The future for world class tech cities


Interior of Arm HQ at Peterhouse Technology Park, Cambridge (Scott Brownrigg - image by Hundven Clements Photography)


This week our expert panel led by the Infrastructure & Projects Authority discussed the following questions in relation to the growth of tech and science cities: is it better for sustainability to build technology clusters from the top down or bottom up, how do you create a strong identity behind the brand of the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge Arc and are there new models in Europe for science cities that we can emulate in the UK?


The IPA was joined by the Schroder UK Real Estate Fund, Karolinska Institutet Holding, Deloitte Life Sciences, LDA Design, Scott Brownrigg and Lambsquay Consulting of Cambridge.


The Oxford-Cambridge Arc has been viewed as an important development area for science innovation clusters but how these clusters build their brands is being debated. The Infrastructure & Project Authority's Karl Fitzgerald - Project Director on the Oxford Cambridge Arc - described how the Arc needs to grow its identity:


'The Arc concept has been around for some time as has the East West Rail idea. The National Infrastructure Commission took an integrated and far-sighted view about the Arc development potential, but we don't have yet a sense of a clear identity of what sits behind the Arc brand. Whereas people in Boston may have an idea of belonging to the Greater Boston area we need to think harder about the identity for the Arc.


'Milton Keynes, which has come into its own during Covid-19 partly because of the expansive, green layout and attitude to innovation, however gets overshadowed by the international branding of the two heavyweights at each end of the Arc. MK's local economy is greater than those of Oxford and Cambridge but achieving a cohesive sense of the wider Arc for the population and leveraging in private investment is the challenge. The two big universities are recognised globally but they don't necessarily want to be associated in the same way with the rest of the Arc. Identity, place and context need to be worked out.'


LDA Design's Director Bernie Foulkes commented on the need to attract and keep talent to build the success of a place:


'When you look at the model for the Arc, when so many are attracted to the strengths of Oxford and Cambridge rather than the in-between places, how can you extract pieces of city science and infrastructure so that can you deliver the dispersed model when what really attracts people (and investors) is the city itself - great schools, great parks and so on? One of the challenges for us as master-planners of new satellite towns and connected settlements, is how do you make them into places in their own right? How do you create them from new? Northstow outside Cambridge is doing really interesting stuff, as Karl will attest to, and we are working at Waterbeach six miles north of Cambridge, but how can you get the big investors to move out further afield on the Arc?


Transport connectivity has been key to planners thinking about how to maintain highly successful tech cities. Schroder UK Real Estate Fund's Head of London Makoto Fukui suggested that the infrastructure between Cambridge and Oxford could be improved:


'Despite this, it was the new station at Cambridge North acting as a driver for the wider area development and across Cambridge, that was a main spur for our recent investment there as it provided a direct connection to London. Cambridge North is being developed by Network Rail and Brookgate as a 34 acre mixed use regeneration site including a hotel, office buildings, residential development and some public facilities. Our rationale for investing was clearly driven by the world class university and because Cambridge North will be part of an existing ecosystem that is already one of the largest cluster of tech and life sciences businesses in the UK.'


One issue around the development of sustainable science and technology cities is how the working population and families can live in a settled and comfortable environment. Deloitte's Head of Life Sciences, Mike Standing observed:


'Successful cities have a human component and this means creating stability for the family. The city needs to be stable in creating opportunities for both spouses, to allow them to be able to move jobs within the same city if needs be - and not to have to make a long journey to another city.


'There is research available from Boston which is interesting about how a city moves from being a cluster to a 'super cluster'. This is driven by economics whereby small start-up companies paying higher rents in the middle of the city then move further out to as they acquire more staff and space. This creates a model where they are still part of the cluster but inhabit and operate further out. The age profile may change too with more families attached to the mature businesses as opposed to single people working and living in the city centre.


'A major issue for these successful and overheating tech cities is availability of housing - they need the ability to expand. We need to think about programmatic management which leads me to the question are there new models in Europe that we in the UK can emulate or is the nature of the city purely a local activity dependent on local conditions?


Makoto added that connectivity between growing businesses is just as important as living standards and environments:


'We have an in-house data analytics team to help us understand how people will commute to a certain building and how close it is to research institutions and universities. Businesses are more than ever having to collaborate with other businesses. First generation tech companies like IBM were located in the middle of nowhere whereas young tech companies now need and want to be located in the middle of cities, close to supporting organisations and facilities.'


The Chief Executive of KI Holding, Hans Moller, who runs the development of academic research-commercial collaboration and technology transfer for the world famous Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, said politics cannot be dismissed as being an important influence in the development of science parks:


'If you have seen one science park, you have seen one science park! All these innovation districts are based on local infrastructure, local and regional conditions and depend on the political will of the host city. If you develop a green field site then you have control and you can develop largely as you want. However if you have a situation like the one we have at Karolinska in Stockholm you are restricted, and you will need to work closely with other institutions. Then it is regeneration of a brownfield site and this is very different. Another question is can you ever build a cluster from the top down or is it always bottom up - like Silicon Valley in the USA?'


The Karolinska Institutet places great value on a dynamic interaction between the academic and commercial sectors, for mutual benefits and for society. The KI innovation system develops research ideas from both Swedish and other Nordic universities.


Scott Brownrigg Director and architect Ed Hayden was asked if the pandemic and climate crisis with its follow-on impact on the economy would impact on our ambitions for science campuses. He said


'We are experiencing a complete change of mindset on a low carbon future. The climate crisis has raced up the political agenda. We have legislated to make buildings carbon neutral by 2030. We have to find ways of making it happen. This is essentially made up of three things: to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, embracing the well-being agenda and then looking at the impact of the pandemic on building design. Buildings also have to respond to sit successfully with innovations in science and technology. We will see a lot more timber frame design being introduced, even within lab spaces. We will also see much better airflow and ventilation design to reduce risk of contamination. All of these things have to sit within the overall future low carbon development.'


An important question in our debate was over how the UK can compete for connectivity and environment with the progress of German technology cities? Lambsquay Consulting of Cambridge's Simon Payne, made comparisons with the German approach to innovation campuses:


'We are competing on a world stage so how we compete on the quality of life, whether it's social, cultural, academic infrastructure-led, or scientific, is important. Germany and Heidelberg in particular have been very strong on this. One example is how Heidelberg has taken the 'Internationale bau-austellung' model (International Building Exhibitions experimenting with urban and regional development) and applied it as a a 'living lab'. A good example is the Patrick Henry village, a former US army base six miles out from the old town which is a self contained place developed as a a 'city for knowledge' with homes for 10,000 people and 5,000 jobs.


'Taking the IBA concept, the Heidelberg authorities have been able to experiment with autonomous vehicles on the campus alongside walking and cycling, and a decarbonised energy network. This makes it a strong model for sustainability and knowledge innovation. These IBA projects are done within the context of an international advisory symposium, and Carlo Ratti the Italian architect is involved. The question is how do we raise the debate in the UK on quality and innovation? Covid-19 has propelled forward us on this debate to 2030 in terms of how we live, so now is a good time to have this discussion on how we develop our knowledge and tech cities.'


Read the full report from our Tech Cities report when published in the coming weeks. Future Cities Forum will be comparing the UK's technology cities growth in the UK with other leading science cities in Europe next year, where further leading experts, institutions and investors will join our debates.





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