Community is at the Heart of Our Innovation Districts
Five part Q&A with Anna Strongman, CEO, Oxford University Developments
1. What is the mission and purpose of Oxford University Developments, and why is it important that universities are actively involved in the growth of the Oxford-Cambridge Arc?
OUD is a joint venture between the University of Oxford and Legal & General, formed to provide exemplary development to support the future growth of the University, the city, university spinouts and enterprises and the world-class research and innovation that Oxford is known for globally.
There is a real need for the right kind of spaces to facilitate R&D and commercialisation. Alongside that, there needs to be the right housing availability and infrastructure for people studying and working at the University and within the wider economic growth story. We need to deliver this to a very high quality, for longevity, looking to meet current and future needs through strong sustainability performance, in a way that contributes to the future of the city more generally.
Where you live is not just about the home you live in, but also the city, environment, and local community nearby. The talent incubated within Oxford and attracted to its unique research activities must feel welcome, but also able to afford to live close to the areas where they work, in an attractive environment where they can raise families and integrate.
2. One of OUD’s projects is the development of the Innovation District at Begbroke Science Park. What should sustainable development look like, and how do we simultaneously plan for students, staff, and the world-class innovation taking place within Oxford?
Begbroke is a microcosm of aims and ambitions of both the University of Oxford and L&G. Begbroke will be a place which supports world-leading research and the community which generates that, but also a place where staff, students, entrepreneurs and innovators grow and develop; where their children will go to school, meet friends, and call home.
Begbroke reaches out globally, but we’re looking locally at the requirements the Begbroke community will require. This won’t be a sole university campus, but rather a place where people will live, engage in a diversity of work and employment, and learn. We want Begbroke to stand on its own two feet and have a positive relationship with its neighbours, extending an openness and inclusiveness to existing communities to allow everyone to make the most of the public facilities on offer.
Begbroke must also address some of the major climate change challenges of today; through how we build, design, and operate to deliver a punch in terms of sustainability outcomes. Our interpretation of sustainability is purposefully wide, relating to transport, environment and biodiversity, civic and social infrastructure, and the public realm, meaning well thought-out parks and open space. Begbroke will deliver world-class research, and we want it to be a ‘living lab’ and an opportunity to innovate and explore, foster collaboration, and develop new approaches and techniques to societal challenges, but it will also have its own sense of self, and be something which is a home.
3. Are we doing enough to attract the world’s best researchers and student talent?
The quality of research and academic endeavour at Oxford attracts people from around the globe to be part of its research community, so there is a big pull to this part of the world.
At the same time, the availability of high-quality housing is a challenge. Housing, the cost of living, and integration, weigh heavily in the decision to relocate here and are deal-breakers especially during a time when there is a war for talent. We need to provide housing and supporting infrastructure if we’re to continue to cater to that ‘pull’; things like an inclusive public realm, restaurants, shops, and all the day-to-day facilities which support the city’s evolution. Oxford must keep abreast with how other cities are growing so as not to fall behind.
Competition for talent in science, technology, and materials, is getting more and more intense. Gone are the days where a scientist expects their destination to be a science park; their options are immense, working in private companies, public companies, and universities all over the world. The lifestyle offer is a big factor in their decision-making, and as Oxford may not always be able to compete on salary, it must compete in respect of local environment, the compelling research, and the collective community, which is what we’re trying to support.
4. Does new development undermine the character of ancient cities like Oxford and Cambridge?
Cities that have lasted the test of time have responded to trends and challenges. The University of Oxford’s opening up in the 19th century and the professionalisation of teaching and research is what made the university a powerhouse, developing suburbs to support this mission.
Of course, we have to be sensitive to heritage and environmental considerations, but if development is done sympathetically, it can be part of that future. It’d be good to see more pushing of the boundaries of architecture, too. Growth is necessary to respond to the biggest challenges we face worldwide: health, poverty, climate, social inequalities – a lot of these can be addressed by the research coming out of the University.
5. What are the challenges involved in masterplanning, and how can we ‘future-proof’ the places that we create?
There needs to be regulatory frameworks to encourage the right outcomes. That’s not straight forward, but good growth can be supported through standards of building design, building codes, quality, energy systems, and operational approaches to buildings.
On infrastructure, there needs to be investment to create sustainable transport solutions, even for autonomous vehicles.
Most of all, we need to set out a compelling vision and framework for the future whilst building in sufficient flexibility and nimbleness to respond to a rapidly evolving innovation ecosystem.