Posts Tagged ‘business’

Innovation, evidence and industrial strategy

September 1, 2017

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[A What Works Centre post that’s good here too.]

Industrial strategy is one of the big issues for the What Works Centre and its local partners and innovation is one of the main themes of industrial strategies in the UK, and around the world.

Public policy plays a number of important roles in supporting innovation — see thisdebate between Mariana Mazzucato and Stian Westlake for a good intro. And as I wrote back in January, it’s equally important that we understand what the most effective tools are.

The good news for the UK is thatwe are — slowly — building an evidence base on what works for promoting innovation, as well as other pillars of industrial policy. What’s more, what we have suggests some current UK programmes work pretty well.

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Our latest case study summarises Innovate UK’s programmes of support for microbusinesses and SMEs: mainly grants but also loans, awarded on a competitive basis, either to individual firms, or to promote partnerships with other companies or with universities.

Using standard UK administrative data, evaluators were able to set supported firms alongside similar non-supported companies, then compare how the two groups did. This ‘difference in difference’ approach is one of the methods we endorse, as it meets our minimum standards for good evaluation.

Encouragingly, Innovate UK’s programmes seem to have raised treated firms’ survival prospects (by 14 percentage points), employment (an extra 32 staff on average), and possibly sales too (although this result is less robust). These positive effects are biggest for 2–5 year old companies and those aged 6–19 years old. That is, these programmes seem to have helped innovative firms to scale.

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This is another helpful piece of the industrial strategy puzzle, for several reasons.

First, in our innovation evidence review back in 2015, we found lots of evidence that these kinds of programmes raised firms’ R&D — but rather less evidence on growth impacts further down the line. Now we have good UK evidence of those growth and scaling impacts.

Second, we already know that the UK’s R&D tax credit system is pretty effective in stimulating firms’ patenting. We can now add good evidence on grants and loans alongside that.

Third, we can set these innovation findings alongside other evidence on business support programmes — where again, we have a decent stock of UK evidence, with several programmes (e.g. on export support) showing positive impacts.

Finally, it’s reassuring to see that evidence for these types of innovation support programmes in the UK broadly lines up with what we’ve found for OECD countries as a whole. We’ve had a number of conversations with policymakers worried that innovation programmes are very context-specific, so results from one country won’t generalise to others. This may be true in some cases. But for grants, loans and tax credits, what we know suggests that what works across the OECD also works in the UK.

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Originally published here on 17 August 2017.

Getting ahead in the countryside

July 7, 2010

The big city’s the place to find fame and fortune, wouldn’t you think? Not according to the Commission for Rural Communities, whose new report claims ‘rural areas have more entrepreneurs’. This seems odd – aren’t cities supposed to help ideas flow, with banks to lend money, and customers to sell to?

All the evidence suggests innovation is heavily urbanised, for example. So what on earth’s been going on in the British countryside? Is the fresh air good for the brain?

The report’s here. It’s nearly 200 pages long, so to save you reading it I’ve done some digging. The relevant findings are:

1) A survey of bank lending finds that in 2008 and 2009, rural areas had more start-ups per working-age population than urban areas (p131)

2) GEM survey data for 2004-2008 finds higher rates of ‘entrepreneurship activity’ in rural areas than urban areas. Strikingly, the survey suggests rural entrepreneurship rates are ‘as high as inner London’ (p133).

The report uses good definitions of ‘urban’ and ‘rural’, based on this DEFRA typology. But there are questions about which rural areas we’re talking about – more on that in a moment.

Let’s start with start-ups. First, there’s not much urban-rural difference in business birth rates – 13.9 per thousand people in rural areas, 12.7 in urban areas. Second, in absolute terms there are far more start-ups in cities than the countryside – hardly surprising since c.80% of the English population live in urban areas.

Third, there’s noise in the data – the survey in question covers 93% of all bank lending, which is pretty good, but doesn’t adjust for the rest. If 80% of those loans were to city firms, a reasonable assumption, the urban-rural difference is less than one percentage point.

‘Entrepreneurship’ is a slightly more nebulous concept, and it turns out the GEM data needs a big pinch of salt. For one thing, the survey is based on just 43,000 firms across the UK – which might risk sampling error if you’re looking at small rural areas.

More seriously, GEM actually measures something called ‘total early-stage entrepreneurial activity’ – which is a weighted index including ‘nascent business activity’. This could include things like writing a business plan, but not actually doing anything with it. (I’ve also no idea how the Index is built because GEM doesn’t say.)

In the CRC small print, GEM concedes it’s tracking ‘propensity to be entrepreneurial’, rather than *actual* entrepreneurs. It’s hardly convincing.

So, case not proven – on the basis of these numbers. However, let’s suspend disbelief and assume there is a new generation of rural whizz-kids. What might explain this?

It could be a lifecycle effect – people downsize or move their families out of the city, starting new businesses in the countryside. Migration data suggests there could be something in this – young single people move into cities, older people with partners and children move out. Other studies suggest people gain skills and learning in cities, taking these with them when they leave.

There could also be a technology effect. The CRC’s start-up figures suggests that most loans go to business services like accountancy and consulting, a lot of which can be done by phone or online (anecdata – my accountant operates out of deepest East Sussex).

That implies a third point – many of rural areas are actually around the edges of big urban areas. In the jargon, they’re ‘peri-urban’ – pleasant, leafy communities with decent schools and public services, and good links into the urban core. Not surprisingly, these neighbourhoods tend to come near the top of ‘best place to live’ surveys.

In turn, that suggests some final lessons. Don’t overspin your data. The city and country have more in common than you might imagine. And ultimately, enterprise is less about place than about people.

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