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Inclusive Transformation – A new area of research to support the Midlands Post-Covid recovery

By Professor Simon Green, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research), Aston University and Midlands Innovation lead for the Inclusive Transformation research theme

What is Inclusive Transformation and why are Midlands Innovation embarking on this new area of collaborative research?

To be able to answer that question it may be helpful for me to provide you with some background information - Economically and socially, the Midlands embodies many of the features of contemporary Britain; the region is at the heart of UK manufacturing, our Life Sciences sector is growing, and we have a large service sector, especially in finance, but also in the creative arts.

Beyond our towns and cities, agriculture remains an important part of the economy, and the challenge to meet NET-Zero targets and move to a low carbon future great. Prior to the pandemic there were very real social inequalities and personal hardships in the Midlands.  In February of this year the UK2070 Final Report[1] noted that between 2006 and 2018 average household wealth fell by 12% in the East Midlands compared to an 80% growth in London. The COVID-19 pandemic has made these inequalities more obvious and more severe. 

Our region contains some of the highest and lowest levels of ethnic diversity. The health impacts of the virus are also not equal. For example, collaborative research by the Universities or Leicester and Nottingham, shows that the coronavirus is up to twice as likely to infect people of Black and Asian ethnicity.

In addition to the health challenges COVID-19 has thrust upon us, it has also brought about huge economic challenges. 

Research by the Universities of Warwick and Nottingham has shown, for example, that working class women were the worst affected by the first lockdown, bearing the brunt of cuts to working hours.  Almost half of working-class women did no hours of work in April compared to just 20% of women in professional or managerial roles. This research is working to understand how working-class women are responding in real-time to the pressures imposed by the virus.

Prior to the pandemic, productivity in the Midlands was 94% of the England (minus London) average.  The challenges of Covid-19 and changes that BREXIT will create will have an impact on our region in many ways, and perhaps more so than in other parts of the country.

Tackling the challenges of inequality, low productivity and community prosperity require partnership.  Universities need to work with civic and regional partners as well as with business partners and each other.  Working with our diverse stakeholders we need to find solutions to some of the most pressing social issues we are facing as a society such as:

  • how to draw communities out of poverty,
  • how to improve educational outcomes, and
  • understanding the impact of financial exclusion and the access to financial services across different socio-economic groups.

One of the main objectives of Midlands Innovation is to connect our institutions and build new research collaborations that align with the needs of our region, and so the Midlands most research intensive universities (the eight institutions in the Midlands Innovation group) have resolved to draw on their individual strengths and to collaborate together to support the urgent task of post-COVID reconstruction of the Midlands economy. We are committed to working with both regional and national stakeholders in order to develop this agenda, which we have called Inclusive Transformation.

In turn, we are focusing our Inclusive Transformation research into three primary areas, which we see as inextricably interlinked and circular in their nature, these are; economic renewal, wellbeing and prosperity and social diversity.

We began work to develop this new collaborative area of research prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, and whilst the pandemic has led to some restructuring of our thoughts, it has strengthened our conviction that there is much that we can do as a partnership to support our region to recover, regrow and truly ‘build back better’ - and to do so in a way that is both supportive and inclusive to all who live and work here.

Increasingly we are seeing an amplified emphasis from government and UKRI on the roles, collaboration and the importance of place in research and the desire to level-up the country. Midlands Innovation is a partnership that helps us as institutions align with these agendas at a scale not possible as individual organisations.

I believe that by bringing together our collective expertise, our research strengths, and our networks of partners, MI can make a real difference in our region by co-creating research programmes and initiatives that can inclusively transform the Midlands not only as a place, but most importantly for all our people, and so I was delighted that nearly 200 academics across from the social sciences, humanities and the arts brought their breadth of experience to participate in two virtual workshops in November and December to discuss how we can develop our Inclusive Transformation research.

As I mentioned in both sessions – prior to the pandemic we would not have been able to bring so many colleagues together for two physical workshops, so it is great that so many colleagues tuned-in to share their knowledge, passion and ideas online in the formation of our research theme.

I would like to thank Professors Chris Warhurst, University of Warwick, Karen Rowlingson, University of Birmingham, and Derek McGhee, Keele University, for leading the rich and fruitful discussions that came out of each workshop, and the whole of the steering group who have supported the development of the workshops and theme. I would also like to thank Professors Shearer West, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nottingham, and Nishan Canagarajah, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester, for opening each workshop on behalf of the MI Board.

Finally, may I thank all of those who attended the workshops to help shape this important agenda. We have taken away their valuable insights and thoughts and will utilise these to help us to further hone this area of research as we work together to support the recovery of our region and our communities, in such a way as to inclusively transform their place and their futures.