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Dr Steve Harding looks at how Birmingham can use the knowledge gained from proven international STEAM initiatives to improve skills, innovation & accelerate business growth in the area.

According to The Birmingham Economic Review 2017 Birmingham and the West Midlands is suffering from a skills shortage. Business experts have highlighted the need to not only provide basic skills such as English and maths, but broader ranging STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) skills too. As a place with high inward investment, and new opportunities such as HS2 on the horizon, investing in these broad new skills is how we can reap the region’s potential to become an even more successful economy.

However we believe that the region, and the UK, shouldn’t stop at STEM. Alongside the West Midlands’ well known strengths in manufacturing and engineering, a rich cultural and artistic heritage remains alive and well (consider the new Royal Birmingham Conservatoire at Birmingham City University, for instance). Bringing the finest artistic talent and technical brains together is essential to getting the most out of the region’s talent. Not many UK or international cities have such well balanced and diverse outlooks, which is why Birmingham has such potential to drive business innovation through interdisciplinary collaborations between industry, the arts and academia.

Adding the arts to STEM results in STEAM. Other innovative cities across the world have proven that STEAM initiatives work to improve skills, create problem solving innovation and accelerate business growth in the area. Let us introduce you to some of the projects we find most exciting, and have been our key influences when creating Birmingham’s STEAMhouse, which aims to transform business and education in the region.

1. STEAM champion – Rhode Island School of Design, Rhode Island, USA

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A self-proclaimed champion of STEAM, Rhode Island School of Design’s (RISD) education offering is structured to give students a well-rounded approach to their careers.

Despite specialising in art and design, students have to study a different discipline that are often STEM subjects, encouraging them to broaden their horizons and think about the potential and benefit of collaborating with different skill sets.

Over the years, RISD has been involved in many projects raising awareness of STEAM, including hosting workshops from industrial design critic Amy Leidtke that educate teachers on how to integrate art into science and maths subjects. RISD has channelled this support for STEAM into championing the official STEM to STEAM movement. It sees teachers, researchers, policy makers, students, and business people from the college collaborate on projects and events to encourage the STEAM ethos.

Other educational institutes are involved in STEAM too; faculty members of California College of the Arts (CCA) have campaigned about climate change through the initiative and carried out video work showing how badly port cities are affected by sea level rises. The institution has made quite an impact, nudging the state to introduce legislation that highlights how art and design can enhance STEM education and research.


2. STEAM collaborative initiatives – Medialab-Prado, Madrid, Spain

An image of Medialab-Prado, Madrid, Spain.
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Medialab-Prado is a laboratory that spurs experimentation, collaboration and networking in projects that are set out to achieve cultural change, ranging from health and well being to air pollution.

It’s a citizen-focused initiative, and so allows people from all walks of life and with different areas of expertise, from science to the arts, to collaborate on projects.

Its ‘Interactivos?’ program sees citizens identify problems that need to be addressed, before putting out a global, open call for project ideas around these. Collaborators wanting to work with them can respond with proposals on what the solution can be, often giving surprising and different answers due to the different walks of life people come from. It doesn’t matter where in the world you are or where your speciality lies; Medialab-Prado is a platform for any people to work together and solve a problem.


3. STEAM event – ARS Electronica, Linz, Austria

Robot at ARS Electronica
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Few festivals bring together professionals from both science and the arts. ARS Electronica is an institute linking art, technology and society, and hosts an annual event in Linz that sees people from those domains explore a theme relevant to them all.

Using speeches, workshops, exhibitions and symposia, attendees together establish ways to improve human society under the overarching theme and issue of that year. Its annual Prix ARS Electronica and STARTS Prize, which awards creativity and innovation in the use of digital media, celebrates the work across these sectors, while its Museum of the Future exhibits it all year round. You’d be hard-pressed finding another institute that honours the STEAM concept in event form with such success, shown by the festival attracting  hundreds of theoreticians, artists and technologists from across the world and about 550 journalists and bloggers annually. It’s moved far from being a festival that launched in 1979 with a line-up of just 20 artists and scientists.


4. STEAM diversity – Startup52, New York City, USA

Startup52 NYC
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The National Science Foundation found that 84% of science and engineering jobs in the US are carried out by white or Asian males. It’s this lack of diversity that Startup52 aims to tackle while helping accelerate businesses in their early stages.

It’s StartUp52x acceleration program offers mentoring from industry and business experts to give entrepreneurs support in areas such as marketing and design. And entrepreneurs from underrepresented communities in tech, such as women, immigrants and LGBTQ people, are particularly welcomed to take part. Startup52 doesn’t only see the value in integrating different disciplines to accelerate business growth, but also different people from a really diverse range of backgrounds.


5. STEAM corporate integration – MEKTORY, Tallinn, Estonia

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As the brainchild of Tallin University of Technology, MEKTORY helps companies develop their products and generate new ideas by enabling scientists, students and entrepreneurs to share their expertise.

Students from different faculties are appointed as project team members along with the business itself, while scientists and entrepreneurs act as mentors, and equipment operators ensure operational safety. Carrying out at least 30 projects a year, previous projects include Mitsubishi examining the driving qualities of electric cars in Nordic countries. The projects don’t only benefit the businesses taking part; the students getting involved benefit from learning about how combining different areas of expertise can take businesses further.


Bringing STEAM to Birmingham

As a region Birmingham also has great potential for STEAM collaboration and eventually could help the UK as a whole to adopt this approach to innovation.. These five global STEAM influencers among others have inspired us at STEAMhouse to achieve a similar kind of collaboration, skills diversity, business acceleration and innovation right here in Birmingham.

In fact, STEAMhouse is currently preparing for the March 2018 launch of its new 15,000 square foot collaborative innovation space in Digbeth, Birmingham, powered by the knowledge and expertise of Birmingham City University. It will offer regional start-ups and SMEs an environment for interdisciplinary collaborations between industry, the arts and academia. It will also be a place to discover new ways of thinking, access and develop new skills and services, drive business innovation and build prototypes, supported by programs involving a diverse range of experts and entrepreneurs. And with a whole building dedicated to delivering these new ways of working, entrepreneurs have the space to apply these new approaches to help them achieve their business growth objectives.


To discover more about STEAMhouse and how it can help take your start-up or SME to the next level, get in touch


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