Innovation cluster: social capital and the makings of a real knowledge quarter

Over the past few months, we’ve had several conversations with planners and entrepreneurs in Melbourne, London and San Francisco interested in ‘innovation clusters’, which in a nutshell describes the creation of live places specifically designed to generate and drive knowledge capital. This is a focus for many sectors, is generally specific to city-size placemaking, and is especially interesting for its championing of social capital over pure real estate.

As a recent published New London Architecture (NLA) research paper Knowledge Capital: Making places for education, innovation and health and its excellent accompanying exhibition so beautifully illustrates, London is uniquely positioned as a world leading knowledge economy centre. Its extraordinary network of hospitals, universities and research centres and the fact of it being a significant player in the so-called knowledge golden triangle (which includes Oxford and Cambridge) are the key reasons as to why. Home to a knowledge cluster that includes the Francis Crick Institute, the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre, the UCL Cancer Institute, the British Library, Google and Deep Mind, it is proud proprietor of a £3.7 billion research and development economy, one which makes provision of a million plus jobs. Early predictions as to the true value of ‘eds and meds’ as a key economic driver for the future city have been remarkably prescient.

This is all extremely exciting, particularly for London, but as the paper makes abundantly clear, it is not without its challenges. ‘In an age of rapid social and technological change, buildings and places for education and health will need to not only be digitally networked, but also even more highly adaptable, responsive, well-connected and even demountable – as well as affordable. They will need to continue to facilitate collaboration and personal interaction to drive forward innovation in research and personalisation of services and treatment.’

Unfortunately, as anyone who has tried visiting any of the aforementioned institutions, the truly porous knowledge cluster remains a thing of the future. For (ostensibly) understandable reasons, they are typically insular, are fiercely protective their intellectual properties, and tend to be internally focussed. Forgive the analogy, but if we think of each as truly magnificent animals, then they are yet to become a truly magnificent group of animals, their no doubt admirable ability to subsist entirely on their own resources an obstacle to the creation of an ecosystem that may be fairly called a genuine innovation cluster.

Placed in the shoes of a planner or entrepreneur tasked with something of a super puzzle, I imagine the challenge here is to persuade these institutes that it is in their absolute interest to help create a knowledge ecosystem that, as the NLA paper advocates, is permeable and accessible, that is flexible, that is connected and communicative, that shows a balanced mix of uses, that makes space for a variety of different scale businesses, and that offers a range of top drawer public spaces. Informed by the many who live, work and play there, such a place is live, relevant, and ‘messy’, and being so, attracts different people, different sectors, different typologies, different uses, and different tenures, that have a fluid and social access to the institutions, and which allow for the kinds of unforeseen collaborations that are the bedrock of innovation.

So, calling all ed-med behemoths. Protect your R&D, sure. However, don’t let that stop you making space for people to be people. Allow for a certain fluidity of social capital. Plan for the unplanned. Make allowance for our propensity to mingle, to cross-pollinate, to share ideas, to partner with the unexpected. Do this not just with yourself, but across the entire ecosystem. Do it and we have the makings of a knowledge cluster of the future.


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