Scenius & TechCity: A new form of place-making?

“TechCity” is the official brand name given to David Cameron’s vision for a hub in east London which could rival Silicon Valley for attracting high profile technology firms and spawning the next technological innovations. The concept builds on the existing hive of tech creativity and innovation based in Shoreditch and the plans are to extend this to link up with Olympic legacy assets and spaces in Stratford. This corridor could stimulate the growth in jobs and enterprise that is necessary to diversify the UK and London economy away from a reliance on financial and business services which were shaken by the global credit crisis.

As a vision, it adds neatly to the collection of other “visions” that have been announced for east London over the years including those that claim to the area being a beacon of clean energy and creative industries, etc. etc. This has contributed to a confused identity and lack of focus for what should steer the future of this area. Cue TechCity……What is needed then, is the substance behind what TechCity means to the existing business ecology of East London and Shoreditch and an appreciation of what these businesses need in order to thrive.

Elizabeth Varley is CEO of TechHub, a business that provides space and services for tech start ups. She has listened to her clients and confirms that “what businesses themselves say they want is access to affordable space and good broadband and technology support but more importantly, opportunities to network and share ideas and good coffee!” Is this possible in a conventional science park? See www.techhub.com

The “Silicon Roundabout” in Shoreditch has been busy bubbling away for a few years only for civil servants to gallantly announce its arrival. The choice of location is no accident. Old Street’s scruffy charm and relative cheapness of space has been a significant factor in its success in attracting young tech creatives. This has led to an organic growth of networks and spaces for people to share and cross-fertilise ideas. Just in time for a big government scouring pad to come along and sanitise those very charms in the name of making it more corporate friendly?

Creatives are well known for pioneering new futures for city parts rendered downtrodden, forgotten and made redundant by the prevailing market preferences that shifted away from it. Their energy, ideas and networks breathe new life into a place, helping to reinvent it by reactivating old strengths and bringing much needed injections of people and money.

A critical mass builds up before it catches the eye of mainstream prevailing market preferences again, but not before the place has ascribed itself a new raison d’etre. The return of the market brings with it a levelling and sanitising urge to bring the area back into its fold. But the transition can often push out the very people, ideas and energy that brought it back to life. No matter, as the area is self-sustaining again and the pioneers move on to the next place that is ripe for reinvention.

This cycle is already being seen in and around the Silicon Roundabout and poses a challenge for the capacity of the area to continue providing a vital and fertile incubation ground for micro-start ups. Big corporate brands are eyeing Shoreditch as an alternative to the media mainstay of Soho and a few are already on their way over.

The density, granularity and messiness of Shoreditch is key to its success in generating successful ideas through creative collaboration. They are allowed to mingle and merge until a spark catches and it grows into something really good – a phenomenon Stephen Johnson credits Brian Eno for coining as “Scenius” in his recent article in the Financial Times about information spillover leading towards lightning in a bottle. See http://tinyurl.com/6kus2p9

According to Kevin Kelly (2010) “The serendipitous ingredients for scenius are hard to control. They depend on the presence of the right early pioneers. A place that is open, but not too open. A buffer that is tolerant of outlaws. And some flash of excitement to kick off the virtuous circle. You just can’t order this.”

We need to ensure that the existing quality of scenius in Shoreditch is enhanced and not compromised by the TechCity initiative so that it continues to generate and grow good ideas. This means providing an environment that is conducive to idea and information spillover – for both micro and established businesses. So what do scenius places have in common? They are more than just what happens when space and idea collide. Density, sharing and collaboration is king; neatly organised, windowless sheds shoved on an out-of- town not-fit-for-purpose-built business-park is definitely not king. So is Kelly right – is it nigh on impossible to manufacture or plan scenius because is largely people and idea driven?

Well yes and no. People-driven it might be but these people are attracted to certain places; shared spaces and environments that in turn attract other like-minded people and help them share facilities, tastes and activities. It builds through an accretion of experience and success building on top of each other, attracting and sticking to a place. Place is where these attributes collide and I agree about the serendipity of that collision to a certain extent but doesn’t old skool hard stuff like, rents, transport economics and proximity to a supply and customer network also matter to the development of a shared place?

What emerges for me is that the serendipity factor is actually the seeming magical cauldron of hard spatial economics alerting pioneers to a space where people can share and co-create ideas and sparks that in turn attracts a critical mass of scenius “actors” in the form of entrepreneurs, creatives and facilitators and investors. There is a scenius process. (i.e., cheap rents and opportunity permitting sharing of a specific network in a fringe place) that might seem hidden to the naked eye but like any place-making phenomenon it is often only visible after it has taken plight and possibly moved on.

Is the answer then not to try and manufacture scenius places, but accelerate the process of sharing by scenius actors in these scenius places; support and connect the people and ideas bit and leave the spatial economics bit alone? This is a radical approach to regeneration which has seemed addicted to building stuff and not paying enough attention to the stuff that goes on inside? Time to do that.
The planning profession has a massive opportunity to participate in this if we recognise that we are not just about planning buildings but the magic cauldron that helps grow scenius places and lets successful ideas take off. This is what will help us out of a recession, this will help unlock the rich seam of innovation, experience and ideas of our communities and this will help us move on from a coda of place-making being just about kit. Shoreditch is teaching us that space is far from being a static container for activity but a key factor in generating and attracting creativity.

I’m excited about what happens next here. If we can start to articulate the answers to these question and explore what the implications are for the existing scenius spaces in Shoreditch we can provide a strong mechanism for retaining the small and micro businesses in the area that are vital for keeping it so pioneering.

This does not preclude room and opportunities for more established brands and companies from coming in and adding to the richness. It should be possible for large and small companies to co-exist and potentially share resources, support and ideas for mutual benefit? But the needs of micro-businesses community must be met if the area is to continue to thrive in the way it has.

Mend is interested in engaging with the existing business community in Shoreditch to understand the local business ecology and what barriers/opportunities they face in order to remain there? What they think is the reason for Shoreditch being a scenius place? How can the public sector support them more effectively? How can we use TechCity to grow smart scenius communities?

We are interested in hearing from and working with anyone who would like to share ideas so get in touch if you want a chat….with good coffee!

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