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New forms of leadership needed to drive Levelling Up


Levelling up has a central role to play in facilitating and driving economic development and innovation. But what does this mean in practice? And how do we move from great rhetoric to purposeful action?

First, let’s focus on innovation clusters. New forms of leadership within these clusters can play a key role in enabling and accelerating a levelling up ecosystem that builds resilience and adaptability, so that places and communities can remain successful and economically and socially vibrant. Universities can be central to this, because of their innate involvement in driving research, applied research and knowledge exchange. They are often the best vehicle as they can provide not only the scale but also the breadth to these activities at a local and regional level. In addition, universities play a significant role in developing diverse talent pools in new and emerging sectors.

Second, new forms of leadership is concerned with action not just words. Levelling up requires leadership. However, its absence is often notable in any discussions on how we ensure innovation in our economy results in new and different kinds of productivity that anchors new innovative industries in place and region. In my organisation, the University of York, we believe leadership is central to innovation and equally important in how we harness our R&D capabilities and the talents of our diverse staff and graduates to drive innovation forward.

Third, how can universities become involved in economic development, skills and innovation under a local devolution model? The heart of this question is about leadership that is embedded in a shared sense of purpose, a collective endeavour and is relational. This requires new ways of thinking, new ways of acting and new ways of delivering. Leadership and levelling up is about utilising our convening power and influence not simply to support regional economic development, but also to be a catalyst for change to ensure we foster and support emergent and existing talent from every part of our region and beyond – that’s what levelling up means in practice. As highlighted by the recent webinar audience: We need anchor institutions prepared to do rather than hold steady.

At the University of York, we are delivering on the levelling up and innovation agenda by placing leadership and collaboration at the heart of our activities. One great example of this is bioeconomy, which is a key theme in the devolution deal discussion. We have a globally significant innovation cluster here in York. It combines the R&D strengths of the University of York in agri-tech, biorenewables and the circular economy, with industrial research at the Food and Environment Research Agency in Sand Hutton, and land-based innovation and training at Askham Bryan College. This is innovation, leadership and collaboration in action. 

In summary, levelling up calls for new forms of leadership which are about being enterprising and entrepreneurial. It requires putting place and region at the heart of our activities by using our research expertise to work together with our partners to improve the lives of our communities and contribute to the equity and substantiality of our city. In essence, levelling up and innovation is about strengths and opportunities coalescing alongside each other and a conduit through which collective leadership delivers productivity and innovation for all – never has the time been so right. So now the question is, are we ready to grasp the nettle?

Professor Kiran Trehan is Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Partnerships and Engagement at the University of York, an organisational member of the IED. She chaired the IED’s webinar, Levelling Up: How can universities get involved in economic development, skills and innovation under a local devolution model? on 28th April. Watch again here.