london docklands 1980-1981
By the early 1980’s, many of Britain’s major urban centres faced inner city decline. Decades of progressive erosion of traditional industries and the impact of misguided planning policies based on single-use zoning, road-based transportation and financial incentives for out of town relocation, transferred vast swathes of economic infrastructure from city centres to suburban car-centric sprawl. One of the worst affected areas was the London Docklands: following the container revolution and the migration of traditional dockside activities downriver, some 5000 acres had lain largely derelict for over a quarter of a century.
In parallel with the imperatives of urban regeneration, another debate was underway concerning energy and industrial policy, and the need for Britain to compete in the development of a new generation of low-impact technologies — particularly information technology, new materials, energy conservation and renewable energy: the so called ‘sunrise industries’. Like all technology transitions, the impediments were multifaceted and systemic — technological immaturity, lack of cost-competitiveness from low volume demand and high investment in market development, with prevailing policies favouring the status quo and vested interests. Recognition of the transformational potential of information technology was limited, and the only demonstration centre for renewable energy was the Centre for Alternative Technology at Machynlleth in Wales. What was needed to accelerate these potentially high growth areas was a single critical mass of related activity: an international centre of excellence promoting innovation, market profile and commercialisation through the cost effective provision of facilities and market access generally available only to larger organisations.
This was the concept behind Earthlife’s proposals for Docklands – to provide at one and the same time a catalyst for regeneration, a technological resource base for East London’s economic renewal, and an international focus for British products and services in these new industries.
As a location, Docklands was perfect. With its proximity to the City, to London’s world ranking academic and engineering centres, its media industries, political connections and transportation hubs, Docklands had the potential to become a major new quarter of one of the world’s great cosmopolitan centres, and a platform for the next-generation economy.
Postscript: some 30 years later, part of this vision is now being realised in small part through 'silicon roundabout', the concentration of new media enterprise around Old Street — less than a mile from the Thames Island site. Docklands itself has been ruined by monolithic architecture devoid of charm, coherence and any sense of place.