Knowledge capital must concentrate on clustering and collaboration

Friday 11 May 2018

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London’s health and education organisations are redeveloping their estates to concentrate more on clustering, collaborating, and improved public realm in a bid to further enhance the capital’s position and fight off growing competition from the far east. But in a survey conducted by the NLA, a lack of affordable housing for workers emerged as the main challenge to the growth of London’s knowledge economy.
Those were the main messages from Knowledge Capital: London’s health and education estates yesterday morning.

In his keynote address, UCL’s Professor Alan Penn said that, according to new research, London was more attractive for students than anywhere else in the world despite problems of affordability, amid a growing global phenomenon of people going to universities more as the world urbanises. But the UK has been ‘coasting along’, he said, in terms of the proportion of GDP that is devoted to research and development, with China, Korea and Germany ahead of us. London is in pole position when it comes to citations in scientific journals, ahead of Beijing and Shanghai, but China is catching up ‘extremely rapidly’, said Penn, with its universities undergoing a ‘phenomenal rate of progress’ with more international collaboration in future. ‘Just watch the Chinese space’, he said. The challenge is with the working classes in the west, along with the ‘Brexit and Trump problem’, which Penn said UCL was attending to, principally by creating more spaces out in east London, albeit investing in an ‘unproven’ area, about which there were question marks. ‘Will it be truly urban?’ he asked. UCL is installing the Bartlett and engineering science into its eastern campus, along with computer studies, robotics and a new real estate institute, aiming to create new disciplines and breaking boundaries via new technologies. But key to its strategy was in this mixing of departments across its campuses. ‘What we do by pushing people together in very dense urban campuses is create the opportunity for interdisciplinary communication’, he said. ‘That’s something all of London’s central campuses all do and to a high extent….I would say a key component of what the knowledge capital is is that ability to network.’

London School of Economics director of estates Julian Robinson said the LSE, with its 1.6msqft of real estate, is concentrating on this proximity to compete with US universities and has two main tenets behind its estate strategy. The first was to give it some ‘world class’ buildings to replace what Robinson had found when he came to the institution in 2005. ‘The quality of the estate was quite shocking. Some described it as shabby chic. I just called it shabby.’ A new, £125m ’unique piece of architecture’ at present called the Centre Buildings, designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners and now on site will help, not least with its ‘single biggest urbanistic move’ of creating a new public square, and ‘quid pro quo’ of a 13-storey tower. As will another ‘permeable, open to the city’ scheme, the £142m Marshall Building by Grafton Architects, to replace a building the LSE bought from Cancer Research UK before it moved to the Crick. The LSE’s vision also aims to create an ‘academic quarter’ in Aldwych including pedestrianisation, with, in its 2020 strategy, a shift towards Lincoln’s Inn Fields and new LSE-owned halls of residence.

King’s College is also renewing its estate, whose dilapidated nature had similarly disappointed its real estate development director Ralph Luck when he arrived. Like the LSE, it also plans to create student residences, including at Canada Water to designs by Allies and Morrison, and helping to overturn what Penn branded ‘one of the most unaffordable cities for students’.

Other speakers included Sarah Haywood, chief executive officer of MedCity on the ‘supercluster for life sciences’ that the region between London, Oxford and Cambridge has become, drawing on the successful ‘ingredients’ of academic excellence, talent, money, and the interplay of different parts of the sector. ‘Proximity is essential’, she said. ‘We need productive interactions between organisations, creativity but also humility, an exchange of ideas, leading to new ideas, opportunities for collaboration and joint ventures.’ AKTII director Rob Partridge showed how it was possible to nurture collaboration between students through design, but that there needed to be more interconnectivity between different institutions. In second session on examples from health, Community Health Partnerships local area director Nicola Theron said that when it comes to the NHS estate a huge investment is needed to generate change, with £10billion being talked about, with one of the main problems being that no one organisation is in charge.

But what we can learn from universities with multiple campuses is that they are fundamentally divisive, said Penn. ‘It is important to find mechanisms to overcome the divides that naturally occur in universities’, he said. ‘You have to find mechanisms for academics to want to come together.’

  • A survey of the audience members at the NLA event revealed that – from 19 respondents – a lack of affordable housing for workers and students was the main challenge facing the growth of London’s Knowledge Economy, followed by a lack of available land and spaces. The survey also found that the most important priority was a mixture of new building typologies and the continuous and improved evaluation of existing buildings. And finally, better transport infrastructure and coordinated and more flexible planning and development policies were identified as the most important points for sustaining the knowledge economy across the ‘golden triangle’ of London, Oxford and Cambridge.

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

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