Newcastle University Launch NICRE - the New Rural Innovation Centre

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Newcastle University Launch NICRE - the New Rural Innovation Centre
By Paddy Terry, Partner Success Manager

We interviewed Matthew Gorton, Deputy Director of NICRE, in early November 2020 to hear about the newly formed project. For more information see the NICRE website.

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What is the NICRE project?

NICRE is an integrated Innovation, Research and Policy project - Research England have provided us with funding to set up the centre which started work on the 1st of September.

We're undertaking research to understand rural economies better, and to understand ways to enable them to fulfil their potential. We're also establishing innovation projects, which are small scale pilot projects working with actors on the ground to try and come up with solutions to common problems or grand challenges which could then be upscaled.

The third aspect is to try and integrate rural better within mainstream innovation, business and enterprise policy. Often rural is left on the sidelines or viewed as a problem, but rural areas have a lot of opportunities for developing solutions to common problems society faces - if we think about clean energy, decarbonisation, mobility, ageing population, they all have a large rural dimension to them. It therefore seems silly that rural is often ignored in innovation policy because rural is substantial, there’s lots of rural businesses, and they can make a much larger contribution to meeting national innovation challenges.

What is your role in the project?

I'm the Deputy Director of NICRE with Jeremy Phillipson as the Director - it's based in Newcastle and with partners, the Enterprise Research Centre at the University of Warwick, and the Countryside and Community Research Institute which is a collaboration of the University of Gloucestershire and the Royal Agricultural University too. My role will be on the research side - particularly to do with rural finance and marketing by rural enterprises.

Its great to see the project collaborating with other bodies like the Universities you just mentioned, as well as firms like Strutt & Parker and Azets - how are they going to be involved in the project?

Their involvement is as advisors and to help with communication, as they're dealing with businesses on the ground and can give insights into what’s going on and what is important - it is also about how we connect with rural businesses which tend to be fragmented and geographically isolated, so trying to deal with rural businesses on a one-to-one basis is very difficult from an academic and a policy perspective. But many rural businesses have relationships with intermediaries like Strutt & Parker and Azets so working with them makes sense in terms of getting our messages across and thinking about the implementation of pilot schemes as well.

With Strutt & Parker and Azets we have identified some common problems that their clients face, and it makes sense to think about how we can solve these together. For example, for farmers it may be alternative sources of income outside of traditional agricultural commodity production, be it environmental services, decarbonisation, or using land for leisure or sporting activities.

For rural businesses more widely, managers often recognise that they have data which could help them to improve their strategy and performance but they tell us “we don't know what to do with it - how do we use it? How do we analyse it? how do we make sense of it?" and this comes up time and time again, I'm sure you find that at Figured as well! How do you take the raw data, and use it to make better decisions?

What is the overarching aim of NICRE?

It’s to help rural enterprises fulfil their potential. For example, there are more rural businesses that have goods and services suitable for exporting than actually export – it’s actually nearly twice as many businesses that say they have goods suitable for exporting but aren't exporting. So, there is a lot of potential there, and it's really a case of how to fulfil that potential - some of it is in terms of exporting, but it's a range of factors like aiding innovation and exploring new markets and developing new products as well.

What are the driving factors that have led to the creation of NICRE now?

Three factors have been important: one is the Industrial Strategy, which identified a number of grand challenges in energy, data, health and ageing, which all have a rural dimension - and trying to solve those challenges without including rural doesn't make sense, so that’s one aspect.

The second aspect relates to the levelling up agenda in the UK, to try and increase prosperity in the Midlands and the North. Rural areas are important to these regions and there is an appreciation that just pouring money into Manchester or Birmingham often does little for the surrounding areas - so there is a need to think not just about metropolis led regional development, but how to share prosperity throughout the UK, including rural areas.

The third aspect is Brexit - the UK will need to develop new international markets and be innovative to successfully access those markets. Also, the policy environment in which rural firms operate, both for farm and non-farm enterprises, is going to change quite dramatically post-Brexit, and firms will need to adjust to that.

So those are the three macro forces behind the creation of NICRE now.

With the project starting in September, where is the initial focus of NICRE? Is the impact of COVID on rural areas a focus?

At the moment we're defining our key research themes - there are some big ones we have identified so far: Firstly, access to external finance for rural businesses - there is some concern that bank provision is much worse in rural areas, and also rural businesses struggle to access equity markets so they are quite reliant on debt finance. Moreover, many high street banks have closed their rural branches and consolidated in the main urban centres, which may mean rural businesses have worse financial options than urban businesses, so we're investigating that and looking at potential solutions. Then looking at international trade and rural enterprises, trying to understand the main barriers to international trade and how they can be overcome. Thirdly we're assessing the impact of COVID on rural economies using government data.

How important is investment and better usage of technologies in the advancement of rural economies and solving the issues you've mentioned?

Most innovations have a technological aspect to them, but we also recognise that there is also an economic aspect and a social aspect, and all three should be considered for successful innovation. I've worked previously on many farm projects which have been technology led, out of academia, and in many cases the technology just wasn't as suitable for farms as it was hoped to be. For example, taking agri-tech equipment from the UK and using it in developing economies where farms operate on a much smaller scale, often a percentage of a hectare, often doesn't make sense economically - so sometimes technology isn't the only answer.

On the social side, farmers also need to be willing to use the new technology, and sometimes they are reluctant, but if there are some farmers who are using it and advocate it through demonstrations, then other farmers are much more likely to be happy to adopt it - so technology is key but it’s often only one part of a larger solution and it’s important to get the balance right.

Is there an opportunity for other industry bodies and firms to get involved in NICRE?

Effectively NICRE is a start-up at the moment, so we're interested in working with people on the policy side, individual businesses, intermediary organisations like Figured and Xero, and we'll see how those play out. But yes, at this stage we're interested in working with other organisations where we can.

There are contact details on the NICRE website so interested parties can get in touch and we'll pick it up from there.

Thanks to Matthew for sitting down to chat with us about the NICRE project - its an exiting initiative and we'll be watching its progress!