Event report: Lessons for London’s future economy on the Olympic Park

Event report: Lessons for London’s future economy on the Olympic Park

The fourth On London event of 2023 took place last week at the Hadley Property Group’s Lighthouse venue on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, close to the two Stratford International stations. It was a joint endeavour with place-based consultancy PRD, which brought together a four-person panel to discuss Lessons for the Future of London’s Economy at the Olympic Park. I chaired it before a knowledgeable audience of around 50 people, which included several On London supporters. It wasn’t hard work at all.

The premise was that the park and its east London environs have become home to an agglomeration of researchers, innovators, creative people in general and new kinds of businesses which are collectively pointing a way forward for the capital in the context of ongoing urbanisation, growing inequality and an overheating planet. Each of the panelists brought distinctive experience and insights to the conversation about what has been achieved and what might happen next.

Will Chamberlain‘s connection with the park began in 2004, when he was a member of the team seeking corporate sponsorship for London 2012. He became interested in what he calls “hyperlocal regeneration” in Fish Island and Hackney Wick, adjoining areas directly to the west of the park itself on the other side of the Lee Navigation canal, where artists had moved into ex-industrial buildings. A gloomy assumption was that the massive transformation of the Lower Lea Valley to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games would see that community expunged, but things haven’t worked out quite like that so far.

Will, a solicitor turned social entrepreneur, has played an important part in that. Inspired by the Hackney Wicked arts festival, which began in 2008, he founded the Hackney Wick and Fish Island Cultural Interest Group to bring a diffuse range of people together. In 2015, he set up the non-profit community interest company Creative Wick. The third pillar of what he calls his “creative regeneration model” is a now quarterly local newspaper, The Wick. A community development trust, formed by Creative Wick and three other local social enterprises, hopes to secure the buildings needed for the long term, including by becoming a developer itself, and maintaining affordability.

“It’s about bringing people together, particularly cross-sector, to encourage serendipitous relationships,” Will said of these linked endeavours. “We’ve seen many cases over the years where magic really does happen.”

The second speaker, Emma Frost, is the founder and chair of the UK Innovation Districts Group. She previously worked for the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), the mayoral public body in charge of the development and stewardship of the park. Emma is also a strategic adviser to SHIFT, an innovation district launched on the park last year to provide a testbed for new ideas and to build up the reputation of the park, with its universities and creative spirit, for nurturing them.

Zooming out a bit, she said such innovation “is going to be at the heart of how we prepare for an urban planet over the next 50 years”. Pointing out that cities all over the world are where more and more people live, she characterised them as being “at the forefront of changes to economies and systems” that are essential as natural resources are depleted and inequality increases.

“SHIFT is a catalyst for east London’s innovators, bringing together business, academia, public sector and community partners to find solutions to the major challenges,” she said. She imagined a world “where cities are good for the planet and good for people. To enable this we need to support innovation that tackles the climate emergency, boosts health and wellbeing and improves the way we move around cities”.

Rodrigo Garcia is an example of an entrepreneur who has already made environmental innovation work in market terms. The website of Notpla, the company he co-founded in 2014 and of which he is co-chief executive, promises to “make packaging disappear“. Notpla, an abbreviation of “not plastic”, is the name of a biodegradable material derived from seaweed and other plants. It is used for making edible liquid containers, the coatings of takeaway boxes and even paper.

Rodrigo and his business partner Pierre Paslier met while studying at Imperial College and the Royal College of Art. The company set up in Hackney Wick largely because it was cheap, Rodrigo said, although he also noted the resonant symbolism of the area also being where inventor Alexander Parkes brought plastic into existence. Notpla’s growth has been remarkable – it now has around 70 employees – and last year it won the extremely prestigious Earthshot Prize, founded and awarded by Prince William.

The final panelist to speak was Sophie Rochester, founder of the social venture Yodomo – short for “you do more”. Yodomo’s mission is to facilitate the re-use of waste textile materials by makers. It started out selling kits and online courses, Sophie said, “because we believe making and crafts is good for you and good for the planet, because it gets you closer to materials and is really good for your wellbeing”.

During Covid, it became clear that many of the 200,000 users of Yodomo’s online platform were “really interested in re-using materials rather than buying new ones”. This inspired them to set up a system for businesses to with textile waste “to divert that from landfill and incineration and pass it on to the creative community”.

Companies did not want lots of individuals popping by to pick through their leftovers, so Yodomo, with the help of Hackney Council and PRD, found a base at Hackney City Farm to which material could be brought and then recycled. Supply and demand alike “went way beyond our expectations,” Sophie said. Helped by the community development trust, they’ve now opened a second site at Hackney Wick.

There were lots of good questions from the audience, most of them concerned with how the park area’s nascent economic cluster can grow stronger, work financially over the longer term, and inspire similar endeavours in other parts of London.

Emma said you always need a broad mix of “creative, brilliant risk-takers” with “the tenacity to drive it through”, but also “the right institutional structures” to support it, be they universities, or public, private or community sector organisations. Rodrigo spoke of a need for helpful regulation in the UK, citing the Netherlands’ single-use plastic products directive as an example.

Will, who described himself as “an intermediary by accident”, said his understanding of the part he and others like him can play in weaving a creative cluster together has increased over time. He expressed concern that a silo mentality can still inhibit the emergence of “horizontal relationships” and wished there was more funding available for the types of organisation he has built.

He welcomed newer residents to the park, including those with “money and professional skills” and property developers operating in the area showing signs of wanting “a long-term relationship with the place”. But he also stressed that a lot of people “who have been in this part of London for many years” have yet to benefit as much as he would like.

A question about what is needed to accelerate “the circular economy” and its principles apart from government support prompted Sophie to call for more pressure on businesses through legislation – “they need to pay, it has to come from them” – and a plea for a bit more funding support for those who, like her, are putting circular economy theory into practice but having to depend heavily on volunteers: “There’s a lot of money going to universities to think about the circular economy, but the doing is all happening on the ground,” she said.

There was so much more I could report, but we might be here all day. To sum up, a lot of promising initiatives are well and truly underway in this part of the Lower Lea Valley, and more are coming on stream all the time, not least the stunning East Bank complex. If this corner of London really is showing the way forward for the city and the world, it will be an exceptional Games legacy. And thank you to PRD for making the event happen.

Dave Hill is the author of Olympic Park – When Britain Built Something Big, which tells the story of how the park came into being. Buy a copy HERE.

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