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Overcoming negative connotations around growth to drive innovation


One of the things that we often struggle with when talking to members of the public is the idea that growth can be good. The response from many people when speaking about this is “How much?” “Too much!” Stagnation is not good; decline is worse; so why does the word growth have such negative connotations?

In the Oxford-Cambridge Arc we are working in collaboration with many different partners to help set a growth agenda that is done well. Well-designed, well-managed and well-coordinated, within our environmental limits. To succeed, we also need to help people to better understand what growth is. We need to change the growth narrative. It can be positive. It is basic to our nature as humans but also, more than ever, to our survival.

Defining and setting the terms of growth is very important. When I was Strategic Director for Communities at Oxfordshire County Council we did a piece of work to try to contextualise the idea of ‘negative’ within growth. We heard that most people wanted to limit the things contributing to growth – larger population, more housing and greater congestion – some wanted these things that growth can exemplify, to stop. The reality is that we all want those things to be managed better. If we stop growing then the perception is we stand still and avoid change: the fact is we will start to decline because of many factors including ageing population, poor and unaffordable housing, demands for health and care services for an older population growing, whilst the funding elements of society declines.

So, we need to reconcile need and demand with what makes good growth. And that growth can fit with a more sustainable future. In the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, we want to use planned growth to change market conditions. Doing the right thing, at the right scale, can create favourable market conditions to make something more affordable or accessible or, change behaviours. It can create greater health and wellbeing for human and natural environments. Like, for example, what the government is trying to achieve with boilers and heat pumps.

Being bold and ambitious about setting proper environmental performance targets, proper legal targets, to be met within a certain timeframe, can provide confidence that the market needs to lead positive change that can benefit people’s livelihoods, health and wellbeing and, our environment. By doing this we are playing an important role in setting the conditionality for both the market and also for us, the public, to respond.

The reality is, we do need targets to affect change. We are seeing this now in the market for electric cars and a ramping up of investment in other net zero technologies, aligned to related targets. It is important though to hold us to account to meet these targets. This provides confidence for both the public and the market.

Of course, there is more investment needed. That will need to come from the private and public sector. This investment will need to be steered towards the right things. We have and must take the opportunity to put that investment where there is good growth, supporting and connecting the good ideas that result in positive change. This will stimulate and continue to drive the innovation economy in a part of the country where that is a real strength.

Across the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, we have a bounty of entrepreneurial and innovative spirit. The area has led the space in many high-technology sectors, enhancing cross-cutting capabilities, including through the proactive creation of living labs. This has provided valuable space to advance, test and go on to commercialise ideas that help to speed up our transition to zero carbon, which can drive domestic and global markets and in turn create a really positive economic return – this is what good growth to support natural and human environments can look like.

But this is far greater than supporting the development of new technologies. It is fundamentally about doing what is right for our communities. It is here, though, where there is a disconnect between the positive effects of growth in our places and what is experienced by our communities. Not getting this right can hold us up and it is here where we need to put attention.

We want environmental improvement, but we also want to improve society overall in a more sustainable way and that means a strong economy, a strong and healthy environment, and that absolutely means better social outcomes.

Bev Hindle is Executive Director of Oxford-Cambridge Arc, and a member of the Institute of Economic Development. Bev was a panellist on the IED’s “Economic development: how can we reconcile growth ambitions with net zero?” webinar on 9th November.