Sam Davies

More growth. Still no benefits?

You may recall I concluded last week’s post by asking whose voices are being heard in this city, and where the wealth being generated is flowing.

Those questions about leadership and influence were given further urgency this week with the launch of yet another business lobby interest group, Innovate Cambridge, which convened a summit of the Great and the Good at King’s College on Thursday.

Innovate Cambridge is led by the University of Cambridge; the University’s knowledge transfer and commercialisation arm, Cambridge Enterprise; and Cambridge Innovation Capital (a “preferred investor” for the University, managing over £500m of investments).

This is a heavy-hitting triumvirate and its ambition can be seen in the list of speakers at the event, not only spanning 40 years of the ‘Cambridge Phenomenon’ but also international representation including the Global Institute of Innovation Districts (“a global network of 23 innovation districts worldwide”) and the Cambridge (Boston) Innovation Center (“a global leader in building and operating innovation campuses”).

Collaboration/networking and ‘cluster effects’ have been key factors in the success of the Cambridge tech sector and to that extent, Thursday’s event was neither surprising nor controversial. But equally it would be a mistake to assume that it was just any other business gathering. It was intended to promote the Innovate Cambridge Charter 2022 [1]; there are no prizes for guessing that substantial growth (of the ‘sustainable’ and ‘inclusive’ kind of course!) is a fundamental component of this:

“Cambridge must develop the infrastructure needed to support our ambition, as well as enhancing our world-renowned place proposition … A refreshed development model must be implemented to ensure we get the right balance of office, laboratory, recreational, and domestic space, delivered in a manner which leads to a vibrant cultural life and rich architecture.”

There is also discussion of developing a “compelling innovation and impact story” to be promoted by “a unified force comprising the universities, start-ups, scale up companies, investors, corporates, network and community partners, local and national government, and space and infrastructure providers.”

What benefits of this growth are really accruing?

I have been reading this kind of rhetoric for 30 years. I even helped to write some of it back in 1998! But since that burst of youthful optimism, it’s become steadily harder to see what benefits of this growth are really accruing to the city.

Yes, there is a hat-tip to local government and the community in that ‘unified force’ list of partners. But as I have pointed out previously, local government is so disjointed, so lacking in powers and retains so little of the wealth created here, that in its current format it can only ever be a very minor player in a much bigger game.

That’s also relevant to the argument put forward that Cambridge has to evolve in a particular direction in order to compete with other global tech clusters. One which is increasingly often cited is Kendall Square in Boston: the Cambridge Biomedical Campus even names it as an international comparator in its Vision 2050 growth advocacy. However, Kendall Square is based on the regeneration of old industrial land, not greenfield expansion. More importantly, the different land ownership and tax structures models which prevail in the US mean that local government and local residents benefit to a far greater extent than is possible here [2].

I’ll close with a reflection on another Innovate Cambridge pronouncement: “Looking ahead to 2030 and beyond, for Cambridge research to maximise its impact we need the University and the ecosystem to work with enhanced partnership.”

Although the overtly adversarial relationship between town and gown has mellowed over the centuries, the undue influence of the University and its colleges in their role as landowner/landlord is still troubling, as highlighted by the analysis being undertaken by the Cambridge Land Justice campaign. This has then been compounded by the arrival of global finance giants, such as Biomed Realty; and the ongoing solicitation of inward investment by Cambridge&, among many others. Given all this, I’m doubtful that any form of ‘enhanced partnership’ will help our woefully underpowered civic institutions safeguard the interests of those they are supposed to represent.

[1] The Innovate Cambridge Charter 2022‘s ambition statement includes the following:

  1. “We have an obligation to ensure our world leading research and companies continue to transform the UK and the world for the better.”
  2. “For us to address national and global challenges we must keep pace with other rapidly growing innovation ecosystems.”
  3. “Cambridge needs to compete with other cities for talent, capital, quality of life and innovation resources and we must ensure our proposition remains both compelling and differentiated.”

[2] See this description of the financial relationship between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and local government:

“MIT’s historical practice of investing in the City of Cambridge falls into two categories of property use. MIT owns 166 acres of academic property that is legally tax-exempt because it serves the Institute’s nonprofit mission of teaching and research. While no real estate taxes are required on academic property, MIT provides a “payment in lieu of taxes” (PILOT) to Cambridge of approximately $2 million annually, based on an agreement with the city. MIT and Harvard were the first universities in the country to offer their host municipalities voluntary PILOT contributions, beginning in 1928. This nearly 90-year-old tradition remains unique among “town-gown” relationships in the nation, and provides the city with a predictable and reliable source of revenue.

“Not counting the Volpe parcel [the most recent 14 acre development plot], MIT also owns 92 acres of investment property in Cambridge, which is taxable because it is used for commercial purposes. This kind of property might be leased to a global pharmaceutical company or a local startup company that has emerged from an MIT lab. The Institute pays real estate taxes on its investment land, and in so doing, has been the city’s largest taxpayer for many years. In 2016, MIT’s $45 million tax payment represented more than 14 percent of the city’s total tax revenue.”

Sam Davies


  • Add to this the closure of the airport by 2030 and further development will clog the existing poor infrastructure still further.
    Am I alone in thinking that all major cities should have an airport?

  • There was an outline application for key workers accommodation flats near the new childrens’ hospital – is there any news about this?

  • On the ball as ever, Sam. I notice the number of imperatives in these mission statements – always what “Cambridge” must do or must provide for these people. What will the phrase be when Cambridge as we know it no longer exists?

    I quote the Roman historian Sallust again. Rome was ‘a city up for sale, if only it could find a buyer. Those of us who have actually made our lives here are treated like colonial subjects whose interests are at the very bottom of the list of priorities.

    The French (ironically) have a saying: If you plan to drain the pond you don’t consult the frogs. We British are more civilised. We give the frogs a good croak and then drain it anyway.

    So please, Sam , soldier bravely on, on behalf of all of us.

    Len Rix

  • Len’s comment (frogs, pond) struck me with a mighty force. The Cambridge Phenomenon now has a (malign) force if it’s own, and, with only one sane voice on our city council (yours) the future is, indeed, bleak.
    Thank you for persevering!