London iCity planners drawing inspiration from Boston innovation scene

London’s iCity hopes to mimic Boston’s mix of universities, tiny startups and huge corporations working in close proximity.
London’s iCity hopes to mimic Boston’s mix of universities, tiny startups and huge corporations working in close proximity.

Had a lovely chat last evening with Richard Gibbs, the splendid chap serving as development director of iCity in London, which aims to be a bit like Kendall Square when fully operational in 2018.

OK, I’ll drop the phony accent. It’s infectious when you hang out at the British Consulate-General in Cambridge.

Gibbs is in town this week to draw ideas from the Boston innovation scene (I caught up with him after a visit to MIT) that he can use in iCity, the planned innovation district on the grounds of the former Olympic press center. When complete, iCity will total 1 million square feet and include accelerator workspace, a massive data center and a postgraduate research facility for Loughborough University.

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One thing Gibbs likes about Boston is that universities, tiny startups and huge corporations all work in close proximity. The plan is for iCity to achieve a similar mix, and giants like British Telecom already are committed to, or interested in, establishing outposts among startups.

“This is the first time in my life that I’ve seen a paradigm shift happening in front of my eyes,” Gibbs told me. “Normally you see it in hindsight. The large companies are wanting to get as close as possible to the small people who are actually doing the disruption or understanding it better.”

London’s iCity won’t be a clone of Boston or any other innovation economy, however. Gibbs described it as “less tech and more creative.” When I asked what kinds of companies might work there, he pointed as an example to Sugru, which makes a self-setting rubber that customers can use to repair and modify a wide range of equipment and gadgets.

“Sometimes our American cousins find that slightly difficult to understand,” Gibbs said. “They kind of expect something that looks like Silicon Valley, and it couldn’t be farther removed. It’s much more gritty, it’s much more creative, it’s much more hidden and understated—but certainly no less effective.”