What happens behind the stage curtain and in the big sheds?

Oliver Goodhall, Co-founding Partner, and Lili Lainé, Senior Urban Researcher

20 October 2021

The economic importance of the creative industries to the London and UK economies is well researched and understood. But the creative industries do not operate in isolation and their daily activities rely on a mix of different kinds of businesses. London’s 'creative supply chain[1]’ - the set of goods and services that support at various stages creative consumption and / or production - is easily forgotten and not always well understood. These supply chains go deep into areas that people might not expect.

So much activity exists out of sight – off stage and ‘behind the curtain’. Making and manufacturing can be found in many different parts of the capital, reflecting a wide range of sectors and specialisms. Combined with logistics and other light industrial urban services, these play a vital role in London’s economy, delivering the goods and services so essential for the capital to thrive. We all know the city is home to a diverse range of workspaces, from converted warehouses, to newly built industrial spaces and small-scale design and artist studios. These support and sustain a huge array of activities within the creative and cultural sectors, as well as more broadly.

This is what makes London tick. It breeds the city’s success.

The complexity and intricate relationships that exist between sectors, businesses, workers and geographies is difficult to reveal and demonstrate. Catching and steering change requires confidence in which levers should be pulled and understanding of how the public sector can intervene effectively. The inter-connectivity of the sectors involved – economic development, culture, regeneration - doesn’t always easily map through to the structures of local government decision makers. Unlike other city-shaping issues, such as housing, transport or waste management, the ‘economy’ is less tangible, consisting of an array of interdependencies which cannot easily be captured (and therefore planned for).

But our team has been trying.

Getting ahead of data through site visits, observations and discussion with local businesses allows us to get a more nuanced understanding of the areas’ make-up and businesses’ activities

Employment land reviews, drawing on forecasts of economic trends and anticipated business needs to recommend the safeguarding orrelease of different types of floorspace are the main tool used by local authorities to inform planning policy formulation and assessmentof development proposals. Whilst these forge a robust and logical link between land use policies and anticipated business needs, theycan often overlook the interdependencies that exist between businesses in different sectors, the complexity of supplier, customer andemployee relationships, as well as the broad range of stakeholders involved in the day-to-day functioning of local economies. These overlooked aspects can be qualitative – or ‘soft’ – considerations that relate to operational, social or cultural behaviours.

Greater fidelity of understanding is required to make good decisions. That intelligence – in our case, driven by our urban research team – is a rigorous reminder to architects and urbanists delivering our cities. This has been a way of working for our practice for some time now.

Reflecting on it, we don’t know how else you can reasonably design. Surely you observe; study; interrogate, then speculate; test; iterate, then shape; design; construct. How do you arrive at successful parts of the urban fabric if you miss out any of these steps – or simply chose to land at what you want as a designer? To embed research as a way of practicing seems to remove ego from city-shaping. There’s simply no space for it when quietly assembling evidence and argument in the background.

We’ve completed granular employment audits of over 1,400ha of employment land, 3,500+ businesses and 52,000+ jobs in London

Charlton Riverside. Photo: Philipp Ebeling

Process of uncovering and rolling our sleeves up
Industrial areas in London have not been particularly well-understood. Contrary to the stereotyped mono-culture of ‘dirty uses’ such as breakers yards and car mechanics, these spaces host a huge variety of businesses from larger wholesalers and logistics uses servingcentral London’s residents and economies through to small photography studios and manufacturers which form an integral part ofLondon’s much-envied creative industries. It’s probably fair to say that most people have no idea what is made and assembled in theirlocal area and what happens in those big sheds.

It is difficult to gain an appreciation of the scale, purpose and ‘behind the curtain’ activity of these businesses without observing them first hand. The urban research team at We Made That has completed granular employment audits of over 1,400ha of employment land, 3,500+ businesses and 52,000+ jobs in London, including auditing of artists’ workspace, creative studios space, dance performance and rehearsal facilities across the capital. We’ve sought to reveal the activity, businesses and people behind the statistics. This includes commissioned studies with clear research outcomes, but it’s also a mode of practice that underpins strategies, masterplans and delivery projects. We always look first.

In different locations, we have used data collected from weeks and weeks of surveying and hundreds of interviews with businesses to give an insight into what people make, the facilities they operate from and demonstrate the local links and contributions made by particular business to others in their area. In these studies, a mix of granular survey and interview data is used to get under the skin ofwhat happens in local economies. It’s fieldwork and it requires time spent on the ground, as well as a keen eye to reveal links. The interdependencies between businesses and their contribution to London as a whole are drawn out, and the productivity and resilience of these areas are highlighted.

In areas of rapid change, statistical data is certainly useful to give a means of comparison and a basis upon future scenario and trends can be built, but it is not sufficient to understand the full ecologies of places. The data is out of date by the time it hits the desk. Getting ahead of data through site visits, observations and discussion with local businesses allows us to get a more nuanced understanding of areas’ make up and businesses’ activities. There is often a large amount of activity missing from the statistical view.

Statistical data relies on Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) which are industry-defined rather than activity defined. Business clusters are therefore often over-looked in categories commonly employed, and we’ve found this to be a recurring theme when it comes to creative supply chains.

For example, where do you think one of Europe’s largest purpose-built underwater film studios, including where Harry Potter and James Bond was shot, is located? Answer: A quiet industrial estate on the outskirts of Basildon. Where do you think hair pieces for blockbuster films such as Matt Damon’s The Martian and Lord of the Rings are made? Answer: A local authority run workspace in Tottenham.

Such gems and activity to celebrate are often concealed in the data or missing altogether.

Gathering data on site through door-to-door assessment is time consuming though – a process of fieldwork and ethnographic study that can feels unreplaceable by ‘big data’. Our developed methodologies allow us to compile precise, centralised and accessible quantitative data on businesses and employment. Information gathered includes figures on employment and productivity, operations and supply chains but also more qualitative data around physical attributes of the area and premises, business tenure, connectedness to other local enterprise, social networks, business needs and plans for the future, business views on the area; hopes, fears and dreams

Famous in Tottenham (and Hollywood). Photo: Philipp Ebeling

Specialist skills on display; all wigs are hand-made for specific television, film and theatre production use. Photo: Philipp Ebeling

Gems and activity to celebrate are often concealed in the data or missing altogether.

Hopes, fears and dreams. What does it all mean?

While there is much to celebrate, London is losing space for production and industry. The need to house a growing population within a constrained city region and the resulting loss of industrial land is reducing the city’s capacity as a place of production and will ultimately threaten London’s position on the global culture stage. The interrelationship between industrial workspace, creative production and cultural consumption in London can appear both fragile and amazingly resilient to change.

The auditing process and studies can help play an important role in explaining the trends and patterns in data, particularly at local level. Talking to local businesses, collecting the views of the broad range of stakeholders involved in the day to day functioning of local economies will not only enhance overall understanding of the local economy, but it is also likely to reveal the value, beyond pure economic value, that businesses and organisations provide – for example social or environmental value. Particular activities are cherished by communities, some contribute to local economic diversity and more broadly underpin the human vitality that characterise local economies. In the context of COVID-19 these ecologies of activities and supply chains have been stretched.

The creative industries in London spend an estimated £40bn within wider supply chains in London alone. About 50 per cent of this expenditure falls outside the creative sectors, including such things as manufacturing of products of wood, manufacturing of fabricated metal products, specialised construction activities, wholesale of textiles, and logistics and distribution of supplies. Over 112,000 creative jobs could be lost in London this year. But we mustn’t forget there are a further 42,000 jobs at risk in London-based supply chains outside the creative industries.

We’re seeing how enterprises and individuals are reacting. Within these studies there are good lessons to be learned about local and individual initiatives that could be replicated or built upon to increase collaboration, innovation or resilience. In Hackney Wick we spoke to a cluster of food businesses who were able to share a forklift truck between them – reducing capital expenditure of each of them as individual enterprises. This one small example demonstrates equipment sharing between co-located businesses at a neighbourhood level. Such shared resources – and skills – will always be economically and socially important.

Stour Road Food Cluster, Hackney Wick

Influence, policy and impact

We believe that representing the diversity of urban economies opens up alternative, more inclusive approaches to urban economicdevelopment based on recognising, supporting and nurturing a spectrum of activity. Mix is good for our city, it always has been. Even more so than before the current pandemic, urban strategies for circular economy principles and relationships to climate crisis and social value need to be drivers for change.

Articulating this and shaping decision-making at a city level is what has driven us to take up progressive thinking in relation to London’s industrial places, including proposals for industrial intensification and co-location. This began in 2015, when we worked to develop the Mayor of London’s Industrial Land Supply and Economy Study. This study was among the first to highlight the emerging need for a changing approach to industrial uses in London. Now, as we shift into new thinking about space for production activities, we recognisetheir significance for businesses and for London as a whole, as well as the pressures facing local authorities and policy makers to allow intensification of such uses.

Adopting a holistic approach to the creative industries must be rooted in a recognition of the interconnected relationship between creative production and cultural consumption. London's world-class cultural institutions rely on a range of production and support activities spanning across sectors, workspace typologies and locations. Our hope is that by allowing these enterprises to step forward from behind the stage curtain, we can reveal their value to the city and secure their future as part of the invaluable diversity of the capital.

Credit: AECOM, We Made That, Cushman & Wakefield, Maddison Graphic

[1] Creative Supply Chains Study

[2] London Industrial Land Supply and Economy Study

This article originally appeared in Urban Design Issue (Winter 2021) 'Research in Practice'. Editors Sebastian Loew and Louise Thomas, curated by Juliana Martins.