The University of Newcastle, Australia

Smartest Places On Earth

Monday, 27 February 2017

Rustbelts to brainbelts: Renowned international innovation experts visit the Hunter to share insights on regional renewal

Antoine van Agtmael and Fred Bakker

International innovation experts, Mr Antoine van Agtmael and Mr Fred Bakker, who have led a global conversation about the revitalisation of post-industrial cities, or ‘rustbelts’, as emerging sources of innovation and economic strength are currently in Newcastle as guests of the University of Newcastle (UON).

As UON President’s Visiting Fellows, Mr van Agtmael and Mr Bakker will shareinsights from their book The Smartest Places on Earth: Why Rustbelts are Emerging Hotspots of Global Innovation, in which they discuss how post-industrial cities across the world are revitalising their economies and industries.

Mr van Agtmael, who coined the term “emerging markets” and is currently a senior adviser at Garten Rothkopf, a public policy advisory firm in Washington DC, and Mr Bakker, renowned former editor in chief of the Het Financieele Dagblad (The Financial Times of Holland), said the new engine rooms of wealth and prosperity are those areas that have shifted their focus from the production of cheap goods to smart goods.

“The bottom line is economic productivity can no longer be reduced to a simple spreadsheet that measures the most effective use of labour and capital. The coming decades will be just as much about the creative use of talent, knowledge, ideas, and new technologies in the most effective way. From now on, it’s not about being cheaper; it’s about being smarter,” Mr van Agtmael and Mr Bakker said.

During a two-year journey across the globe, they observed strong collaborations among business, research and industry in ‘rustbelts’ regions. Through this shared brainpower, collaborators were developing smart products that address the challenges of the 21st century, and were in turn, transforming themselves into ‘brainbelt’ regions.

“Former centres of industry have become centres of innovation: brainbelts. Over two years, we visited many of these areas around the world. We expected to find crumbling industrial sites, to drive through dilapidated neighbourhoods, to meet people struggling hard to keep their heads above water. But instead what we discovered blew those images out of our heads,” Mr van Agtmael and Mr Bakker said.

Mr van Agtmael and Mr Bakker found ‘rustbelts’ were now producing products and technologies to transform industries such as vehicles and transportation, farming and food production, medical devices and health-care.

“One example we discovered was in Akron, Ohio. It had long been the centre of the global tyre industry, but had slipped into decline as tyre production went offshore. It now has 1,000 start-ups that employ more people now than the four big tyre companies had in the region’s manufacturing heyday,” Mr van Agtmael and Mr Bakker said.

University of Newcastle Vice-Chancellor, Professor Caroline McMillen, said the University was delighted to welcome Mr van Agtmael and Mr Bakker to Newcastle and to learn from their experiences.

“Newcastle and regions across Australia are in periods of transition, and universities have a fundamental role in driving the cultural and economic renewal of the communities they serve,” Professor McMillen said.

“To learn more about this global ‘brainbelt’ trend from two innovation leaders that have observed the evolution first hand has been very valuable, and will inform the ways we continue to work with our communities to transform our city and regions.”

“In particular, we will continue to support a regional innovation ecosystem that will produce new jobs and businesses through our providing collaborative working spaces, attracting and retaining new skills and talent, and delivering outstanding education, research and innovation.”

Speaking of their experiences in the region, Mr van Agtmael and Mr Bakker, said the transformation of Newcastle has a solid foundation and is well underway.

“We were impressed with the focus on collaboration with business and startups of the University. Its new building in the old center will undoubtedly become the anchor of a much-needed redevelopment of this historically important part of town,” Mr van Agtmael and Mr Bakker said.

“Also, the old BHP-Billiton research lab is now the Newcastle Institute for Energy and Resources (NIER) where path breaking research is underway in several key areas and at the modern building of the Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI) we heard of world-class research on such vital topics as asthma, strokes, and public health.”

Mr van Agtmael and Mr Bakker will be speaking at a public event at the Newcastle Museum on Monday at 6:00pm, and will also be keynote speakers at the 2017 Universities Australia Higher Education Conference.

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