Plexal makes space for disabilities

Plexal, London’s newest technology hub, officially opened its doors this week, with a remit to support tech businesses and projects for public good, including smart cities and work with people living with disabilities. Leah Kuntz reports.

LondonTechWeekPlexal, part of the Here East complex at the former press centre at London’s Olympic Park, was officially opened this week by London mayor Sadiq Khan (pictured).

The £15m innovation centre, covering 68,000 square feet, has been created with elements of a “mini city”. The 800 resident tech startups and scaleups will have access to developmental and educational programmes, as well as adaptable workspaces, to build their business and enact change.

Professional service providers of legal accounting, HR, brand representation, are all present on site, along with prototype creation spots and space for events. With a pressing need for innovative products and more conscious products, Plexal’s centre will help keep London at the head of technological development.

Talking to DigitalAgenda, Plexal chief executive Claire Cockerton said she was “very proud” of the space, designed and built in a year and a half.

“We are providing a whole range of support services for the businesses that come into Plexal. We’re not just a general co-working space,” she said.

The mini-city elements include Monument Square, built like a town square. At its core is an enormous screen showing a digital newsfeed, covering everything from the weather to tube delays. Other ‘city’ features include a leisure park and high street.

In tandem with its business incubation, Plexal has helped create the Global Disability Innovation Hub. Experts, disabled and able-bodied, will be brought together to accelerate the development of products to improve the lives of those living with disabilities.

Areas of focus are transportation accessible and affordable housing. British Paralympic gold medallist Lord Chris Holmes chairs the new hub, which is by run in partnership with UCL.

“Technology is neutral but is an incredible tool in the hands of humans and the ways in which we respond to the fourth industrial revolution and the benefits we achieve will be a measure of our civilisation,” Holmes said. “I’m looking forward to the role the GDI Hub will play in this mission.”

Also joining Plexal at Here East is the Ford Smart Mobility Innovation Office, which will see the automotive giant bring in an initial 40 specialists later this year to begin research on smarter urban transport, targeting issues in major European cities.

Ford’s EMEA vice president Steven Armstrong said the company’s specialists will work alongside digital companies, leading academic institutions and existing partners. Organisers said the initiative would target the “near-term commercialisation of smart mobility solutions that meet the needs of Europe’s major cities”.

Cockerton said the tech innovation supported by Plexal would help businesses, and lives in London, as well as across the globe – and she emphasised the importance of the network concept driving the new facility.

“The root of Plexal is the word plexus, or a complex network used to describe the central nervous system of the human body. For us, this concept of an ever-evolving organic network that drives the human identity and also that drives technology and business is very central to what it is that we do,” Cockerton said.

She added: “We’re looking at sectors of IOT, smart cities, AR, VR, artificial intelligence and data analysis, where hardware meets software meets design. This is a very important part of the east London character, and we have the facilities to support those kinds of businesses.

“With the facilities at the technology centre, we’ve departed from Shoreditch shabby chic.”