Lift 10 may not be a household name in Glasgow but it has played a small yet significant part in our recent history – it was the crane that lowered into position the soon-to-be-opened bridge at the confluence of the Clyde and Kelvin rivers. The link is more than just a pedestrian and cycle route – it is a symbol of new connections across the city. In particular, the bridge will make it easier to join up the academic powerhouse that is the university of Glasgow and Govan, with its innovation zone and enormous development potential.

But what impact can University of Glasgow actually have on people’s lives? For all the talk of opportunities, Govan remains a byword for profound social and economic challenges, for poor health outcomes and relative poverty. The landscape is still scarred by the deindustrialisation which followed the decline of shipbuilding and related industries, a process that left an enduring mark on the health and wellbeing of local people. How can a university with its focus on degree programmes and world-class, high-tech research help to change the experience and prospects of residents in some of our most disadvantaged neighbourhoods? And what do government and society expect of the university?

If you look closely at the policy priorities in Scotland and the UK, there are three recurring themes: economic growth; addressing inequalities; and public service reform. As John Swinney, the new first minister of Scotland, underlined when he took up office, without economic growth, governments are powerless to do anything else; it is an essential prerequisite and one which obsesses all political parties.

An artist's impression of the new bridge at the confluence of the Clyde and Kelvin riversAn artist's impression of the new bridge at the confluence of the Clyde and Kelvin rivers (Image: free)

At the same time, growth which only benefits a small minority is worse than useless – every section of society has to see tangible improvements in income levels, living conditions and health outcomes. The same impulse lies behind the UK government’s levelling-up agenda and is core to the unfolding manifesto of Keir Starmer’s Labour Party. Alongside this, all the major parties in Scotland and the UK recognise the need to improve service provision by reforming public services, delivered if necessary through innovative partnerships with business and the not-for-profit sector.

These days, it is not enough for a university like Glasgow to be good only at teaching and research – it must address these major challenges and thereby demonstrate the positive impact it has, locally, regionally and nationally.

Fortunately, University of Glasgow, working with other partners across the city, is in a strong position to do exactly that. For one thing, the university has extensive expertise in each of the priority policy areas. Academics are increasingly orienting themselves not just to blue skies thinking but to how their expertise can make a practical difference to policy making and benefit society as a whole.

Examples of areas that could genuinely improve lives include inputs to Scottish government policy to catalyse sustainable economic growth; proposals for clinical diagnostic centres to speed up routine processes in the NHS; and a range of interventions designed to tackle diverse health and social problems such as obesity, multi-morbidity and drug abuse.

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The approach being taken by Glasgow City Council and Glasgow City Region is also highly beneficial. Emulating the strategies adopted by the mayor-led city regions in England such as Manchester and Liverpool, we are seeing greater coherence in the ways that local authorities, universities, further education colleges, development agencies and others combine to address common social and economic problems.

In this world there is no sense of a town and gown divide; local politicians, officials, professionals from all backgrounds and academics are supporting each other as part of a ‘same-page’ culture, sharing expertise across organisational boundaries and presenting a united front to national funding bodies.

The new funding environment is also a distinct advantage for west-central Scotland – the region has three innovation districts (Glasgow city, the Glasgow riverside innovation district and the advanced manufacturing district in Renfrewshire) and has also been declared an investment zone; this gives us privileged access to UK funds and relief of taxes intended to attract new businesses and research facilities to the local area.

Proposals for new developments in the Govan area have already been submitted, drawing on university expertise in areas such as health sciences and quantum and advanced manufacturing. Whether or not we are successful, we now have a pipeline of investible propositions on the Clyde capable of fostering economic activity and, if we play it right, creating new, high-skilled jobs and training opportunities for local people.

There are several pre-requisites if we want to make further progress. One of these is a need for really robust data on socio-economic conditions, health conditions, demographics, behaviours, skills levels and the physical environment. There are some excellent examples of good practice elsewhere in the UK where interventions are based on a deep understanding of local conditions.

For instance, work in the London borough of Lambeth supported by the Guy’s and St Thomas’ Foundation is grounded in data-driven indices which shed light on what works when tackling complex urban health issues; similarly at Glasgow, our own Urban Big Data Centre champions the use of smart data to inform policy making and enhance the quality of urban life.

The new bridge is towed down the Clyde The new bridge is towed down the Clyde (Image: free)

More generally, community engagement is essential in the design and delivery of local initiatives. This is not an easy thing to do – it involves building trust with hard-to-reach residents who lack organisation and are often preoccupied with the immediate pressures of daily life. Such groups are often rightly suspicious of outsiders who promise the moon but deliver little of practical value to the community. There are no easy solutions but regular dialogue with community leaders, citizen juries and close alliances with FE colleges which are generally much more closely embedded in the local area than universities are part of the answer.

For inspiration we might look to the Liverpool city region – it is witnessing a transformation involving urban renewal through mixed use development: social and private housing, new sports facilities and amenities, retail, inward investment by clusters of high-tech businesses, new transport links, jobs, skills and training. Companies and research facilities located in Merseyside can point to significant gains in new technologies and treatments used across the NHS, as well as innovations in the delivery of health and social care services. These developments build on expertise in the region but are of benefit to everyone as new approaches are adopted countrywide.

With a shared vision, funding, strong collaborations and academic expertise coming together, Glasgow is well placed to do likewise. There will be disappointments and frustrations along the way but the road to sustainable economic development lies before us. With ambition, determination and collaboration as our watchwords, a healthier, wealthier future for everyone in Govan and beyond is within our reach.

David Duncan is Chief Operating Officer & University Secretary, and Uzma Khan is Vice Principal for Economic Development & Innovation at the University of Glasgow