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Research key to Newcastle’s future, say urban experts Antoine van Agtmael and Fred Bakkerpoll

BIG VISION: Authors Fred Bakker and Antoine van Agtmael say multifaceted research could drive a post-steel Newcastle. Picture: Jonathan CarrollTHE man behindthe term “emerging markets” says Newcastle is a former “rust belt” citythat canbeaninnovativepowerhouse, if itfinds its technological niche.
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Antoine van Agtmael, a former World Bank economist andnow a senior policy adviser in Washington DC, said on Monday that the former steel city hasthe ingredients to prosper in the 21stcentury.

“What you need is a university, preferably one with a strength in certain research areas,” Mrvan Agtmael said.

“For example, here in the oldBHPresearch labs you have the newInstitute for Energy and Resources. You also need certain infrastructure, critical mass –which you have here –and affordable housing.”

Mr van Agtmael and journalist Fred Bakker, whoco-wroteTheSmartest Places on Earth: Why Rustbelts Are the Emerging Hotspots of Global Innovation, were guests of the University of Newcastle.

They researchcitiesthat have lost major industries, then “reawokenand repurposed” the knowledge of their populations to meet the needs of the 21stcentury.

An example of such a “rustbelt to brainbelt” transition, the authors said, is that of Akron,Ohio.

After Akron’styre and rubber industry had declined by the 1990s, the University of Akron invested inthe city’spolymer research.

Akron now influences how the world makes polymer products,from lipstick to medical devices.

Ohio, now, isthe global leader ofthe polymer and specialty-chemical industry, with about 1,300 companies that employ88,000 people.

ForNewcastle and the Hunter,Mr Bakker said, such university-driven economic growth would take bipartisan political support, private investmentandrequire the region to find its natural research specialty.

“In Newcastleyou have a lot of knowledge in minerals, health care,clean energy, and groundbreaking research in solar energy through the CSIRO [Energy Centre],” Mr Bakker said.

“These are hidden gems. But it is a matter of finding a niche. It can’t just be ‘medical research’.”

US President Donald Trump, promisingtoreverse decades ofindustrial decline,gained key votes inthe “Rust Belt”midwestinNovember’s presidential election.

But, comparing Newcastle with Pittsburg, where Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton polled strongly compared with rural Pennsylvania, Mrvan Agtmael said the US result doesn’t mean rust belt cities are looking inward.

“It’s nostalgia for dirty growth,” Mrvan Agtmael said.

“You can invent new manufacturing, but you can’t bring back old manufacturing. Even if you could, you can’t bring back the old jobs.”

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