Published: 5th May 2016

PMKR Innovation factory 42On the site of one of Belfast’s largest former employers, an incubation hub is hoping to kickstart local enterprise. Belfast Council – which owns the building – reports on its innovative approach to its development

Belfast’s newly built £9.1m Innovation Factory is an exciting new facility for start-up businesses and expanding firms, specialising in innovation, research and development and other creative solutions. This dynamic entrepreneurial space is due to open in autumn 2016.

The council-owned facility will be run and managed by Oxford Innovation in partnership with various local sub-contractors. It was part-funded by Invest Northern Ireland and the European Regional Development Fund under the sustainable competitiveness programme for Northern Ireland, to the tune of over £6m, with Belfast Council providing the remaining capital.

Involving the community

The Innovation Factory was a key part of Belfast Council’s pledge to support regeneration by investing in infrastructure to help businesses start up and grow. It’s located in Forthriver Business Park, a deprived area on the Springfield Road in west Belfast, where unemployment is high and investment has been low to date. The site is also significant due to its location on an interface between the predominantly nationalist west Belfast and the unionist Greater Shankill area. It aims to provide politically neutral space, using the potential for collective economic growth as a catalyst for positive community engagement and shared prosperity.

Community representation has been intrinsic to all aspects of the centre’s development. The community contributed to the naming and branding of the facility, which provided an opportunity to raise local awareness of the centre and the direct and indirect benefits it would deliver. The council also used the capital build of the centre as a means to engage Young Enterprise NI on a schools programme aimed at promoting awareness of the centre, as well as careers built around enterprise and innovation.

Innovation Factory is the first development announced for the 12 acre site owned by Invest NI and previously home to one of Belfast’s largest employers, James Mackie & Sons brick manufacturers. The Innovation Factory is one of the first green shoots to appear since the manufacturer’s closure in 1999. And it’s hoped it will attract further investment into this area, with foreign direct investment a key target.

Despite this economic backdrop, the area’s potential has been recognised with blue chip companies such as Andor Technology and Caterpillar based within the locality. The location also benefits from a wealth of supporting infrastructure including Belfast Metropolitan College’s E3 campus which offers access to state-of the-art technology for businesses and learners alike, as well as support mechanisms for start-ups in the neighbouring local enterprise agencies.

The investment proposal for Innovation Factory focused on regeneration by developing workspace as a way of supporting economic and social regeneration of the area. Not only is the Innovation Factory a much needed addition to the area’s business support infrastructure and to the city as a whole, it’s delivering real social and economic value in itself.

Maximising social benefit

To maximise social and economic benefits from the Innovation Factory, social considerations were built into the procurement process for both the construction and operator contracts. Through the construction contract, the council introduced a range of ‘social clauses’ which required the appointed contractor, Heron Bros, to deliver additional economic and social benefit in the following areas:

  • promotion of supply chain opportunities arising from the contract,
  • employment opportunities for the long term unemployed,
  • placement opportunities for students and those seeking to gain employment; and
  • achieving and sustaining industry apprenticeship standards.

All of the social clause targets were met in full or exceeded by the contractor, resulting in over 220 employment weeks being provided for the long term unemployed, 343 placement weeks being delivered and 10 apprenticeships being sustained through the contract.

‘Bids were required to include ideas and solutions as to how the Innovation

Factory might contribute to the social and economic regeneration of the area’

While the construction contract delivered valuable social and economic benefits, the council recognised that a much greater long-term impact could be achieved through the operation of the facility. So a ‘competitive dialogue’ process was used to appoint an operator for the Innovation Factory and social regeneration was incorporated as part of the tender evaluation criteria. Before the tender process, we also engaged with local communities through various forums to provide opportunities for consultation and contributions to the development of the social benefits aspect of the tender specification.

Those bidding for the contract were required to bring forward their own ideas and innovative solutions in relation to how the Innovation Factory might contribute to the social and economic regeneration of the local area and to improving the quality of life for local communities. This approach has provided a solution which exceeds normal social clause standards and delivers a solution which is bespoke to the Innovation Factory and its location.

The recently appointed operator, Oxford Innovation, has committed dedicated resources to work with local communities to deliver a range of social regeneration activities across the following themes:

  • employability initiatives such as placements, personal development programmes and ‘buy local’ policies,
  • supporting entrepreneurship within local schools and education providers; and
  • promoting social enterprise with local communities through business development programmes.

As the operator for this contract has just recently been appointed, it is too early to report on outcomes, however this approach has identified the potential for integrating wider social and economic benefits through procurement activities. Belfast Council recognises the power of procurement to deliver added social and economic benefits and so we’re currently investigating the potential to develop a ‘Social Value Procurement Framework’.

While social clauses in contracts provide one mechanism for the council to maximise the impact of expenditure, there are other, potentially more significant ways to achieve this objective. The council recognises that it can maximise the overall social value contribution of large city development opportunities and the contribution of the city’s anchor institutions as employers, contractors and service providers. It’s an approach which requires strong leadership and it’s a role that Belfast Council is well positioned to play. Within the context of the Belfast Agenda, it will work more closely with partners to ensure that growth and poverty are seen and tackled as two mutually reinforcing agendas.

The council’s future ‘Social Value Procurement Framework’ will embed city priorities into procurement decisions, giving it much greater capacity to stimulate and positively influence supply chain activities.