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Economy / Jobs

Patents granted: Where are Britain's most inventive cities?

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

Inventing stuff is probably a pretty good thing for an economy, right? I mean, it was a rush of inventions like the flying shuttle and the spinning jenny that sparked Britain’s industrial revolution back in the 18th century. A century or so later, the inventiveness of people like Thomas Edison (and those whose ideas he, well, stole) played a big role in the USA’s rise to economic superpower status.

So, if you want to work at the cutting edge of technology, in a place that’s generating the jobs of the future, then a city that registers a lot of patents might be the place for you.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the map. This is patents granted per 100,000 people in 2013. As ever, if you hover over a dot, you should get a bit more information.

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For once there’s no obvious pattern here (which is refreshing in some ways, but a pain in the backside if you’re the poor sod trying to write about it). The cities of England’s depressed eastern edge generally don’t seem to be hives of invention. And the south looks slightly more inventive than the north.

But there are plenty of green dots in the north nonetheless, and a few pale ones in the south. Britain’s inventors are a widely scattered bunch.

There’s a limit to the conclusions we can draw from this, so let’s look at the top 10. To make it less likely any pattern is a fluke, we’ve included the data for both 2012 and 2013.

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…whoa.

Cambridge, with its two universities and its science park and its cluster of tech firms and venture capitalists (“Silicon Fen”) is producing vastly more patents than any other British city. These figures are per head, so this is presumably a combination of small-ish population and large number of patents at work – but nonetheless, it’s so far out ahead that it’s fair to call it a trend.

Of the other cities that make those lists, several (Bristol, Edinburgh, Sheffield, Coventry) house major universities. Others can probably credit their links to the military (Aldershot) or the security services (Gloucester, which is just up the road from Chelthenham and GCHQ).


Aberdeen has an oil industry; Milton Keynes, Swindon and Reading pretty successful business parks. The one we’re really struck by is Blackburn, a Lancashire city which had a good industrial revolution but hasn’t done so much since. The answer, we suspect, likes in the fact it’s a big hub for aerospace manufacturer BAE Systems.

Perhaps just as striking, though, is a city that isn’t there. Oxford is in many senses just like Cambridge. (Honestly, get to know one of them first, and the other will forever look like a wonky version of it.) Yet it doesn’t appear in  top 10 in either year. It was 18th in 2012, and 12th in 2013; in both years producing around 5 patents per head.

This is hardly a disaster – Oxford has plenty of other things going on – but it does suggest that potential might be going untapped.

You’d expect there to be less consistency at the bottom end of the league tables – the numbers are smaller, so more likely to be skewed by a few local companies or one enthusiastic garage inventor having a good year.

Yet three cities do make the bottom 10 of both lists (Dundee, Hull, Wigan). One, indeed, is at the very bottom of the league table in both years:

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Sort it out, Sunderland.
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