The Bartlett


Stratford revisited

30 October 2013

View of the Olympic Park and the River Lea

This month, Dean of The Bartlett, Professor Alan Penn, explores the case for UCL taking over the site of the Olympic Park in Stratford, building a truly global university, and the generation of intellectual, cultural and social capital.

Last year I wrote about what I thought the opportunity for UCL was on the Carpenter’s Estate: to create a new kind of university that was ‘Newham shaped’ (East meets West, The Bartlett News, April 2012).

Its role would be to directly affect the aspirations and quality of life of the local community, and to challenge UCL to think new thoughts about its role in local economic regeneration. I still think that this could have been a good idea, but for various reasons it was not to be.

Since that proposition collapsed, a new opportunity has arisen on the other side of the tracks in the Olympic Park itself. Now, at first sight this is a much less attractive position.

In order to build the Olympic Park for the month of games it had to be oriented north-south along the Lea Valley. It had to be set within a secure perimeter. Where a major east-west axis was possible, the masterplanners chose to put the stadium on axis, substantially reducing the potential of the site to help reintegrate the eastern boroughs with the rest of London. Where retail is provided it is in the anti-urban form of the inward facing Westfield complex. Where links are possible across the railway tracks, electricity substations have been strategically placed to block direct access. This was probably intentional as they made an excellent physical block to any vehicle borne terrorist raid on the Games. Now however, they effectively segregate the site from its surroundings.

So this is the opportunity: to take space in a globally visible, but locally isolated location on the East of London, a good 40 minutes travel from the heart of UCL in Bloomsbury. I have heard three arguments in its favour.

First, that the land would be cheap, practically free to the University, as its presence on the site at this juncture would increase confidence and the value of the remaining sites on the Park and so help to recoup the Government investment in clean-up of the site for the Games. Second, that it would win us considerable political brownie points. Both Boris and Cameron would love to see the ‘Olympic Legacy’ gain the boost of a world leading university’s presence on the site before the next election. Third, it is likely that there will be significant funding available for strategic projects that help deliver on this legacy.

It is worth remembering that the Government rejected the Wellcome Trust proposal to buy the Olympic Park in its entirety and there establish another of the great London estates, managed as a whole and for the long term. Their calculation at the time must have been that there would be greater value to be extracted by a piecemeal sell off of the land, each parcel to the highest bidder. I suspect that they were misadvised, and for an interesting if somewhat technical reason.

There is an almost complete lack of understanding in real estate and property circles about the effect of the spatial configuration of urban land on the generation of value. The best of property developers have strong intuitions about this and work with their gut feelings, however this is not where Government will have looked for its advice.

What knowledge there is sits in the university lab. I will try to summarise. Space in cities acts at different scales from the most local – say, a few hundred metres – to the global extent of the city and its region. In the case of London, you get a fair impression of its global structure at a scale of about 25km.

One fascinating thing about cities in general (and London is no exception), is that they have grown and evolved to bring the local and global dimensions into a functional structure relative to each other. Some networks of space are locally important, but less so globally (think of Charlotte Street). Others are the reverse – they carry longer distance traffic, but if anything act as barriers in the local system (the A13 perhaps). Yet others are both locally and globally accessible (think of Oxford Street), while others are isolated on one or both dimensions.

Each of these dimensions carry different affordances for social and economic life – both privacy and community are valuable at different times and for different purposes – and over the long history of cities they are appropriated for different functions. It is this that leads to the well-ordered mix of land uses that characterise an urban neighbourhood, but which remains at the same time intelligible to the citizen.

It is this that leads to the way that people move through and stop in space; the social and economic transactions between people and where these are located, and ultimately the ‘sense of place’ that emerges through the complex build up of many different individual and community activities and one’s experience of them.

Underlying it all is a spatial network with the configurational properties I have described, but it is the emergent social and economic activities and their intelligible disposition that give rise to ‘value’. It is this value that is reflected in the market for land over the long term.

You can imagine why the spatial basis and complexity of these interactions evades conventional approaches to property valuation. You can also imagine why, when planning large tracts of land like the Olympic Park ‘all in one go’, masterplanners so often get things wrong. In this case they focused naturally on the well-specified immediate requirements of the Games rather than the less well-defined aspirations of the ‘legacy’.

Let us return then to the opportunity for UCL. There is no doubt that gaining political brownie points is tactically good. As the place of universities shifts in the government’s mind it is useful to remind them that a university can be a vital driver of regeneration and a helpful partner that they should be at pains to support. However, politicians have an essentially short-term view, and the next party in government may be of a diametrically opposing view, so I think we should not be swayed too far by the political.

Cheap land is of course attractive, but it will not be free. If UCL decided to set up an activity on the Olympic Park, even if the land and buildings were gifted, it would have to invest significant sums in whatever activity were to take place there. I wrote previously that any activity proposed on a new campus must be new if the books are to balance. The pertinent question is what activity might UCL undertake that would suit this location and at least cover its costs?

My thinking on this turns on the way that the university sector must adapt to a rapidly globalising world. Universities have tended to be local institutions. We have yet to see the emergence of a truly global ‘brand’ in the sector. There are contenders, Harvard and MIT, Oxford and Cambridge, ETH – the list could go on – but all are pretty much on a par, and UCL is well abreast of these. UCL has the distinction of being located in a world city and national capital.

As the sector globalises this must be to our advantage. The density of a fully urban campus also places us at an advantage in terms of overcoming disciplinary silos, as well as the boundaries between research and teaching. We might expect a small number of truly global universities to emerge over the next few years and I believe that UCL could, and should, be in the vanguard.

This aspiration should not be for the sake of competitive position alone, but because UCL has something unique to offer which fits the changing world. I believe that this is the case. The radical principles of UCL’s foundation are perhaps more relevant to a globalising world today than they have ever been. Conditions pertaining now in the global South are remarkably similar to those of Britain in 1826: urbanisation, industrialisation, aspiration for education amongst a rising middle class, social and political reform; all make the global condition similar to that for which UCL was founded.

UCL’s Grand Challenges are all about the problems facing the planet and society today, and these are global challenges, insoluble without international coordination. UCL’s location at the heart of a world city gives it access to the networks that will help it to act globally. Taken together, UCL could play an important role in helping shape the path of global development, but only if it can increase the scale and reach of its activity as an institution.

The fundamental question, then, is how to globalise a university? I suspect that this will be in two ways. First, by cementing UCL’s worldwide reputation and recognition. This is where The Olympic Park could play a useful role. The site is already known around the world, and while it is locally isolated, it is accessible at the larger scale. If we are looking for a focus to establish a national and global presence for UCL, to accommodate those who visit from overseas and act as a showcase for UCL’s intellectual output, this could be it.

Second, by inventing a business model able to deliver value at a global scale, and to derive income from an international reach. Universities generate value in three main ways, they create intellectual capital through research, cultural capital through the principles they promote and their practice based output, and social capital through education and the social networks and partnerships that result.

Currently, UK universities gain sponsorship for research and are paid fees for education, however the less tangible aspects of cultural capital and social networks produce little in the way of income. As state funding via a block grant diminishes, finding a method to derive income from these less tangible outputs will become central to success.

This is where UCL could aim to innovate. Intellectual and cultural capital, as well as social networks, act across space and can operate globally. However, from time to time people must get together, to meet, discuss and to share the phenomena that form the basis for theory. Stratford could provide he meeting space for a global network.

For UCL to operate this way we would need to establish our position as a global social enterprise based around the principles on which we were founded, but opening these up to access for people around the world. The basis of this would be a commitment to engagement and co-production of solutions to global challenges, however we should apply similar principles at home. Here the challenge of raising aspirations amongst the least well off in society to attend university could be a focus of activity.

The ‘global citizenship’ agenda needs to be made relevant to our strategy to widen participation. Next, we should continue to challenge the disciplinary divides that constrain innovation. UCL’s Grand Challenges provide a basis for this. Finally, these new challenges and the global aspiration require a new set of approaches to pedagogy. It implies the development of material for global delivery, as well as a need for face-to-face contact of a novel kind.

The idea I have in mind is that UCL should establish a global social network, or perhaps a series of membership organisations structured around the Grand Challenges, which will work actively to promote solutions to these. A commitment to action and working in partnership would lie at the core of this activity.

This would provide the logic for the New University Quarter. It would comprise the set of spaces needed, first, to act as a place for public engagement and knowledge exchange. It would learn the lessons from MIT’s MediaLab of the need to be able to inspire through demonstration, but would do so using the science, art, culture and policy required by the Grand Challenges.

It would create space for the UCL Collections to create a context for learning and exchange, and a window on UCL’s heritage, so helping build a global understanding of UCL’s unique history and ethos. Second, it would revolutionise pedagogy in higher education by providing the spaces needed for longer term group working and project based learning; those aspects of pedagogy that cannot easily be scheduled into one hour room bookings; and last, to provide the space within which to widen participation through outreach to schools and though foundation programmes internationally.

The facilities would be available for any programme at UCL that needs to bring people together across departmental divides, or to provide a focused activity in the context of demonstrable solutions to global issues. Residential accommodation for visitors from around the world, for staff and students, would be integrated into the scheme.

This is not student accommodation as source of income, but recognising the value of living and eating together in the generation and reproduction of a learning community and social network. This would make it possible on occasion for the global social network to be realised face-to-face in summits, conferences and symposia. It would accommodate community knowledge exchange and schools outreach programmes and foundation courses, as well as one day to one week events for UCL students.

These events could be captured and broadcast, much as the UCL Lunch Hour Lectures are now, but to a global audience. Think of Davos, TED and Chatham House, surrounded by CASA simulations and visualisation, the UCL Collections, the visiting public and schools. The logic of the whole venture would be public and globally visible, and so a good match for the political aspirations for an Olympic legacy.

These global and visible activities would lie at the core, but would be complementary to new educational, knowledge exchange and research initiatives in which arts and culture are brought together with technology and science.

I wrote in the October 2013 Newsletter (Creation of value and the built environment), that ultimate judgment of human creativity lies of the creation of existence value.  When we create artefacts the loss of which would impoverish the world, then we have succeeded in creating real and lasting value. If there is one thing that I think UCL should set as an objective for the next century, it would be to foster the creation of this kind of value. This will require the education and nurturing of creative leadership. A programme of this kind will be launched in the New Year.

The Leadership 2050 programme, being developed by Tim Broyd, The Bartlett Professor of Built Environment Foresight, aims to develop the kind of cross-disciplinary understanding that will be required to tackle the challenges facing the planet and society in coming decades. It will bring together future leaders from a range of organisations to learn from researchers about the complex and interacting systems which form the context within which they will be called on to make wise decisions. The programme will create a cohort of ‘fellows’ who will remain closely connected in future years – a new cross-disciplinary social network with a global reach.

It is exactly the kind of programme that would result from, and thrive in, the new university quarter I have described above.

Professor Alan Penn, 30 October 2013