Vision / Sustainable futures / Driving to net zero

Sustainable futures

Driving to net zero

A priority for government to address low productivity in the UK economy is to create the conditions for an innovation-driven economy. The drivers to achieve this are however complex and multidimensional, with a vibrant research and innovation ecosystem being a key priority. A core pillar of the UK government’s Innovation Strategy published in July 2021 (1) is to support the development of innovation clusters in regions across the UK.

Research-driven innovation clusters have long been observed and studied to understand the preconditions for their success. Internationally, efforts have been made to recreate these to support the development of highly productive clusters in different countries and contexts. The archetypes are Silicon Valley in the US and the Cambridge Life Sciences cluster in the UK.

Creating a vibrant innovation ecosystem

A cluster is identifiable where there is a mutually reinforcing flow of ideas and people between the private and public sectors, leading to real innovation and the creation of substantial value, prosperity and jobs in the surrounding locality2,3. A strong and important element of the emergence of these phenomena has been a highly effective research centre, providing the underpinning discoveries and technologies on which business can establish routes to market for new technologies and innovation processes. For example, the Laboratory for Molecular Biology in Cambridge and computer sciences at the universities of Stanford and Berkley in Silicon Valley. Belfast’s Waterside development is a recent example of a deliberate attempt to create such an effect, where city regeneration and science-based innovation has been brought together to create a vibrant growing innovation ecosystem.

The East Midlands by all measures would be a key target region for stimulating innovation-based economic development. The East Midlands receives the lowest level of R&D spend of any region in the country. Productivity is low and social inequality, poor educational outcomes and deprivation is real. Yet it has the highest level of Innovate UK funding per capita, suggesting the East Midlands is a high potential setting for innovation in partnership with business4.

The University of Nottingham is working with partners and stakeholders in the city and region to redirect its research and innovation efforts towards developing a large and vibrant research and innovation cluster, using our campuses in Nottingham as vehicles for new models of high activity. Drawing together world-leading research groups, facilities and ways of working, the aim is to rapidly develop a ‘clustering’ effect for the city and region. A first and immediate focus is on zero carbon technologies.

Translation of zero carbon technologies

The University of Nottingham is among the top five institutions globally for translation of its zero carbon-oriented research into high-impact commercial solutions, and is sought out by government and industry for partnering and advice across our strengths in electrification for transport, technologies for net zero aviation, developing green fuels and low energy solutions for the built environment. The university is also recognised for its strength in working with business, performing highly in the recent Knowledge Exchange Framework. It has key assets to bring to bear on the zero carbon challenges – these create the pre-conditions for innovation clusters to emerge.

Our world-leading transdisciplinary academic groups are developing translation-ready innovation and technologies that can be rapidly pushed through into commercial products and solutions. Our state-of-the-art facilities on Jubilee Campus are next to Nottingham Science Park and Enterprise Zone and wider regional industry networks. Two UK Research Partnership Investment Fund (UKRIPF) developments – the Power Electronics and Machines Centre, which is the setting for the UK Electrification of Aerospace Propulsion Facility, and the GSK Carbon Neutral Laboratories for Sustainable Chemistry, as well as the Advanced Manufacturing Building and energy Research Acceleration and Demonstration Building, provide an extraordinary mix of research groups with superb facilities, including test bed and demonstrator facilities unavailable to industry anywhere in Europe and unaffordable to any single business. We offer scale-up capacity and co-location opportunities on the site, as well as links to very large scale-up sites in regional planned developments. These developments are partnerships between the university and the East Midlands Development Company, the planned Freeport, city and county councils and D2N2 Local Enterprise Partnership, among others.



Pushing products into market

There is a live working model for co-working with industry on both ‘push-through’ innovation from the university, ‘pull-through’ high value technologies from industry partners and for co-designing real-time, technology-based solutions in a new dedicated translation centre. The object is developing net zero-ready commercial products developed through a co-working model. Products can be rapidly pushed into the market with industry partners directly, or through supply chain development. As many of these as possible will be manufactured by SMEs already in the region or via spin-out and scale-up companies supported by the university. The skilled workforce essential to this vision will be developed in partnership with local universities and colleges. A permeable interface between the university and partner businesses will support the free flow of talent for the innovation cluster.

The Nottingham zero carbon innovation opportunity is in place and will be a strong focus for the foreseeable future. In years to come it should create the conditions for the development of a unique zero carbon industry cluster in the East Midlands, driving much-needed economic prosperity, jobs and wellbeing – and the University of Nottingham will be the foundation stone.


Professor Dame Jessica Corner

Professor Dame Jessica Corner is Executive Chair of Research England and formerly Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Exchange at the University of Nottingham.

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