Posts Tagged ‘productivity’

A modern industrial strategy

February 3, 2017

A What Works Centre post I thought would be good here. Written with Henry Overman.


Much has already been written on the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy Green Paper. This post isn’t intended to provide an overall assessment or spell out our individual views on the approach being set out (they differ, depending on which of us you ask). But there are areas where the proposed strategy will shape the work that we’ll do at the Centre and where we also hope that our work will influence the implementation of the eventual strategy.

[Full disclosure – the Centre is cited in the document as one of the institutions the Government hopes will help improve local economic growth.]


The first area relates to what we do and don’t know about policy effectiveness, particularly when it comes to some of the Strategy’s 10 pillars – which are a mix of tech (science, research and innovation) cross-cutting (skills, infrastructure, supporting business growth, procurement, trade and inward investment) and sector (new sector deals, clean energy). Academics would call this a ‘matrix’ approach.

Take, for example, policy to support business to start and grow. We know that there are market failures here – entrepreneurs often make avoidable mistakes, which better information could help fix; many young firms need better access to early stage finance (the Green Paper talks about ‘patient capital’).

The crucial question is: what’s the right policy mix to help address these challenges? Our evidence reviews on business support and on access to finance suggest that around half of schemes have measurable impact against policy objectives but around half don’t. Our reviews and associated toolkits start to identify the elements that might go in to the design of a more effective set of interventions. And we’ll soon be publishing more toolkits on incubators, accelerators and science parks. All this material provides guidance on how we might improve support to businesses but major challenges remain – both in terms of gaps in our understanding and embedding the evidence in policy development.

We are in a similar position when it comes to policy to develop skills. We know quite a lot – see, for example our evidence reviews on employment support and apprenticeships and our toolkit on training (soon to be supplemented by a toolkit on apprenticeships). Changes to policy design can improve effectiveness but, once again, there are gaps in our knowledge and challenges in implementation.


Things are more complicated when it comes to investing in science and promoting innovation. We can say something about the specific policy tools – e.g. from our evidence reviews we know that both R&D grants and tax credits drive up innovative activity. But it’s not so clear whether increased innovation at the firm level feeds in to improved local economic performance and there are lots of unanswered questions about the appropriate policy mix. That ambiguity is one of the reasons why people advocate such different approaches to strategy.

In the interests of openness – we should note that one of the things our review did find was that grants and loans programmes that target particular production sectors appear to do slightly worse in terms of increasing R&D expenditure and innovation, compared to those that are ‘sector neutral’. So, while it makes sense for government to recognise that different sectors might need different policy responses (e.g. in terms of the institutional structure that supports those sectors) this might increase the challenge of effective policy implementation in some of the other policy areas.


Questions of infrastructure are similarly challenging. The evidence that we do have on the link from transport to local economic growth raises some questions about the effectiveness of these policies for turning around areas that are struggling. But at the same time, we know that such investments can help drive growth in areas where travel times and congestion are a big issue (and not all of those areas are in London and the South East). Getting the right balance will be crucial.

As with innovation expenditure, people are willing to advocate for very different approaches – particularly when it comes to the overall pattern of expenditure. We’ll continue to make the case that focussing on the overall pattern of expenditure isn’t helpful when it comes to shaping effective policies. What we need is a better understanding of the economic impact of different schemes and improved ways of feeding this information back in to decisions about scheme prioritisation. This will be where our work will focus in the coming years.


We could make similar points about the other pillars, but in the interest of space, let’s turn instead to a final cross cutting issue – whatever happens we think that to be successful, industrial policy will need to be inherently experimental. How we deliver and develop the policy will matter a lot.

Industrial strategy is always going to involve unknowns. Most fundamentally, because it involves funding basic science (or commercialising new ideas) – not all of which are going to work out, so wouldn’t be delivered by the market. In other cases, investments will trigger spillovers between parts of the economy that are hard to see upfront.

Finally, unknowns crop up because – for a lot of the things Governments want to do as part of industrial strategy – we still have a long way to go in understanding what is an effective policy mix. In addition to the policy areas covered above, at least three of the Pillars – strategic procurement, innovative place strategies, and institutions – are subject to big knowledge gaps in terms of what works. As a result, how we implement future industrial strategy will be crucial.

As you might expect, we will be arguing for an experimental approach. We need to test lots of different ideas, figure out what works, scale up the things that do and drop those that don’t. Many of those calling for a more interventionist policy – such as Harvard’s Dani Rodrik – have consistently emphasised this point. Many people have argued that the Green Paper’s approach isn’t such a fundamental break with the past. But a greater focus on flexibility, on experimentation, and on testing and improving, would help differentiate this from the past and increase the chances of success where so many other strategies have failed.


Originally posted here on 27 January.

Physicists explain things to me

August 19, 2016


I’ve written a long post on cities, superlinear scaling and universal laws over at Medium.


I’ve been gradually building a presence there: it’s a platform that works particularly well for long-form pieces like this. Go take a look!


New article: ethnic diversity, firm performance and cities

August 8, 2016

Paul Klee, Harmony of Northern Fauna, 1927

I’ve got a new paper published in Environment and Planning A. There’s an open access version here.

The research looks at the links between ethnic diversity in firms’ top teams (owners, partners and directors) and the performance of those firms (specifically, how much revenue they make).

I also look at how those linkages  vary across different types of firms, and how different types of urban environment may help or may not.

There’s now a decent diversity literature (see this academic review, or this great Andy Haldane speech). But we know much less about these gnarlier issues.


I find positive diversity-links – but only for certain kinds of companies. The strongest links are for a group of large,  knowledge-intensive businesses who comprise about 16% of my sample. The role of cities is also complex. For this first group, being in  London amplifies the diversity ‘effects’.

But for a second, smaller group of younger companies, diversity channels seem to be swamped by London’s higher costs and greater competition. These firms perform better when in smaller, cheaper cities like Manchester or Birmingham.  In turn, that suggests policies to promote ethnic diversity in firms need to be quite carefully tailored to industry and local conditions.


Here’s the abstract:

A growing literature examines how ethnic diversity influences economic outcomes in cities and inside firms. However, firm–city interactions remain more or less unexplored. Ethnic diversity may help firm performance by introducing a wider range of ideas,  improving scrutiny or improving international market access. Urban locations may amplify in-firm processes via agglomeration economies, externalities from urban demography or both. These firm–city effects may be more beneficial for knowledge-intensive firms, and  for young firms with a greater dependence on their environment. However, firm–city interactions could be negative for cost and  competition-sensitive younger firms, or for firms operating in poorer, segregated urban markets. I deploy English cross-sectional data to explore these issues within firms’ ‘top teams’, using latent class analysis to tackle firm-level heterogeneity. I find positive diversity–performance links for larger, knowledge-intensive firms, and positive firm–city interactions both for larger, knowledge-intensive firms in London and for younger, smaller firms in second-tier metros.

Read the article here. Or here’s the ungated version.

RGS talk on migration

May 13, 2016

(c) 2016 RGS

A late plug for this. I did a panel event on ‘Europe’s Migration Crisis’ with the Royal Geographical Society a few weeks back, alongside Heaven Crawley, Madeleine Sumption and Christina Boswell. The Guardian’s estimable David Walker chaired it.

I gave an overview of the local economics of migration, focusing on the recent UK experience, and drawing on some of my work – as well as borrowing a couple of nice maps from the Migration Observatory.


Here’s the summary I sent the organisers:

My talk will look at migration impacts at the local level, especially in cities. I’ll argue that we should look both at people flows, but also at the diversity that migration brings. Today’s public conversation about migration is focused on jobs, housing and public services. That’s understandable, and there are some real concerns here.

I also want to shift the conversation to cover migration as an influence on long term economic growth, with impacts on productivity, innovation, entrepreneurship and trade. Skilled migrants (from inside and outside the EU) are central to this, and the evidence we have suggests that there are positive effects of these groups on economic outcomes policymakers should care about. We need to know much more about how these channels work, of course. But national government and cities can start – now – to adjust policy to make more of these opportunities. 

There’s a nice write-up of the event on the RGS blog. If you want more detail, my slides are here.

What I did in New Zealand

August 4, 2015

Matiu / Somes Island. (c) 2015 Max Nathan

Am back from New Zealand and just about over the jetlag. Thanks again to Motu and the Caddanz team for hosting me. I’m already plotting a return trip …

Here’s my talk from the Pathways conference. This is on the economics of migration and diversity, and brings together various projects from the past few years.

Here are slides and audio from my public policy talk at Motu. This looks at the What Works agenda in the UK, particularly the work of the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth, and some of the opportunities and challenges these institutions face.

My new book

May 23, 2014

I have a book out: Urban Economics and Urban Policy, written with Henry Overman and Paul Cheshire, and published by Edward Elgar.

In a nutshell, it’s ‘economic urbanism’. We bring together last two decades of work by economists and economic geographers on urban issues, and distill some high-level lessons for policymakers. We look at trends in city growth and change, spatial disparities and urban housing/labour markets, as well as evaluating a range of urban policies.

The focus is on the UK, and especially work done at LSE’s Spatial Economics Research Centre since 2008. You can read the first chapter here.


The book began as a kind of greatest hits compilation for SERC, but has morphed into a broader attempt to show what economists (and economic geographers like me) can bring to cities and urban analysis.

Economics’ influence on urban policy has historically been very limited: urban thinking has been dominated by architects, planners and governance types.

In part, this is because economists haven’t been very interested in space until recently. As Paul pointed out at the book’s launch, economics 101 classes mention the three factors of production – capital, labour and land – after which land is rarely (if ever) discussed again. That has only really begun to change in the last decade or so, with the very obvious death of ‘death of distance’ arguments, and people like Paul Krugman and Ed Glaeser making their influence felt in the profession. (Ed kindly wrote the foreword for our book.)

It’s also because spatial economic concepts and techniques are fiddly and difficult to explain. Dealing with spatial autocorrelation is rarely as glamorous or compelling as iconic buildings or big political personalities. Evan Davies did economic geographers everywhere a great service with the Mind the Gap series, which did a bravura job of distilling agglomeration, knowledge spillovers and path-dependence into everyday language.

And of course lessons from spatial economics aren’t always ones policymakers want to hear. Urban systems tend to build in spatial differences, and these inequalities are self-reinforcing and hard for policy to reverse. Many urban policies are effective, but many popular ones – such as Enterprise Zones or cluster programmes – often don’t have much impact.


In turn, that highlights both the advantages and limitations in the economic urbanist’s approach. City leaders should take economic ideas and analysis seriously, especially when making decisions about housing, planning or development. The book is an attempt to put economic thinking back in the room. But we can’t reduce cities to purely economic processes: as objects or systems, they are too complex and chaotic for that. And as Max Weber says:

… The explanation of everything by economic causes alone is never exhaustive in any sense whatsoever, not in even in the … economic sphere itself. In principle, a banking history of a nation which adduces only economic motives for explanatory purposes is naturally just as unacceptable as an explanation of the Sistine Madonna as a consequence of the social-economic basis of the culture of the epoch in which it was created. 

That logic also applies to policy choices. In practice we often have to trade off economic, social and environmental goals – when planning new roads or houses, for instance. Citizens’ welfare is rather wider than economic welfare, and we should avoid collapsing the first into the second.

Given those complexities, economists need to be mindful of real-world priorities and politics when giving policy advice. (As do others – Richard Rogers’ reductionist readings of Jane Jacobs have not been very helpful in the UK, for example.) The What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth, which I’m helping to run, is one attempt to translate quantitative academic analysis from a range of fields into feasible, pragmatic policy ideas.

As an economic geographer, co-authoring a book with two economists proper is a rewarding experience – and a challenging one. The three of us didn’t agree on everything: as you can imagine, my views on regeneration, brownfield development and place-based policies are more optimistic than some of my co-authors. In the book we carefully flag who led on each chapter, and which work is genuinely joint.


I hope all that’s encouraged you to take a further look. The hardback is painfully expensive, as academic books always are. The ebook edition is quite a lot cheaper. Either way, order it from the EE website and use the code CHES35 to get yourselves a 35% discount. Happy reading!

What have high-skilled migrants ever done for us?

March 2, 2014

(c) 2014 uncovention

I’ve got a new paper out in the IZA Journal of Migration.

It’s about high skilled migrants – by which I mean people with a degree, with specialist skills (e.g. scientists) or with rich experience in (say) entrepreneurship. It’s based on some recent work for the UK Government’s Migration Advisory Committee.

In the UK, immigration is once again a top 3 issue for public opinion, it’s pretty important to gather what evidence we have.

Here’s the abstract:

In recent years, the economics of migration literature has shown a substantial growth in papers exploring host country impacts beyond the labour market. Specifically, researchers have begun to shift their attention from labour market and fiscal changes, towards exploring what we might call ‘the wider effects of migration’ on the production and consumption sides of the economy – and the role of high-skilled migrants in these processes. This paper surveys the emerging ‘wider impacts’ literature, including studies from the US, European and other countries. It sets out some simple, non-technical frameworks, discusses the empirical findings and identifies avenues for future research.

Thanks to the joys of Open Access, you can read the whole thing here. In case you don’t have time, here are some of the main points:

1/ Skilled migrants now comprise around 30% of OECD migrants – that’s 25% more than in 2000/1. And the future trend is upward.

2/ We know quite a lot about immigration’s impact on wages and jobs (positive on the average, but more serious for some low skilled workers). However, we know almost nothing about the wider impacts of immigration – on productivity and its drivers, and on housing or public services – where high-skilled migrants are going to be central.

3/ To get a sense of these impacts, we need to think about immigration in terms of economic growth – that is, as a factor in production and something that shifts the size and composition of local populations.

4/ In theory, these wider impacts are ambiguous. For example, more diverse workforces could generate more new ideas; but diverse teams could have communication problems or lower trust.

5/ In practice, the international evidence suggests that aggregate wider impacts are positive (gains outweigh losses). In places like Silicon Valley, high skill migrants are a driving force in the local economy.

6/ That’s encouraging for pro-migration voices in the UK and elsewhere, but we still need much more evidence. In particular, we need to know more about the winners and losers in these aggregate outcomes.

7/ Ideally, the UK and other countries would develop experimental policies for high-skilled migrants, enableing us to cleanly identify these effects. Turning the Tier 1 entrepreneur route into a proper Startup Visa is one obvious option. Creating a market for wealthy investors via visa auctions is another. Both could allow for evaluation through randomised trials or quasi-experimental approaches. But the current politics of immigration are making this kind of thing increasingly difficult to do.

Agglomeration, clusters and industrial policy

November 25, 2013

Sou Fujimoto, Serpentine Pavilion. (c) Max Nathan 2013

I have a new article out in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy, joint with Henry Overman. It’s part of a special issue on ‘Government and Business’, with other contributions by Jonathan Haskel, Stian Westlake, Dieter Helm, Francesca Froy and Phil McCann.

You can see the whole lot here, and (for the moment) PDFs are free.

My piece with Henry is a constructive-critical take on clusters and the urban level of innovation policy. Here’s the abstract:

This paper considers the appropriate spatial scale for industrial policy. Should policy focus on particular places, targeting clusters of firms that are spatially concentrated? Or should it, instead, be ‘space neutral’, refusing to discriminate between different areas unless absolutely necessary? We provide an overview of the literature and identify two waves of literature that argue strongly in favour of a cluster approach. We argue that this approach rests on shaky theoretical and empirical foundations. In contrast, we suggest that more attention should be paid to the appropriate spatial scale for horizontal interventions. What can policy do to make cities work better, in ways that help firms to grow? That is, what is the appropriate role for ‘agglomeration’ rather than ‘cluster’ policy? Finally, we consider the possibility that some horizontal industrial policy objectives may be better served by specifically targeting particular places or from decentralized design or delivery.

Read the whole thing here.

… and we’re live

October 25, 2013

our London launch

We had the London launch of the What Works Centre yesterday. It went very well – full room, sharp discussion, plus strong contributions from LSE’s Director Craig Calhoun, from BIS and DCLG Ministers Michael Fallon and Kris Hopkins and from Joanna Killian from Essex.

We’re off to Manchester in a couple of weeks for a second launch session. Details here.

Now the hard work begins

In the meantime you can catch up on what we’re up to here and here.

What Works

September 11, 2013

As some of you will know, LSE, the Centre for Cities and Arup will be running the new What Works Centre on local economic growth.

The Centre will conduct systematic reviews of UK and international research, ranking the most effective interventions, and will work closely with local government, local enterprise partnerships and other ‘users’ to help develop stronger economic policymaking across the UK. As NICE and the EEF already do, it may eventually commission research too.

The Centre has just begun work – we had a great workshop today with a number of our local partners – and we’ll formally launch later in the Autumn. We’ll be part of a network of six working on health, education, ageing, crime reduction and early intervention as well as local economies.

Henry Overman is stepping down from SERC to lead the Centre. I’m becoming one of the Deputy Directors, and will be working at LSE alongside my research-focused role at NIESR. I’ll be leading on the academic workstream, co-ordinating the systematic reviews and demonstrator projects, as well as advising Henry on the Centre’s direction.

We’ll be working with a strong team of academics across the country – in Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle and Bristol, as well as London. We’ll also team up with New Economy Manchester on capacity-building and demonstrator projects. And we’ll be using the UK-wide networks developed by Centre for Cities and Arup.

Developing a new organisation from scratch is exciting, challenging and a huge amount of work, as I can attest from my early days at the Centre for Cities. Unlike most start-ups, we are very lucky to have secure initial funding. And we have an emerging body of good practice to draw on. But we still have a great deal to do in the months ahead. I look forward to working with many of you as we build out.

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