London's Innovation Districts: What They Are, And Why They're Vital

By Londonist Last edited 98 months ago

Last Updated 15 April 2016

London's Innovation Districts: What They Are, And Why They're Vital

As London’s economy undergoes a dramatic transformation, innovation districts offer the potential to connect industries new and old. Roly Keating, chair of the Knowledge Quarter explains what innovation districts are, and why they're a good thing.

Granary Square, part of the innovation district in King's Cross. photo by Andrew Smith in the Londonist Flickr pool

London is currently seeing the rapid growth of an important new urban phenomenon. Innovation districts  — areas which provide the conditions for organisations from different sectors to exchange knowledge, work together and innovate — are springing up across the city, connecting established industries with emerging ones, and helping embed organisations more deeply in their communities.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Knowledge Quarter: a partnership of 66 knowledge-based institutions in the mile-wide neighbourhood around King's Cross, Bloomsbury and Euston. Collectively our partners represent over 500 research centres, 3,000 scientists, 12,000 academics, 50,000 staff and 77,000 students. Within a mile there are 21 museums and galleries, and 27 libraries and archives. It represents perhaps the greatest concentration of knowledge organisations anywhere in the world — and a unique opportunity for everyone involved.

Innovation districts have emerged for a variety of reasons: a shift away from mass-production to knowledge-intensive activities, the rise of open innovation and the new working patterns of millennials. Proximity between institutions and inviting public realm are central to their development. It may seem counter-intuitive in a digital age, but today's knowledge economy and tomorrow's growth sectors need the right physical spaces and environments to thrive.

The regeneration of King's Cross over the last three decades is a prime example. From the arrivals of Macmillan and the British Library in the 80s and 90s, to more recent occupants such as UAL Central Saint Martins and Guardian Media Group, the transformation of the area has been underpinned by the provision of high-quality public space. A walk around Granary Square or King's Cross Square shows why the area is proving attractive to so many diverse organisations.

The new Francis Crick Institute is is creating a focal point for medical and life sciences research. Photo by Matt Brown in the Londonist Flickr pool

The KQ itself spans a multitude of new sectors. The Francis Crick Institute is creating a focal point for medical and life sciences research, while the arrival of the Alan Turing Institute is creating a new national hub for data science. Tileyard Studios and Kings Place provide dynamic centres for music, while Central Saint Martins has helped transform the area into a creative cluster. And it’s hard to overstate the impact the arrival of Google, alongside organisations such as the Digital Catapult, will have on the local tech sector.

These new sectors are mixing with industries that have always thrived here: architecture, museums, media, education, publishing and scientific research. The British Library is working with the Alan Turing Institute to strengthen its own data research capacity. The British Museum has enlisted the help of Google to enable digital access to its collections. The Design Council has partnered with MedCity to develop the next generation of user-centred, non-invasive medical technology. The Wellcome Trust and Arts Catalyst are breaking down barriers between art and science. And Universities like UCL and SOAS are at the forefront of championing interdisciplinary research with outside partners. Industries and organisations, new and old, large and small, public, private and non-profit, are coming together in innovation districts which provide the environment for different organisations to work together to shape the changing economy.

Partnerships like the KQ can give organisations which are geographically close a sense of shared purpose, not just by encouraging collaboration, but by connecting them with their communities. We've already launched a number of projects to ensure local residents can benefit from the resources of our partners, from raising the aspirations of local children to launching an apprenticeship scheme for young people in the borough of Camden.

As the Centre for London identifies in its new report, Innovation Districts: The London Context, the transition to a knowledge economy is reshaping our economic geography. Innovation districts will play a vital role in that shaping, from Imperial’s new campus in the west to Olympicopolis in the east. In the Knowledge Quarter, we know that sustainably transforming an area takes understanding, commitment and advocacy from business, government and the civic sector. If we are successful, London will be uniquely placed to play a key role in a global economy increasingly based on the production and exchange of knowledge.