After the London Olympics, two giant sheds were left on the Olympic Park – the former Press and Broadcast Centres. Gavin Poole, chief executive of Here East, and Joy Nazzari, founding director of brand consultancy dn&co explain how they went from hangar to destination makerspace
There was scepticism when it was announced that Delancey was going to make two redundant press hangars from the London Olympics into a technology innovation centre in Stratford, east London. But one of Delancey’s most high-profile assets is the nearby East Village, formerly the Athletes’ Village for the Games, so they had a clear sense of the future potential of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
Here East is not the easiest place to reach, whether you ride the shuttle bus from Stratford Station, cycle down the Lea Valley towpath or hop on a Bird e-scooter through the Olympic Park – but once you arrive, you’ll find a technology campus with character and a fascinating mix of tenants, from upstart start-ups to broadcasters such as BT Sport, architecture students from the Bartlett and UCL’s robotics lab, fashion e-retailer Match.com, a dance studios, and soon, an outpost of the V&A museum.
I’m here to meet Gavin Poole, chief executive of Here East, and Joy Nazzari, founding director of brand consultancy dn&co to discuss the journey from shed to destination workspace for The Developer podcast.
From the beginning, selling the future vision for Here East was a challenge, especially to overseas visitors that hadn’t been to the London Olympics: “If you cast your mind to 2012, the whole Olympic Park looked amazing,” says Poole. “Roll forward a couple of months, when the Games were packed up, and it was a building site again. There was nothing here at all. We’d bring people here and say we’re going to create London’s biggest campus for technology and creative industries, and visitors would scratch their heads and say, ‘You’re crazy’.”
Nazzari, who has worked on the project from the outset, said gaining credibility for the vision was important. “We had to do a lot to make that vision real. Not just marketing, logos, cute straplines, but investing in actual partnerships.”
“Instead of talking about what this place means, we had to do things that proved it. It was about real actions. The customer is at the heart of Here East. Some developers are in the dark still, but that idea is in the DNA of Here East – listening and understanding to what their needs are.”
Finding tenants whose brands dovetailed with Here East’s emerging brand identity and legacy location was critical. A major moment was when newly founded BT Sport chose Here East for its headquarters. “Lucky for us, the new COO had just delivered all the Olympic broadcasts for the BBC and knew what this place was capable of. They came on board very early on,” says Poole, which raised a new challenge: “Refurbishing the entire building around a live TV studio without any interruptions to their broadcast schedule was a challenge.”
Another key signing was Loughborough University’s London campus. “Here East played to their strengths in sports science and technology,” says Poole. “Being located on the former Olympic Park supported that.”
Beyond luck, strategic research about the tech industry enabled Here East to leverage its warehouse-like spaces to serve an emerging gap in the market. Nazzari explains: “At that pivotal moment, innovation was changing. Tech was moving from just code, to needing to create projects and objects. POKE, a digital expert, gave us a lot of insight into what was happening. Prototyping was being sent to the Far East, and we needed to bring it back home. Tech was growing out of Shoreditch and needed space. That insight gave us confidence; we were building for a need that was coming.”
“Things are changing so fast, so we need to make sure we stay relevant”
Poole says they continue to follow developments in the sector closely. “Things are changing so fast, so we need to make sure we stay relevant.” He also says he spends time trying to connect up tenants who are here – such as encouraging partnerships or introducing funders to start-ups. “We can introduce people and be generous with our connections into government and City Hall. We try to get them on the mayor’s ‘Go to Grow’ programme. We’re not just being a developer and saying, ‘Great, see you in five years for a review or make sure you pay your rent’. It’s not like that.”
Poole assures me that collaboration on site is real: “Ford came here because they wanted to attract the type of people who want to work in east London. But while they were here, they had a lot of data and needed to make sense of it. They were able to walk next door to a very small bespoke company called Signal Noise, who dissected all the data for them and created an amazing film.”
In an ideal scenario, Poole sees Here East as supporting a business from start-up to scale-up. “Three founders rock up with a great idea, they’ve got some investment. We say come join us, this is the perfect location for you. They start growing their team and make some more money, and we give them space to build a temporary studio. They’re picked up as being one of the hottest tech companies, they raise more money, serious money, and have now grown to a team of over 30 staff and are moving into their own studio space. The flexibility we gave them enabled them to grow without having to worry about finding space,” says Poole.
As part of their ambition to embrace emerging technology and build on Here East’s credibility, Poole has allowed cutting-edge tech to be used on site before it’s licensed for UK roads. For a time, there was an autonomous shuttle bus, and for a short trial, Bird e-scooters are available to rent and ride across the Olympic Park. “They are nowhere else in the UK, because they’re not licensed on roads,” says Poole. “Because this is a private estate, individuals can use them at their own risk. It’s a three-month pilot, but it means that normal members of the public can experience what they read about in the papers or see on TV.”
When I test out a Bird e-scooter, there’s no doubt that whirring across the Olympic Park is the most fun way to arrive at Here East – and Poole says that 800-1,000 riders a week agree. “Just wait until April, when the weather gets better…”
Beyond the trial, however, Poole says he is collaborating with Bird to see “how we can address the laws and bring the e-scooters into a city environment with all the safety measures in place”.
“In the end, if you create the wrong bit of real estate, there’s not a lot you can do to market yourself out of the problem”
It’s another example of collaboration and what Nazzari describes as “being authentic”.
“People hate the word authenticity because it’s hard. It gives you responsibility and a challenge,” says Nazzari. “But the narrative is only fluff if you’re not willing to commit.
“In the end, if you create the wrong bit of real estate, there’s not a lot you can do to market yourself out of the problem,” Nazzari adds. “It’s about starting with the companies and the businesses that you want to come here, and asking, ‘What are they genuinely interested in? What would be their spiritual home?’”
Designed by Hawkins\Brown, perhaps the most interesting architectural intervention on Here East is the gantry – one side of the shed that has been populated with little houses for small businesses, each with its own design and accessed from external stairs and alleyways in the sky.
The concept of the intervention was to provide a home for displaced creative communities, artists and start-ups that have been driven out by the nearly wholesale redevelopment of nearby Hackney Wick, and its bulldozing of warehouse and light industrial space.
“You’ve got to be brave”
Nazzari said the businesses that are tenants in Here East actually wanted to ‘rub-up’ against artists and hyperlocal businesses in Hackney. This provision of affordable studio space brought those other types of businesses to Here East. The idea was risky, and not exactly profitable (at least, at first) but it was critical in cementing the credibility of Here East as a creative community.
Her branding advice to developers? Do what you say: “Your narrative is not valuable if it’s not authentic,” says Nazzari. “When we discussed how not to lose all the makers and artists that live in this area, we had to be authentic and stick to the community, as opposed to being just a big spaceship that landed in the park.”
“You’ve got to be brave,” adds Nazzari. “In this case, it’s about creating a vibrant and interesting community of small businesses. Having the guts to create something like this is part of making that narrative a real thing and not just a fable.”
Transcript by Lewis Duncan
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