Imperial College London: Learnin’ in the City

The new White City development from Imperial College London is an important moment in the capital’s academic history, writes Charley Rogers

It is rare that we hear of a major university development within London, largely due to the long-standing institutions that are well-established in the historic city. So the announcement from Imperial College London that they are embarking on a large-scale development in the White City area has caused some excitement. 

Described as a home for cutting-edge research, business and culture, the £2bn investment from Imperial College London into their new 23-acre campus is one to keep an eye on.

Known for its expertise in science, technology, and innovation, Imperial College London will continue to expand its prestigious academic offering through its new facilities. However, it is not only ICL students that will benefit. The focus on a community engagement programme means that the new campus will be a place for anyone in the local area to engage with the research and innovation coming out of ICL. There will also be a focus on engaging local businesses with academics and researchers, allowing them to share ideas and resources to further their work. Whether a student, community member, or local business owner, communication and collaboration is the key here. 

White City

The area of White City in London can certainly be described as an ‘up-and-comer’. As an article in Property Week articulated, the area has had to overcome somewhat of a negative reputation. However, with new housing developments, excellent transport links and digital connectivity, White City is attracting some big names from central London.

And one of these big names is Imperial College London. The prestigious university chose White City due to its location within the 270-acre strategic regeneration zone in West London. Established by the Mayor of London, together with the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham (LBHF) and Transport for London (TfL), the ongoing redevelopment of the area is guided by The White City Opportunity Area Planning Framework.   

The regeneration zone promises to provide 5,000+ new homes, 2 million square feet of commercial office space, 30 acres of public space and 19,000 jobs, with Westfield London becoming the largest shopping centre in Western Europe. 

Graham Stark, Development Director for the White City Campus, says that White City was chosen largely due to its excellent transport links. “Our White City campus is located just a short walk from White City Underground station (Central line) and a five-minute walk from the Wood Lane Underground station (Circle and Hammersmith & City lines). Both provide direct access to the West End, The City, King’s Cross St. Pancras, Paddington (with Heathrow Airport fast links), Hammersmith, Euston, Stratford and Liverpool Street (for Cambridge and Norwich),” explains Graham.  

Environmental concerns

The layout of the White City development is punctuated with large amounts of green space, and environmental concerns have informed the project from the word go. At the heart of the new campus is a multifunctional open space with the aim of supporting the health and wellbeing of the local community, and to provide communal space for collaboration. The overall design process has also been developed with environmental interests and sustainability in mind. Concerns such as the provision of energy and utilities have been addressed, and the development masterplan includes the intent to meet, and where possible better, baseline regulatory requirements by committing to a minimum rating of BREEAM excellent for all buildings. 

Ultimately, says Graham, “The creation of good urban open space requires thoughtful design and the careful consideration of microclimate conditions.” The masterplan for the development is fundamentally a flexible one, with a framework for long-term development that allows ICL “to respond to opportunities and change by setting high-level targets whilst allowing new systems and technologies at the time of their design and construction.” 

In terms of ensuring that the surrounding area’s ecology isn’t damaged, but rather actively enhanced, the White City team have put a landscape strategy in place to meet the needs of the local area. This includes creating new areas of habitat, incorporating sustainable urban drainage systems and flood risk mitigation strategies, as well as a planting strategy focusing on native and climate change adaptive species that may also contribute to pollution mitigation and soil decontamination. 

The GradPad building has also had a Combined Heat and Power Plant installed, and a District Heating System in the Molecular Science Building provides the heating and cooling demand for the rest of the North Site. Other energy efficient initiatives in the Molecular Sciences Building include ground source technology, which offsets emissions using the cooling and heating effect of the ground. There are also a small number of solar panels on its roof.

As well as these in-built provisions, sustainability and wellbeing are seen as an important key principle for the university, says Graham. “We have ambitions to use the future campus to work with our academics and students to explore prototyping, and to showcase suitable new and emerging technologies over the coming years,” he confirms. 

Community Connection

White City is not just for the students and staff of Imperial College. There is a dedicated Community Engagement Programme that has been put in place to increase science capital in the community, and to install a sense of partnership working within the new campus. The White City team have been reaching out to the local community with pop-up engagement events that have been run in collaboration with a range of community groups, as well as with teams across ICL. A highlight of these events was the demonstrations offered by ICL staff and students at July’s W12 Festival. Thirty-three volunteers from the ReachOut Makerspace, Imperial College Advanced Hackspace, Cancer Research UK and the Neuroepidemiology research team came out to run the stand. That stand included hands-on makes, interactive activities and demonstrations inspired by The Invention Rooms. 

The Engagement team also runs community tours of the new campus, held on the last Friday of every month, and a number of education and enterprise programmes that range from the Maker Outreach Programme, giving students the opportunity to develop a new idea and see it through to creation with the guidance of Imperial College staff and students, to the White City Innovators’ Programme, which gives local tech start-ups free access to state-of-the-art office and lab space, as well as mentorship and training alongside Imperial academics and industry experts. 

However, possibly the largest outreach project that has come out of the White City development is The Invention Rooms. Opened in the autumn of 2017, The Invention Rooms includes three distinct zones that are set up to “bring members of the local community together with ICL’s academics, students, alumni, and partners to test out creative ideas, build real prototypes, and share in the fun of making and discovery,” says Community Engagement team member Priya Pallan. 

The ‘zones’ within The Invention Rooms are the Advanced Hackspace, a Reach Out Makerspace, and an Interaction Zone. The Advanced Hackspace is a cutting-edge workshop facility for staff, students and partners to develop new ideas and prototypes. Regular hackathons, as well as a number of student and staff programmes such as Hack Mondays take place here, and the workshop includes facilities including 3D printing, digital manufacturing, woodwork and metalwork, and synthetic biology and molecular fabrication through a bio-lab. 

The Reach Out Makerspace is a workshop and design studio for young people from the local community to get ‘hands-on experience of making and prototyping.’ After-school programmes including the Maker Challenge programme and the Schools Challenge programme take place here. 

Set to open in the spring of 2018, the Interaction Zone is the third and final ‘zone’ in The Invention Rooms. This zone will be a ‘warm and welcoming space for the local community,’ says Priya. It will host local events and activities, including science workshops and tech drop-in sessions. As well as meeting rooms, there will be an informal café and terrace where students, staff and community members can relax and have a coffee. 

An academic institution that not only provides world-leading education to its students, but also betters its community and engages the public in university life, Imperial College London is truly inhabiting the space of a modern educational institution with the White City campus. This new development is set to tie the history of academic London to its innovative present seamlessly, and take ICL into 2018 with style.  

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