Spark or stifle.

The story of science, cities, and a sector in flux.

How can the UK create the world’s most successful science clusters? Like scientific breakthroughs, it seems there’s no hidden method. But, put together a group of smart insightful people, and we can get closer to the answer…

In 2013, experiencing a slump in profits and a weak pipeline, AstraZeneca moved its operations to Cambridge from Macclesfield in Cheshire. Its press release announced that the move would give it the key ingredients of an urban science cluster: “easy access to scientific talent and excellent collaboration opportunities through renowned academic research institutions, pre-eminent hospitals and leading-edge biotech companies.”

Had it taken inspiration from Cambridge’s namesake city across the pond? In Cambridge Massachusetts a mix of big firms, small companies, and start-ups had started to form. Today, more than 30 companies are clustered together, all close to Harvard University, MIT, and several top-tier hospitals. “It’s been the epicentre of the biopharma industry for a number of years,” says Gary S. Gray, Director of Technology and Innovation at Harvard Catalyst, the Harvard Clinical and Translational Science Center. “You’re always running into someone you know, so you can start conversations.”

When it comes to location, the questions of collaboration, quality of life, and community have become as vital todecision-making as technical ones.

“Increasingly, people are looking for community,” says Glenn Crocker, UK Head of Life Sciences, JLL. “They’re looking to be part of something bigger, and not be isolated in a single building, or in a business park somewhere. You want to build communities of companies, as opposed to single entities.”

Proximity, if executed well, promotes the breaking down of silos, which is another important way to enhance the commercial viability of a science and research cluster.

“People operate in their silos and they often don’t really know how to work with people outside of them,” says MedCity’s Sarah Haywood. “Clustering needs to take place around big, capable, and expert institutions. They can either be industry based or academic based. The most successful clusters in city environments create the right spaces and mechanisms to allow people to interact effectively, engage with each other, and meet each other.”

The built environment plays an important role in all of this, by developing physical spaces that foster professional collaboration and community. This relationship-building is perhaps the greatest asset of urban science clusters, facilitating encounters that spark exchange of knowledge and innovation.

Science cluster creation:

What we know.

Urban allure

City clustering also offers another compelling advantage: the opportunity for the location itself to act as a laboratory space. Dame Ann Dowling, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Cambridge, says that cities can provide the environment to test and demonstrate new technologies: “There are many examples where cities are using their own infrastructure to support innovation, helping to get new technologies from the laboratory into full-scale implementation.” Already we’re seeing how smart city infrastructure – underpinned by wearable connected devices such as Fitbits – can provide field research for wide-scale digital health developments.

The cluster conundrum

It’s no surprise that the more dynamic and connected a city is, the more it appeals. Once a cluster starts to form, momentum builds. It lures investors and companies. It spawns a gravitational force of its own. It creates a pull that’s hard to resist for the start-ups and early-stage companies that are so critical to development. By creating a virtuous circle of innovation and new infrastructure, cities become smarter and deepen their appeal.

Yet the accumulative nature of the most successful urban science clusters places significant demands on space. Cities’ very popularity can become their downfall. Infrastructure struggles to keep up with exponential population growth. Attractiveness drives up the price of private housing and commercial properties, which can threaten competitive advantage. Rising rents and the escalating cost of living drives out talent… and therein lies the conundrum to creating thriving urban science clusters.

The most successful clusters - which may appear to have developed organically - represent intentional thinking on the part of their stakeholders.

Connection costs

“In London, there are real economic challenges in creating research spaces, where real estate costs are high,” says Sarah Haywood. Of course, while big firms can afford to pay high costs for real estate, start-ups and entrepreneurs struggle.

Despite this, a city location is still “the most desirable location” for large corporate companies to set up their R&D facilities. John Sommerville, Managing Partner at Creative Places, believes it’s about finding the right balance: “Real estate cost is often outweighed by the benefits a company or organisation gets from recruiting and retaining the best people, and the interactions they can have with others in urban locations.”

Proximity of private enterprise to research and development facilities can also support commercial success for clusters. In the early stages of companies, being close to the founding academics is incredibly important as they are heavily involved in setting the scientific agenda for the business.

Urban science clusters such as Silicon Valley, Boston, and the Golden Triangle have seen enormous success in building and attracting innovation, deriving their energy and dynamism from a combination of established and smaller players. Balanced clusters, home to both established companies and market entrants, enable smaller players to bring fresh ideas, and bigger firms to provide long-term financing and stability.

“In the UK, public sector bodies along with planning authorities, are recognising that you need to allocate space in districts,” says John Sommerville. “There is some work being done to drive density of development in city locations. A good example is White City, where Imperial College and Mitsui/Stanhope are each creating multi-level facilities that can accommodate innovative businesses.”

Funding flexibility

John also notes that the co-working model can partly address the parallel issue of rising costs. It allows small businesses to locate to key locations on a more flexible and cost-effective basis. A great example of this in action is SmartLabs, based in Cambridge Massachusetts, which touts its flexible lease terms and “on-demand, pharma-grade research environment”. Shared lab use and month-by-month leases are increasing, but are still highly limited… and the co-working operators seem reluctant to develop highly specialised lab space due to cost of delivery.

“We see a need for the public sector to continue to help gap-fund this type of real estate,” explains John. In some cases, property owners are responding to demand with new construction. But industry experts in the UK emphasise the financial obstacles. Landlords cite concerns about the viability of shorter leasing agreements and uncertainty about start-ups’ ability to pay.

“What is clear, is that the developer community doesn’t currently have access to information about the size and nature of the demand for space from the science and research sector,” says Andrew Somerville, Partner at Hoare Lea. “Creating common understanding between both sides of the supply/demand equation is vital.”

When it comes to tackling this funding disconnect, can the scientific community learn from successful placemaking in other sectors? Andrew explains: “Our own London office is located in one of the first areas Argent regenerated at King’s Cross. The building we’re tenants in hasn’t changed, but its value has because of the placemaking. Argent secured an ‘anchor’ (UCLA) to set the tone for the demographic they wanted to attract (influential, young and creative cross-discipline thinkers)… and then the other tenants followed. Placemaking attracts people and, in turn, allows for the highest yield when it comes to rent.”

Molecular Sciences Research Hub, Imperial College London Photo: SOLK Photography

There are also some major global trends at play that need to be considered in the context of all of this… if quantum computing is cracked, allowing researchers to model complicated chemical reactions or simulate molecules, how much lab space will be needed in the future? If the rise of AI drives a more knowledge-based economy, will clusters have to demonstrate the productivity or ‘brain-friendliness’ of a building? In the race for global talent, how can the UK define and differentiate itself from competitors?

Equally, a push in education towards STEAM (merging arts with STEM subjects) is likely to mean future scientists and researchers could naturally be more generalist. Will we have a generation of students who know how to work in a cross-collaborative manner and therefore will demand/drive the success of clusters?

A new lab landscape

Clusters where different disciplines collaborate to integrate diverse forms of expertise will require a mixture of spaces. “Already, we are moving from individual laboratories and models of self-sufficiency to higher levels of collaboration with shared laboratories and services,” says Team and Technology Ltd’s Michael Schuitevoerder. “We increasingly plan for shared labs, shared space, shared equipment, and shared support services.”

Schuitevoerder cites another London lab that broke new ground when it opened, but he also warns against standing still.“London’s Francis Crick Institute is still the current UK gold standard,” he says. “However, when designing new labs, it is important to look forward and improve. Labs of tomorrow need to be highly adaptable to rapidly changing trends in scientific discovery.”

The pace of change is so rapid that it is difficult to anticipate what the lab of the future will look like, but as science develops and becomes more interdisciplinary, spaces that aid collaboration and can adjust to different needs will become increasingly widespread.

As science continues to advance, lab design may require new feats of engineering. Design teams will need to find better ways to communicate with scientists in order to answer increasingly sophisticated technical demands. Buildings will have to be flexible enough to accommodate changing space allocations and technical improvements that have yet to occur. Other developments, such as PropTech, will alter the fabric of buildings themselves by inserting technology into the relationship between spaces and their occupants.

Now is the time for the UK’s scientific community – side by side with design teams, landlords, universities, businesses, funders, and developers – to break new ground. The best method? Thinking, sharing, and acting in the most holistic way possible.