Flexibility the watchword for London’s knowledge economy

Friday 23 March 2018

The Francis Crick Institute, HOK with PLP Architects © PaulGrundy

How is London faring in creating the right environment to capitalise on its world-leading education and medical sector estates? NLA held a workshop with leading players across the two fields to find out, and to inform its ‘Knowledge Capital’ programme of research, conferences, talks, and tours.

This, said NLA chairman Peter Murray, is an incredibly strong part of the economy, and there are signs of a change in the role of education campuses and their place in wider London. So how can they provide the right sort of conditions for the knowledge economy to thrive but also be supported by housing, infrastructure and other elements key to a successful economy? One of the answers might in part lie in flexibility, and moving towards a ‘loose-fit city’ idea.

The think tank members were split into three workshops – on London, led by GL Hearn’s Stuart Murray, Places, led by British Land’s Juliette Morgan, and buildings, led by AKTII’s Rob Partridge. But before that as part of an introduction, the LSE’s Julian Robinson said that London’s education estate is just part of the city, contrasting to cities like Sheffield where their impact is proportionally greater. London, though, has world class facilities and critical mass and people come to the city because they can meet their intellectual peers there from all around the world. Connections can be made here in this intellectual powerhouse, but the knowledge economy must fight for attention with so much going on, although happily this sector has been recognised in the new draft London Plan. And schemes like the University of the Arts at Kings Cross demonstrate the role that education can play in regenerating an area, said Robinson. Stewart Murray, moreover, said that with London’s strength of critical mass and talent you can completely avoid clustering and opportunities if they are not put into spatial context. The City fringe and ‘arc of opportunity’ between Euston, Kings Cross and Whitechapel are key locations nationally and internationally, while Croydon too has significant tech start-ups. Other opportunity areas like Stratford have sprung up, while new locations such as Old Oak Common and the Royal Docks have represented new opportunities for floorspace and clustering.

So, the findings. Murray’s group considered emerging locations such as Stratford and clusters in east London and White City, with a lot of the research work still based around the university sector but some now connected to health. Whitechapel Life Science hub had not really taken off, however, and the only real reason Croydon had emerged was because of its keen price point. Beyond London, although there are many ‘siloes’ between Cambridge and Oxford, if you include London and Milton Keynes this was a ‘diamond offer’ rather than a triangle of the knowledge economy. A collaborative approach was necessary rather than a competitive one, and are other cities such as Edinburgh Liverpool and Leeds talking to each other? Perhaps there is a role here for the new metro mayors. Some in this area are quite possessive, holding onto their estates, said Murray, a situation perhaps requiring a ‘reset’. The financially challenged health estates could be positioned both in research and teaching colleges, with the private sector perhaps in a good position to unlock potential working with local authorities. In this regard, policy frameworks should be loose and flexible to bring these sectors together. ‘A lot of what we talked about was collaboration, complimentality, and toolkits; connectivity and identifying key strengths of partnership’, said Murray. ‘London and the south east are best positioned internationally to exploit that opportunity if we get our act together.’

Juliette Morgan said her group explored what knowledge means – in this context perhaps it is hospitals and education research environments, where there is an opportunity in London for a ‘hub and spoke’ model. But just because things are adjacent does not mean that there is collaboration going on – there is the physical design, and then there is the cultural embedding. Planning briefs for sites could better encourage integration – ‘we can’t just rely on the market to be altruistic’. There is perhaps a role for the GLA and partners to share in risk, while public realm should be programmed, but not overly so. For this sector requires quiet, reflective and beautiful places as well as dynamic ones. ‘Words that kept coming up were fluidity and flexibility’, said Morgan. Could we think differently of what’s required of the built environment in terms of ‘faster, quicker, cheaper, lighter, and perhaps an expansion of what ‘knowledge worker’ or key worker means could aid the crucial question of housing for education staff.  Knowledge quarters would ideally contain key worker housing, especially lower paid staff who are vital to the effective functioning of the buildings and facilities within the quarter. Lastly, lifelong learning is an important consideration, not just youth learning.

Finally, Rob Partridge’s group looked at individual buildings – a typology which has already begun to change, with a rise in the importance of collaboration spaces. Scale is important – it should not be too grand but at a human scale that nevertheless allows it to facilitate flexibility, vertical circulation is just as important as horizontal. ‘You can’t force people to collaborate’, said Partridge. ‘Working out why some collaboration spaces work better than others is really very difficult’. Perhaps the best way is to ‘take the users with you’ on the design process, and follow up with measuring success. Volumes with choice and adaptability are key, with the ability to deconstruct schemes. Digital technology may mean that some departments will become less important, and the way in which people will want to collaborate will change too, within and between buildings. Robotics will start to change more manual tasks, certainly in labs, which will in turn change how we plan buildings. Finally, that adaptability and flexibility question again. On new buildings ‘it is key that at the start of projects we need to pull together a spectrum of options within a given range’, said Partridge, with cost and programme, form and massing key considerations, while there is also an opportunity to look at existing stock, “with certain typologies such as warehouses or factories lending themselves to flexibility in this sector more than others."

Summing up, if there was a menu for making these places work, said Peter Murray, it would perhaps include a research centre generally around a university, a workforce, an estate, a loose, flexible policy framework, governance that helps bring people together, public realm to aid collaborative space, and that ‘hub and spoke’ vision. ‘It’s a very good model for all sorts of urban infrastructure’, he said.

By David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

Part of the NLA’s Education & Health Programme

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