How can a city like York attract foreign investment from the biggest companies in the world? This was the question being asked at an event hosted by the University of York, where local councillors came to listen to experts about the best strategies for creating such growth in the post-Brexit era.

Anyone who lives in York will tell you it’s a great place to set up home and work in. But for the city to see continued growth and more opportunity in the post-Brexit era, attracting foreign investment and people from across the world will be of vital importance.

Last week, the University of York hosted the Foreign Direct Investment and Cities Forum, which brought together top experts to talk about the challenges of encouraging investment into cities from abroad.

The “levelling-up” agenda brought forth by the current government has promised to transform the UK by spreading opportunity and prosperity to all parts of it. But given that foreign firms are currently more productive than comparable UK businesses, foreign direct investment is likely to play an important role if the levelling up agenda is to bring greater prosperity to regions such as Yorkshire.

Although organised by the University of York, the event aimed to bring a non-academic viewpoint on how to encourage foreign investment into cities such as York, with invited guests sharing their experiences from both the investment and city planning perspective.

“Although we like to think otherwise, academics don’t have all the answers!” said organiser Professor Christopher Williams. “That’s why this event was about connecting with and hearing from the people making these things happen in the real world.”

Members of the York City Council and others were present to hear about success stories from cities such Cambridge, Helsinki, Amsterdam, Vilnius and Milan, as they talked about topics such as the important of human brilliance and a joined-up narrative for attracting and retaining investment in a city.

“When trying to attract investment into a city such as York, we like to think about the metaphor of a shop window: how do we present the best that the city has to offer, and how do we encourage people to put their money into it?” said Professor Williams.

“One key lesson that we heard several times was the importance of a joined-up narrative. Harriet Fear from Cambridge described how visiting investors spoke to people from the university, the local council, and others, and each of them gave a different vision for the city. These mixed messages had a negative effect on the investors’ confidence – they no longer knew exactly what it was they were investing in. People from across York therefore need to work together to ensure they present a united front in how they sell the idea of the city.”

“Another aspect which was brought up was the role of universities, particularly in knowledge-intensive industries. It doesn’t make sense if the university is good at one thing, but your investment strategy is aimed at something else.”

“On top of this, there’s the idea of aftercare: what happens once you’ve attracted the investment? It is so important that you keep working together with these partners that you’ve brought to your city, so that five or ten years down the line they don’t suddenly decide it isn’t worth it anymore.”

Professor Williams was positive about the impact that bringing such speakers to York could have on the future prospects of the city. “I got the impression that the people attending from York got a lot out of our event, as they were certainly engaged and asked a lot of questions” he said.

“Nobody is suggesting that York is going to be the next London or Paris, but it certainly has some big opportunities coming its way soon. Foreign direct investment stands at around $1.6 trillion now, and so it is important for York and Yorkshire to ensure that it has a strategy to get a slice of that pie. And we at the university want to help it with this as much as we can through events like these.”