it can make sense to view the office as a collaboration tool – a method for bringing people together at certain times to drive innovation, rather than a location where people go to do their work every day. High-quality office spaces, such as co-working hubs and innovation centres, provide environments where diverse stakeholders can network, collaborate, share ideas, access essential resources and support services.

Public transportation is equally important as it enhances accessibility and connectivity, making it easier for people to commute, attend events, and meet potential collaborators. Efficient transportation networks reduce travel time and costs, encouraging more frequent interactions and collaboration between potential ecosystem stakeholders. Most importantly, these networks are crucial in terms of connecting the local ecosystem to regional, national, and global markets and talent pools.

Bristol in the UK has been doing this with quite some success. The city council has invested in innovative transport solutions to mitigate its road traffic challenges. Access to the city centre by car can be frustratingly slow and traffic-heavy. In response, the city council has thrown its weight behind support for a public electric scooter scheme. These scooters are ubiquitous around the city, providing a quick, cheap, and carbon-neutral means of access to the city centre for Bristol’s residents.

Access to affordable, low-carbon transport options has made commuting to the city centre much more appealing for young, environmentally-conscious people. Not only has this attracted businesses to locate themselves in the city centre, but the influx of workers now funding the local economy drivers further innovation – an example of this can be found at Sandwich Sandwich. Bristol’s answer to the supermarket chain meal deal has generated huge success, being voted UberEats restaurant of the year and expanding to new branches across the city and beyond.

By strategically investing in spaces and infrastructure, the innovation ecosystem will be able to attract investors, businesses and talent to the area, driving economic growth and creating a vibrant, dynamic community.

3) Create opportunities for ecosystem members to interact with one another

As these new spaces are created for people to collaborate, it is important to capitalise on this by creating regular opportunities for existing and potential ecosystem members to meet and interact with one another to build a community. This can be done by investing in events and activities, such as formal and informal meetups, workshops, exhibitions and conferences.

Successful innovation ecosystems leverage these kinds of events and activities to foster community building, nurture relationships between ecosystem members, encourage knowledge sharing, as well as highlight and celebrate the work of ecosystem members to inspire others and attract more investment.

At Metta, a real focus of our work is on curating events that bring stakeholders together from right across the innovation ecosystem, from entrepreneurs and academia to corporates and governments. We work with local stakeholders to programme regular events that bring together diverse attendees to share ideas, build partnerships and create new business opportunities for the local community.

By investing in infrastructure, fostering community engagement, and leveraging unique local resources, communities can lay the foundation for successful innovation ecosystems. If done correctly and consistently, these ecosystems boost local economic development, whilst enhancing the quality of life for the communities they are connected to.