skip to main content
Exterior of UAL's Global Pavilion Hong Kong January 2019 Photo by Helio Studio

Universities in creative places

Written by Nigel Carrington
Published date 08 February 2019
Woman looking up at exhibition material
Visitor at UAL Global Pavilion Hong Kong January 2019 Photo by Helio Studio

I gave the keynote speech in a debate on universities as place-makers at the British Council SPARK Festival of Science & Creativity in Hong Kong on 19 January 2019. In the speech, I introduced the concept of the creative place-shaper. I also set out tentative conclusions about the nature of place-making within university strategy, based on three of our big London initiatives.

At UAL, we believe that place-making is one of the most effective ways in which a university can work in partnership with businesses and people.

This is not just about being good neighbours within communities near our campuses, important though they are. We believe that place-making should happen wherever it is needed and not necessarily near our own buildings or even in London. For UAL, place is about more than corporate social responsibility. It is core to our strategy that we exchange knowledge and expertise with business and communities, and make a positive economic as well as social impact.

Creative places in London

Three initiatives in fashion manufacturing, technology and social change illustrate how UAL connects communities, ideas, talent and business. First is our partnership with the Greater London Authority and industry bodies to create a new Fashion District in East London, supporting the resurgence in fashion-tech manufacturing. Next comes the King’s Cross Knowledge Quarter which we founded with the British Library and now includes 90 academic, research and media organisations. Meanwhile, our Public Collaboration Lab for Camden Council engages citizens in inner-City London in the co-design of local public services.

Let me take you quickly through how UAL sees its opportunities to influence London as a place. We recently commissioned independent research into the future distribution of the creative industries in London. It showed that nearly all planning growth and major cultural developments will be in outer London.

The creative industries are currently focused in central London, near our campuses, so this will be a big change for UAL. So we must pick our interventions very carefully if we are to support London’s developing creative economy. We need to focus on these future growth areas and we cannot do this alone. We can only realistically achieve this through major partnerships.

The Fashion District, London

This is perfectly illustrated by our major partnership in the new Fashion District in North and East London. This aims to build up the UK’s industrial capability in fashion technology, centred in London but radiating out across the UK.

Fifty years ago, London’s fashion manufacturing base was destroyed by mass production and offshore manufacturing. As everyone knows, London remains a global leader in fashion design and there are hundreds of emerging fashion-tech businesses in London, including leaders in this fields. But the challenge is how to link all those businesses and skills into a world-beating ecology that drives a new British manufacturing ethos. And all our research shows that these new disruptive businesses can only grow with focused support in skills, advocacy, innovation and investment.

That’s why, catalysed by UAL’s impending move of London College of Fashion to a new site in the Olympic Park in East London, UAL and the Greater London Authority jointly launched the Fashion District in autumn 2018. This took three years of development with partners in East London and in business, including the British Fashion Council and UKFT.

The Fashion District has already led a successful multi-million pound partnership bid for local government funds. This included funding for Poplar Works, which will co-locate fashion workspace, manufacturing and education in the heart of an East End Community.

UAL then created a major research project on the Fashion District and its supply chains across the UK. Generously backed by a multi-million pound government research budget, we aim to understand how best to optimise the conditions in which creative clusters can develop and grow. We shall be able to use our learning from this academically-led project to develop new creative clusters, not only across the UK but internationally as well.

King’s Cross Knowledge Quarter

A partnership approach was also core to our approach in founding the King’s Cross Knowledge Quarter with the British Library.

Shortly after I joined UAL in 2008, I committed UAL to be the anchor institution in the King’s Cross Regeneration Area of London. This was the largest regeneration project in Europe, and it was vital to attract major businesses. UAL’s new 40,000 sq m new campus for Central Saint Martins became the catalyst for a new way of describing that part of Central London. King’s Cross has become London’s most dynamic creative area in just seven years since we opened our campus there.

Launched in 2014, the Knowledge Quarter now has 90 members, including Google, the Wellcome Trust, Francis Crick Institute and the Guardian newspaper. It aims to make its outstanding facilities, collections and expertise available to researchers, creative people, students and the community.

Bringing these stakeholders together had a profound effect – the Knowledge Quarter is now a global centre of Artificial Intelligence and plays a big role in healthcare thinking. This in turn benefits UAL. For example, it enabled us to launch the UAL Creative Computing Institute which now brings together creative thinking and cutting edge computational skills.

Public Collaboration Lab

My final example is Public Collaboration Lab. This is deliberately not about buildings and it demonstrates what happens when place-based services are co-designed by local people.

Public Collaboration Lab is a partnership between UAL and London Borough of Camden, one of UAL’s local authority partners. When it was founded, Camden faced a 50% cut in public funding. This meant major changes to its services, affecting local people and the character of the area. Public Collaboration Lab therefore conducted six community projects over 18 months to find innovative solutions for specific public services, from the design of public libraries to re-examining the waste and recycling services.

Users of the services, public servants, and the general public were invited to share experiences, knowledge and ideas. The central methodology was service design with frontline staff, citizens and community groups through workshops, events and coordinated planning meetings. This approach recognises citizens both as ‘people with needs’ and as assets in meeting each other’s needs. And it enables people to redesign their communities without infrastructure investment.

What this means for institutional strategy

It’s important to note that each of these place-making initiatives was co-created with other partners and users. Each included research. Each led to benefits for people, places and partners. The results were unexpected and dynamic, with an elastic sense of place.

Looking to the future, I believe that place will increasingly be regarded as a dynamic concept for university and business strategists.

This will require a new understanding of place-making, embedded in knowledge exchange. Place-making was originally associated with the planning, construction and management of the built environment. This first-generation idea of place is mainly concerned with buildings and infrastructure, including climate-proofing and healthy cities.

The idea of making a place was then supplanted by place-shaping. This second-generation idea of place envisages an enhanced civic role for local stakeholders. Through collaborative leadership and deep community engagement, we create places where people want to live, work and do business.

These concepts are useful but limited, because they assume that place-making is a one-way process that happens to a place. This assumption devalues what is already there.

Third-generation place-making – the creative place

Place-making and place-shaping might instead be seen as subsets of a broader participative model of place as purposeful and creative. I therefore offer a third-generation concept which recognises places as inherently creative. This means that change comes as much from the place itself as from any single partner institution.

Creative places already have and continue to require social purpose and productivity. Creative places are purposeful and productive because they combine a dynamic environment of people, social and cultural capital, industries and technologies with physical infrastructure.

Creative places aren’t just or mainly artistic. A creative place is somewhere a society finds solutions, expresses itself, generates knowledge, creates businesses in any field, reaches out into new communities, and connects with any part of the world. Creative places need broad coalitions for lasting change, particularly in megacities like Hong Kong, Shenzhen and London.

Creative place-makers of the future will understand that each place has a vital past as well as an exciting future. We will recognise that place evolves through time and space at different scales and that creative places have porous borders, long reach and historic links to other places, just as Hong Kong faces both East and West.

I believe strongly that global institutions like UAL must take an interest in creative places wherever they are and irrespective as to whether we own buildings in those places. In future, university place-makers will make our place in the world wherever our most important partners may be -- in business, in education, in government and in culture, just as UAL is doing in Hong Kong.

This is a future that goes beyond the traditional idea of a university and beyond received ideas of place-making. And it’s hugely exciting for universities themselves and for the global communities with which we have the privilege of working.