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Bringing future into focus.


IT'S always interesting to listen to an "outsider's" perspective on the North East economy and how it compares with other regions, especially when the "outsider" concerned is of the calibre of futurologist Dr James Bellini.

Dr Bellini - who it turns out is the son of a County Durham coal miner - is well-placed to look at the region through a critical lens, having chaired several debates on the future of the economy across the UK for Barclays Corporate over recent months.

So his insight into how the North East is placed at a clearly critical junction in its economic history was enlightening.

As you will read about in Peter McCusker's feature on last week's debate, one of the most striking observations he made during the event was how the image of the North East's economic future as painted by the soon-be-abolished One North East was so similar to that of other regions.

The image of the region as a powerhouse in areas such as offshore renewables, life sciences and the digital sector "could easily have been (that of) Yorkshire Forward or virtually any other region in any other country I visit," he observed. The North East, he said, was planning to compete in a "rather crowded space".

The recent decision of Siemens to locate its offshore wind turbine plant in Humberside rather than on the Tyne was an unwelcome yet timely reminder that other regions compete with us in some of these key sectors.

At the same time, we should not lose sight of the fact that we have a considerable advantage in many of these sectors thanks to well-established facilities such as the National Renewable Energy Centre in Blyth, Nissan's new electric battery plant in Washington, and our geographical location so handily placed for the North Sea.

Dr Bellini suggested that the impending closure of One North East was a chance to reassess the region's "image" in the post-Passionate People, Passionate Places era. Should we also use this chance to question whether the key future industries - promoted through initiatives such as the Great North Revolution as well as by One North East - are the right ones? Dr Bellini is right to be challenging in this respect. And he's right that other regions and other countries want to be part of the same future, green space. It may well be that the North East ultimately has to narrow its focus to some areas such as printable electronics and low-carbon vehicles, where it is already an established leader.

First though, as also became clear during last week's debate, we need to find a voice to articulate that future vision. And, despite the undoubted willingness to do so, it's still not clear where that voice will come from.

Feature 30
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Feb 2, 2011
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