On 17 January, representatives from the West Midlands’ leading private, public and third sector organisations gathered to imagine a future where the region is synonymous with positive collaboration and thriving growth opportunities. This was the West Midlands Live Lab.
At Villa Park in Aston, Birmingham, more than 100 people worked together, sharing their ideas and practical advice, to dream, design and develop a greater West Midlands. The event was the fourth instalment in the Grant Thornton Vibrant Economy Live Lab series.
At the home of Aston Villa football club, representatives from major West Midlands-based businesses, public sector institutions and charities spoke with pride about what makes their region a great place to live and work.
Following the popular appreciative inquiry approach, guests were encouraged to think positively and design plans that would contribute to existing strengths, rather than criticise and place blame for the region’s challenges.
The timing could not have been more opportune: as the West Midlands Combined Authority finds its feet, the prospect of High Speed 2 (HS2) moves closer and with the region’s first mayoral election planned for May 2017 is set to be a year when the West Midlands can secure its foundations to be a region that thrives over the next five, 10 and 20 years.
Grant Thornton UK regional partner, David Hillan, led the day’s proceedings, with featured speakers including: Mike Lyons, Director of Programme Infrastructure, HS2; Richard Cowell, Birmingham City Council and Grant Thornton UK CEO Sacha Romanovitch.
The principal themes discussed during the day were:
- The need to ensure the region’s infrastructure – airport, metro and national rail, among them – can compete on an international scale and that new connections and developments serve all the region’s communities fairly
- How to provide the region’s young people with the skills and the employment opportunities that will let them lead rewarding professional lives
- Preparing and promoting the region as a hub of advanced manufacturing and innovation, in so doing attracting overseas attention and investment
- The opportunities presented by West Midlands devolution, which will be headed by the first-ever West Midlands Mayor to be elected in May
- How to make more of the region’s industrial heritage and the diverse makeup of its modern communities – to raise awareness of the region’s rich past but also position it as a future-facing city
Part way through the day, mayoral candidates from three major UK parties took part in a debate chaired by Grant Thornton UK’s Director of Public Affairs, Adam Jackson. Andy Street (Con.), Beverley Nielsen (Lib Dem.) and James Burn (Green) gave their views on the future economic direction of the region, plans for boosting the region’s affordable housing stock and why the West Midlands should speak louder and prouder about its achievements.
Warwick the most vibrant place in the West Midlands
The event coincided with the release of the Vibrant Economy Index findings for the region, which found that Warwick was the most ‘vibrant’ place in the West Midlands while Coventry scored highest in the region for dynamism and opportunity.
Sacha Romanovitch ended the day by calling on those present to each do their bit to take the ideas discussed and turn them into a reality; adding that those in the room all knew what a future West Midlands could look like, but it would take each of them to step forward and act to make it happen.