Making local policy impact: analysing opportunity areas for data driven innovation within the city region (beyond the Edinburgh City)
Logos for University of Edinburgh and Data-Driven Innovation (DDI) Initiative

By Matjaz Vidmar and Fumi Kitagawa

How would you make “policy impact” in the local areas on your doorstep? We may have some stories to share. The University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University are delivering Data-Driven Innovation (DDI) initiative as part of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal (see Figure 1 for an outline of the city-region). The universities are using world-leading research and data analytics capabilities in partnerships with public, private and third sector organisations to improve products and services, transforming the City Region. A lot of this work naturally centres on Edinburgh, with the highest concentration of economic activity, as well as existing close ties between research centres with the business ecosystem concentrated in the city centre. From the Data Lab partnership, the investment into the Bayes Centre hub and to core new infrastructure, such as the Edinburgh International Data Facility, the DDI programme is well on the way to achieve its ambition to make Edinburgh the “data capital of Europe”.

However, the more challenging aspect of reaching the Data-Driven Innovation aspiration out into the local ecosystem is when we look beyond the urban area. In particular, adjacent local authorities face significant developmental challenges of both declining high streets and erosion of traditional industries. Hence, a dynamic team of multidisciplinary researchers from the School of Social and Political Science, the School of Engineering and the Business School has been formed aiming to identify specific DDI “opportunity areas” for expanding the engagement with stakeholders in the City Region. The studies we led have been aligned with the key objectives of the DDI – to support training and upskilling, developing new research, translating findings to be adopted by businesses, building new datasets and encouraging entrepreneurship.

Figure 1 - Map of mainland Scotland and the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region, highlighting the participating local authorities and specifically the two case studies – Fife and Scottish Borders.

Figure 1 – Map of mainland Scotland and the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region, highlighting the participating local authorities and specifically the two case studies – Fife and Scottish Borders.

Two pieces of work have been completed since 2018/19 in close collaboration with the DDI programme colleagues.

In the summer of 2019, we completed the first study of opportunity areas in Fife in partnership with the Fife City Council and Fife College. The opportunity areas identified were building on the existing cluster of engineering activities on the Forth, in particular, advanced manufacturing, and FinTech (financial technologies) and food and drink producers. In our recommendations, we suggested the potential alignment of interests in Advanced Manufacturing for Engineering and Construction, Autonomous Systems and Sensors on Marine and Airborne Platforms, Data Intelligence for Enterprise Services, Data-enhanced Agri/Food & Drink, Distribution and Logistics, and Smart Systems for Health and Wellbeing (see the left side of Figure 2).

In our second study carried out during 2020, we examined the opportunities for DDI activities collaborating with the Scottish Borders Council. There, the industrial base is smaller, and the economy is widely dispersed with strong rural characteristics, with dominant sectors such as agriculture, tourism as well as extensive public and social services. The identified DDI opportunity areas for the Scottish Borders include Digitally Integrated Destinations, Predictive and Responsive Wellbeing Technologies, Smart High-Added-Value Manufacturing, Energy-Efficient Infrastructure, and Autonomous Systems for Resources and Assets Management (see right side of Figure 2).

Figure 2 - Schematic representation of the opportunity area identification for Fife and the Scottish Borders.

Figure 2 – Schematic representation of the opportunity area identification for Fife and the Scottish Borders.

Now that the opportunity areas have been identified, what are the next steps? While there are appetites at the local level to engage in DDI activities in both local council areas, the translation of findings and processes of engagement would be different. These processes are conditioned by a number of place-based factors. These include: different nature and levels of industry demand in each area, the structures of existing local leadership and partnerships, and the existing collaborative links with the University, including both informal and formal relationships.

In Fife, core partnerships have been formed out of the triple-helix links between the local government, big industrial partners, and academia, including Fife College and the University of Edinburgh, leading to large R&D consortia bids in advanced manufacturing and renewables. We already see some impacts at the local level as major investment has been made in the cluster at Rosyth (Fife), aided by a series of initiatives through the local College for data upskilling. In the Scottish Borders, the processes may be different due to the absence of big local business partners and may require more support for bottom-up entrepreneurship and bring in external partners.

The opportunity areas identified in the studies (schematically summarised in Figure 2 above) have also been discussed and translated into strategic thinking across the City Region, encompassing both urban and rural areas. In Fife, the findings were discussed with the local council and other stakeholders, and some of the recommendations have been translated into new concrete projects over the past 18 months. In the Scottish Borders, discussion has just started after the completion of the study in early 2021. With the establishment of a new South of Scotland Enterprise (SoSE) in 2020 and a new Regional Economic Strategy launched in 2021, there will be new opportunities for collaborative activities.

Building on these studies, we have also developed a set of analytical frameworks and critical tools to assist local policy engagement at the regional level. This combines both the analysis of social-economic trends and existing capacities within the local ecosystems to identify promising demands and opportunities leading to specific technology areas of opportunities. Furthermore, delivery models for support of the development of these opportunities have been framed with relevant physical infrastructure, a central digital platform and leveraging a network of partners. Moving forward, in order to build these strategic collaborative approaches and policy pathways, close collaboration would be required between the local councils, the economic development agencies, and the government.

Overall, these studies demonstrate promising avenues for engagement with multiple levels of local policy actors and stakeholders, which would lead to significant longer-term policy impact. It exemplifies some of the ways in which such micro-level studies can have impacts on local policymaking, which is of increasing importance in place-based economic development policymaking, as we discuss in a forthcoming paper. The universities can play a unique role as catalysts of place-based leadership. Our findings are signalling new roadmaps for the City Region development going beyond the existing urban-centred approaches. This also exemplifies a two-way interactive process for the University of Edinburgh, extending our relationships to be better integrated into economic, social and political development of the City Region and beyond.

Matjaz Vidmar and Fumi Kitagawa presented their work, DDI-related opportunity analyses carried out in Fife and the Scottish Borders, at the DDI Town Hall on Tuesday 16 March 2021. You can find a recording online here. The DDI reports can be found here.

About the author

Dr Matjaz Vidmar is a researcher, lecturer and strategist at the University of Edinburgh and at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh. He is both an (astro)physicist and a social scientist, focusing on the studies of innovation. His particular interests include inter-organisational change as well as other social dimensions of new and emerging technology, specifically focusing on astronomy and the space and satellite industry. In addition, he is involved in many international initiatives to develop the future of these fields, as well as delivering an extensive public engagement programme. You can find out more at

Dr Fumi Kitagawa is a Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Edinburgh Business School, and has a PhD in Urban and Regional Studies. Her research has centred on how public science generates impact on the economy and society; in particular, the role of higher education institutions in the regional development and innovation processes. Fumi has published extensively on S&T and Innovation policy, governance of regional and local economic development, scientific entrepreneurship, and university-industry relationships, covering the UK, Sweden, and East Asia.


On Wednesday 9 March 2022, the authors delivered a related talk as part of the SKAPE seminar series. To hear the authors discuss the research covered in this blog in further detail, you can access a recording of the seminar here.


Cover Picture: Official logos for the University of Edinburgh and the Data-Driven Innovation (DDI) Initiative.