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Royal Docks: How UEL’s Royal Docks Centre For Sustainability brings people together

Director Robert De Jong and his team aim to drive the green agenda in east London by convening stakeholders at the new facility

Royal Docks Centre For Sustainability director Robert De Jong

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On a dark day, it might be tempting to look at the state of the planet and be discouraged.

Globally we’ve had the warmest February on record, yet ministers seem content to water down green policies. 

Populist politicians and commentators bewail what they see as the madness of abandoning coal and gas.

Others argue that the UK’s emissions are so small in comparison to other parts of the world that there’s no point in making any changes at the supposed expense to our quality of life. 

Early withdrawal symptoms for a culture hopelessly hooked on fossil fuels?

Perhaps. But nevertheless the voices have become a potent lobby. 

The eastern extension to ULEZ hardly raised a peep when it came to Docklands.

But west London was a different story, with opportunistic politicians hijacking a poorly articulated campaign to target the Mayor Of London and, arguably, scrape a by-election win in Uxbridge.

There’s danger here. People like the status quo and yet, ULEZ has seen some pollutants fall by as much as 46% in its first year in central London.

That’s cleaner, fresher air – with around 290,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions prevented from fouling the atmosphere and contributing to the heating of the planet. 

Will this single measure save us? No. Not on its own.

But it’s a measure taken in a major capital city, that’s delivering myriad benefits.

This is a strong recipe for inspiring others.

The RDCS is based at UEL’s Royal Docks campus

It matters what we do here because the ideas and technology necessary to address the massive problems we face, need both places of generation and implementation.

That’s why projects like the University Of East London’s recently launched Royal Docks Centre For Sustainability (RDCS) are vital for the survival of our species.

Part-funded by the Mayor and Newham Council though their Royal Docks Team initiative, the facility provides space for projects, will be open to the community and will soon boast a “vibrant cafe”.

But beyond the, doubtless, sustainable coffee, it has another role.

Its task is to bring people and organisations together to improve sustainability in an area that’s undergoing billions of pounds of regeneration in a borough fighting deprivation.

“If I could have one wish, it would be that this centre has a driving influence on the Royal Docks, that the innovation created here really plays out and makes sure that this community and London itself become exemplars,” said Robert De Jong, RDCS director and the man whose job it is to steer the facility as it evolves and develops.

“We have a regeneration scheme in the docks that is forecast to grow significantly over the coming years and it should be sustainable.

“The centre’s role is as a convener, both for our schools at UEL, our research centres, the local community and industry. 

“Our aim is to bring them all together through effective programming and setting themes for ourselves. 

“I would like to see ambitious goals set for the Royal Docks such as the establishment of a clean-tech cluster so the businesses that come through here are really innovative and set up for the future.

“Also that the plan for urban design – the way the buildings are made and how transport and urban connectivity flow through the docks – is really low carbon.

“There’s a lot of talk about this but, when it comes down to reality, there can be stark differences in what’s delivered to what was mooted. We have a real opportunity here to unleash these ideas and ask what we can do differently.

“How can we engage with the waterways, the transport system and boost biodiversity as well?”

To address some of these questions, RDCS comes fully equipped with some powerful tools and facilities, namely a Sustainability Research Institute, a Sustainable Enterprise Centre, an Augmented + Virtual Reality Centre, a Renewable Energy Lab and a Maker Space.

The Mayor Of London, Sadiq Khan officially opened the centre earlier this year

Then there’s a Data Centre, a Living Lab, a Living Library, a Careers Office, a Hackathon space, Business + Community Tax And Law Clinics and more besides. 

It stands as both a physical connection to UEL’s schools as well as a conceptual one, aimed at spotlighting the work the university does and mixing it with ideas and influences from other organisations and groups.

“We take a holistic view,” said Robert.

“Sustainability means that we’re governing with an ethical outcome for society and the environment, that we’re thinking outside of our own jurisdictions and that we’re also really understanding the stewardship of products and striving to improve how we use resources.

“We can’t just keep creating pollution and heating the globe.

“We need to think about how to manage the whole balance of our ecology. 

“At the moment we’re at a certain rate of growth, so we need to ask if that is sustainable.

“The centre is based on a number of things – firstly collaboration and creation in the holistic sense of sustainability, driving it across east London, around Newham and in Royal Docks in particular.

“In a couple of years’ time, I would like to see this centre established at the forefront of pushing the sustainability agenda – that we’re able to make a measurable impact in terms of social outcomes.

“At UEL we already have great diversity in the student body, among staff and in our policies, but how far can we go?

“That’s not just looking at employment, it’s in the supply chain and it’s driving that wider agenda and our goal of a healthier planet.

“I’d like to see this centre become a catalyst for enabling these things and also to act as a demonstrator.”

Part of the three-storey centre’s mission then, will be to constantly shine spotlights on the work being done in UEL’s schools, while simultaneously supporting and showcasing the work of businesses.

“There is sustainability in each of our schools but it’s hidden away and we’re not always good at shouting about it,” said Robert.

“For example, the Sustainability Research Institute is doing amazing work on bio-based building materials such as Sugarcrete, made from waste products when sugar cane is refined.

“But equally there are fantastic projects in engineering and fashion too.

“Then there’s the wider ethos around our campuses themselves, with a opportunity to embed sustainability in the governance of UEL itself and to ask how we involve every member of staff in that process.

Visitors examine blocks of Sugarcrete, a new material made with waste products from the sugar refining industry

“We’re also about to launch an accelerator programme, starting with a small number of organisations with combined interests.

“We have a focus on fintech and how to develop financial technology and also on entrepreneurship with a faculty looking at how we organise training around creating a business and skills development.

“We can all come up with business ideas but in reality growing a company and overcoming the hurdles of finance and development can take many years.

“However, with the right support and education, firms can really grow successfully.

“We want to create cohorts through these programmes, but we also want to talk with external partners to run some of them, so it’s not just UEL.

“Key to the whole project is that the centre is a place where we can bring in local stakeholders such as Excel, London City Airport and Siemens, which is leading on UEL’s work to achieve net zero.

“Before, we were promoting the story of how exciting the centre will be, but since it’s opened, the dialogue has changed.

“People understand its principles and how we’re really striving for local impact, employment and engagement as well as picking up new ideas.

“Those from the community, wider industry and UEL itself who have seen the centre, seem really pleased with the space and understand how it is relevant.

“There will be entrepreneurs and scaleups based here, but people can also come for advice with clinics that can be used free of charge by locals from the community.

“We also want to bring in more international organisations – we need the whole mix to be right – to ensure that what we’re creating here is a framework of approach so people will feel this centre is a new space of inspiration.”

There you have it, a beacon of innovation in the Royal Docks, that people across the world can look to.  

Find out more about the Royal Docks Centre For Sustainability here

Read more: Why MadeFor office space in Canary Wharf is a vital part of its offering

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Royal Docks: How Certain Blacks’ Ensemble Festival is packed with free entertainment

Artistic director Clive Lyttle on how acts have been commissioned to get audience’s hearts’ beating

Certain Blacks artistic director Clive Lyttle

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Clive Lyttle is smiling and there’s a glint in his eye.

The artistic director of Certain Blacks is relishing the prospect of putting on four days of completely free entertainment in Royal Docks when the organisation’s Ensemble Festival returns. 

Six whistle-whetting performances are set to take place on July 19 and 20, 2023, followed by a further 10 on July 22 and 23, 2023 – all adding up to a brightly coloured spectacle of newly commissioned circus, dance, art and voguing.

The festival’s 2023 programme is its most extensive to date in Certain Blacks’ ongoing mission to bring live performance from the margins to the mainstream.

“I’d spent 17 years working for Arts Council England and I developed Certain Blacks because of the need to support a wide range of diverse artists,” said Clive.

“Our first indoor festival took place in 2015 at Stratford Circus and we continue to showcase work as an arts development organisation.

“At the Arts Council, I was responsible for Newham, so I have deep contacts in the borough – my first job was as a multi-cultural arts officer for the council.”

Having worked extensively in the area, Clive made the move to Royal Docks six years ago and now lives overlooking Excel from the Flying Angel – a former seaman’s hospital for more than a century, converted into residential homes.

Between there and Certain Blacks’ base at The Factory Project in Silvertown, he oversees two annual festivals – Ensemble in E16  and Heroes, last held at Shoreditch’s Rich Mix in February.

While the latter is a platform for artists to explore performances strictly for an adult audience indoors, the former is strictly family friendly and very much out in the open air.

 “Certain Blacks is part of a network called Without Walls,” said Clive, who originally wanted to be a rock star before going on to study jazz guitar in Northumbria and embarking on a career in the arts. 

Out Of The Deep Blue’s puppet performance will be part of the festival

“It’s a national consortium of 36 festivals that work together to commission and develop innovative new work each year that can then tour the country.

“We’ve got seven new commissions including Gorilla Circus – a large scale show with high wire, trapeze and hair hanging that will be the finale of this year’s Ensemble Festival

“We’re lucky to have Arts Council funding, which gives us a little bit of money to get these shows made and then a bit of time to put a programme together.

“I travel to various festivals in the UK and Europe where we meet people – we’re always on the look out for artists.

“The festival is also funded by the Royal Docks Team for some smaller commissions that range from a local music collective to a Chinese dance group, an African psychedelic performance and something we’re putting together called Give And Take, which is about the politics and rights and wrongs of giving.”

These performances will mostly take place in front of Good Hotel off Western Gateway, a few minutes’ walk from Royal Victoria Dock DLR station.

The finale, however, is set to take place beside Building 1000 near Royal Albert Dock DLR on the Saturday and Sunday.

“It’s a spectacular show,” said Clive. “I saw it at the Norfolk And Norwich Festival – one of the partners in Without Walls – in May and it was fantastic.

“Of the consortium, we’re one of the few partners putting that show on.

“It gets your heart really beating – the hair hanging may make a few people wince and the high wire act is one of the best in Europe.

“He doesn’t wear a harness and left me with my heart in my mouth when I saw the show last month.

“As for the rest of the performances, a lot of the programme is an open call to artists – anyone who wants to do outdoor work can apply and that can lead to performances at, say, seven or eight festivals nationwide.

“With Certain Blacks, a lot of it is putting on work and supporting artists that I’d love to see – but also pieces that are unexpected and diverse.

Mughal Miniatures is based on tiny pictures seen in Indian temples

“It has to be fun too. We do a lot of live art, a lot of work which might challenge the audience – but Ensemble is very much PG-rated, even if the shows might make people think.

“We have the Sonia Sabri Company presenting Mughal Miniatures – The Awakening, a piece based on tiny pictures you can see in Indian temples brought to life.

“Then there’s Fussy Foodies: Battle Of The Pans where people can learn a few tricks about being a celebrity chef, play a few games and have a good singalong. 

“Some of the themes we’ll be addressing through the Royal Docks Team commissions are ecology, being eco-friendly and how we live.

“We’ve got an event anyone can take part in called the Bench Invasion.

“People from Belgium are coming over with 10 benches and we’ll have local volunteers helping to put the benches down, and people can sit and talk to them – then at the end there’s a little party and an exchange of stories.

“It’s about slowing life down and listening.

“We’ve also got a big eco-show with the Austin Dance Theatre called Out Of The Deep Blue – it’s a giant puppet that goes around telling stories about conservation.”

One of the few pieces to take place elsewhere will be dotComedy’s News Desk – a live rolling broadcast about events happening on the streets of Royal Docks presented in front of City Hall, delivered by comedian Richard Sharp.

There isn’t even space here to properly mention the interactive pub serving sounds or the rebellious hip hop dance of S.C.R.U.M.

All in all, it adds up to an extensive, diverse and surprising range of work as Royal Docks beds in as a serious cultural destination in London.

Clive said: “The area is getting to be very much part of the wider events ecology of London and we want to take artists from here out into the wider world.

“One of the points about our small commissions is to start artists on that journey, so they could be commissioned by people like Without Walls.”

Find full listings for Ensemble Festival here

THREE HIGHLIGHTS AT ENSEMBLE FESTIVAL

Gorilla Circus is set will be performed over two nights in Royal Docks

GORILLA CIRCUS

July 22-23, 8,30pm

The absolutely unmissable finale to Ensemble Festival – expect hair hanging, high wire and much more from this aerial spectacle outside Building 1000 at Royal Albert Dock.

Catch Ghetto Fabulous at Western Gateway as part of the festival

GHETTO FABULOUS

July 22-23, noon-7pm

Four LGBTQIA+ dancers from Manchester and Liverpool strut their stuff in this family catwalk extravaganza. Audience decides the winner. Find this show at Western Gateway.

Expect foodie facts and storytelling from Fussy Foodies

FUSSY FOODIES

July 22-23, noon-7pm

Just More Productions presents the Battle Of The Pans – a game show themed around Caribbean cooking.

Expect foodie facts, spices and storytelling.  Find this show at Western Gateway.

Read more: How artist Mark Taylor is capturing Canary Wharf and Docklands

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Royal Docks: How The Greenhouse Theatre is set for a run at Thames Barrier Park

Zero waste venue will be a creative hub to house three of the four artistic commissions for Sea Change

The Greenhouse Theatre is set to come to Royal Docks

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There’s about to be a lot going on to the east of Canary Wharf.

The Royal Docks Team (RDT) has officially unveiled its At The Docks programme – an umbrella for numerous events and attractions set to come to fruition in E16 between May and September.

These include the likes of the Greenwich + Docklands International Festival, the London E-Prix, the Dockyards Summer Series and Newham Heritage Month.

It also includes Sea Change – an RDT collaboration with University College London (UCL) that has seen four new artworks commissioned.

These have been curated by Invisible Dust, which has brought together a quartet of artists with scientists at UCL to respond to the climate crisis.

Finally, after what feels like a blizzard of stakeholders and acronyms, that leads us to May 11-June 4, 2023, when these installations will be available to view for free.

The Greenhouse’s co-founder and artistic director, Oli Savage

Rather than a gallery, however, three of the works will be on show at The Greenhouse Theatre – a zero-waste travelling venue that, even as you read this, is being built at Thames Barrier Park.

Having spent time in Canary Wharf in 2021, it’s a structure typically used as a space for live performances, which has meant a few changes for its latest incarnation.

“We’ll be this really exciting creative hub for those weeks down in Thames Barrier Park – a space where people can engage with the amazing artworks that Invisible Dust has programmed,” said Oli Savage, co-founder and artistic director of The Greenhouse Theatre.

“Physically, this is the same venue – built from recycled materials – but there will also be some new spaces for 2023.

“One of the pieces – Flotilla by Melanie Manchot – will be shown in our new screening space, a very lovely repurposed shed.

“We’re also introducing our first zero waste bar on site where people can come and hang out and stay sustainable while they’re having a drink.

“Our message is that the site is open – we’re encouraging people to come down and enjoy all the things that are on offer.

“We want to make it a space that people really want to come and spend time in.”

Biotopes by Simon Faithful

The core of Sea Change will be four artworks, with three housed at The Greenhouse. 

Biotopes by Simon Faithfull explores habitats with the artist using 3D printed sculptures of his body adapted for other species to reside in.

Power In by Dana Olărescu promises an exploration of energy equity with input from local people. 

Manchot’s Flotilla comprises a film of local women afloat on boats on the night time waters of the Royal Docks, inspired by the history of protests for equality in the area.

The fourth artwork – The Waves Are Rising by Raqs Media Collective – will be viewable at Royal Victoria Dock and sees an augmented reality wave superimposed over live video footage of the still waters in front of City Hall. All are free to access. 

Sea Change will also include Forecast 2023 on May 19, 2023 – a symposium during which writers, artists, scientists and cultural commentators can explore the nature of stories and how they might shape the planet’s future.

Flotilla by Melanie Manchot

A full schedule of events is set to be announced soon. As part of the overall programme, The Greenhouse will be hosting a free youth festival on May 14, 2023, aimed at people aged 14-30.

“This will be a full day with workshops, events and refreshments available,” said Oli.

“There will be live music too and this is very much by and for people aged 14-30 – we’d love a great crowd of young people along to come and hang out with us. 

“In fact we want as many people to come down and see us as possible throughout our time here. It is a lovely, lovely park on the river and right beside the Thames Barrier itself – an iconic piece of architecture, so we’re really lucky to be there.

“There’s also a fantastic community locally, which we’re really excited to engage with and serve.”

The Greenhouse Theatre is also expecting to return to Canary Wharf in June before heading to Battersea in August.

“We’re expecting the Wharf run to go ahead, which will be a return to theatrical programming with a festival feel,” said Oli.

Power in by Dana Olărescu

“We’ll have two or three shows each day – a range of different fringe artists – alongside headline show To The Ocean, which will be on at 7pm.

“It’s a modern retelling of the Selkie myth – a musical about how we connect with each other, with family and with the natural world. 

“It will feature original music and it’s all about a young girl’s journey to find herself who on her 16th birthday discovers her dad hasn’t been entirely truthful about where she’s from.

“She sets out on a mythical, magical journey to the ocean to meet her mother and discover her roots. 

“One of the really exciting things is we’ll be holding open rehearsals people can come to for free while we’re in Royal Docks as well as preview performances at a reduced rate from June 2-4, 2023.”

The Waves Are Rising by Raqs Media Collective

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Royal Docks: How Dido’s Bar will immerse audiences in stories at The Factory’s Unit F

Director Josephine Burton talks about the epic retelling of The Aeneid set in the Royal Docks

Dido's Bar director Josephine Burton - image Ali Wright
Dido’s Bar director Josephine Burton – image Ali Wright

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

Refugees have to leave everything they know – not just places and people, but communities, careers, sights and sounds they have found comfort in their whole lives.

They arrive in a new world and are expected to assimilate. But how do they do this when everything around them is unknown?

This is the struggle Dash Arts seeks to capture with its new production Dido’s Bar, an immersive retelling of Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid, set in Royal Docks.

“I’m Jewish and British, English and a Londoner and have always felt I’m many things – on the edge of so much,” said director Josephine Burton.

“I’ve enjoyed being in that liminal place between different communities. It’s how I see the world, so I’m interested in seeing other people’s otherness too.”

The story of migration and love will be told through the eyes of refugees today and unfold in a real life bar built in part of a former Tate & Lyle warehouse.

Audiences will, we are told, be immersed in a strange world when they arrive, where they are unsure what motivates the people around them.

They will mingle with the cast as the story of Trojan refugee Aeneas unfolds around them.

But instead of being set in ancient Italy, the production has been transported to a jazz bar with a line-up of live musicians.

It’s set to run at The Factory from September 23 to October 15, 2022.

“The audience will walk into the venue, with a house band warming up in the corner and they’ll grab a drink from the bar,” said Josephine.

“Then the drama of this amazingly powerful love story between Aeneas and Dido and the great battle between Aeneas, the foreigner, and Turnus, the local boy, will creep up around them.”

Josephine is co-founder and artistic director of Dash Arts, which is based in Whitechapel.

For the last 15 years it has worked with 9,000 artists to create work that bridges divides across art forms, cultures, languages and communities.

“We go on a bit of a journey and spend a lot of time listening, understanding, meeting and researching artists and eventually creating work with them,” said the 45-year-old.

“It’s like opening up a Pandora’s box with this extraordinary wealth to explore, understand and then share with audiences.”

Dido’s Bar has been two years in the making and was first inspired back in 2017 when Josephine met Kurdish Iranian refugee Marouf Majidi in Finland.

“I had been on an exploration of what it means to be European which had emerged out of the Brexit referendum,” said Josephine.

“I met Marouf in Finland in 2017 on my way back to the airport over a coffee and he told me his story of traveling to Europe. 

“He fled Iran as a refugee and was relocated to Finland, where he settled and eventually studied at the Sibelius Music Academy in Helsinki, where he now teaches. 

“He’s been on an extraordinary journey from the music conservatoire in Tehran where he studied Persian classical music, to teaching Finnish folk music.

“He found it very hard at first to establish himself musically and connect with the musicians he was playing with in Finland.

“Eventually something shifted for him and he found his place, but he was no longer ‘in tune’ with musicians from central Asia.

“It was such a short meeting, but that thing he said about feeling out of tune lived with me.

“I picked up the phone three months later and said I really wanted to tell his story and wanted him to be at the heart of it.”

Marouf Majidi - image Ali Wright
Marouf Majidi – image Ali Wright

He agreed, but at first Josephine struggled to find the right way to bring his story to the stage.

“I wanted to tell Marouf’s story and find a way of understanding what it is to be European through the experiences of refugees who travel here,” she said.

“It’s perhaps the people who move here and go through such a transformation, musically and emotionally, to insert themselves and settle in a new place, that can help tell us who we are. They can be that mirror for us.

“But I didn’t want to just tell a personal story, I also didn’t want to create a super band of musicians. I wanted to do something theatrical and dramatic.”

Her lightbulb moment came when she remembered a text she had studied 20 years ago as a classics student.

“I was chatting to someone about how the Aeneid is the story of our time, of the refugee and the struggle to find a place to belong,” she said.

“Aeneas flees Troy in the war-torn East and travels across the Mediterranean to seek sanctuary and build a new home in Europe

“It’s the story of both the experience of fleeing and having to assimilate and discover that, once you’ve arrived, it’s only the beginning of the story.

“Suddenly I realised it was the perfect way to tell Marouf’s story and to understand the role of Aeneas in a contemporary setting.

“The original epic poem is pages and pages long in Latin, involves mass battles and love affairs and is very involved and beautiful.

“We’ve taken that story and mapped it on top of Marouf’s.”

She developed the idea during a series of residencies with playwright Hattie Naylor and Marouf, who has composed the music alongside Riku Kantola.

Research and development in Scotland in February 2020 was followed by a residency in Finland – a few days together as part of Royal Docks Originals – and a residency in Cornwall.

Marouf then moved to London this summer to finish developing the show.

The cast of 10 is a mix of nationalities - image Ali Wright
The cast of 10 is a mix of nationalities – image Ali Wright

“I remember the two of us bent over on the floor in Scotland in the rain with copies of the Aeneid in English, Latin and Arabic ,” said Josephine. 

“We spent hours trying to work out what the story was and finessed it to the point where we would challenge each other to tell it in less than a minute, then 30 seconds, then 10. 

“Then we did a lot of jigsawing and planning and brought in Hattie who had adapted the Aeneid for Radio 3 as a drama.

“She’d go off and write and then we’d write a song together. It really was a collaborative process.”

The result is a show where the epic warriors of the original story are now musicians trying to make it into the spotlight and the goddesses are sisters who own two bars – one on the edge of town and one in the centre.

It draws on the backgrounds of its international cast who hail from Morocco, Madagascar, Germany, Finland, and Eritrea, and uses their native languages to enrich the performance.

Josephine said: “The show now is about how to understand an old myth written 2,000 years ago that feels so resonant and timeless.”

It will be staged in Unit F of The Factory, disused sugar warehouses that have recently been transformed into a series of new venues and workspaces. 

“It could never be in a black box theatre,” said Josephine.

“I wanted the audience to feel that they were somewhere impromptu and exciting and slightly makeshift. We spent quite a lot of time trying to find a place and saw some extraordinary places across the Docks. 

“Then, last May, I visited The Factory when it was in quite an early stage of development. 

“Projekt, our partners for the show, had just got Unit F from Tate&Lyle and, when we walked in, there were pigeons in the rafters and sugar all over the floor.

“It was sticky and black underfoot and it felt very powerful as a venue – I just knew it would amazing.”

Dash Arts has built the bar from scratch and it will serve up beverages from nearby Husk Brewing using local staff.

Newham artists will take to the stage each night and the show will be complemented by a programme of gigs, talks, food events and workshops to engage the local community, which has been shaped through the area’s history of immigration and dockers.

“It’s a perfect marriage for us of place and story because the audience is really going to feel that they’re coming to somewhere incredibly exciting and diverse,” said Josephine.

“Newham is one of the most linguistically diverse boroughs in London – there are hundreds of languages spoken there – and it has always been a first port of call for people.

“So to tell this timeless epic story today in Newham’s docks is really thrilling and right.”

The project has been co-produced with the Royal Docks Team and Jospehine said they have worked hard over the last year to embed it into the community, meeting local groups and running music workshops.

“There is a real sense of culture and community building happening there and I got very excited about that,” she said. “I had this real instinct that there wasn’t anywhere else to put Dido’s Bar.

She hopes the audience will embrace the world they have created.

“I really want them to have a wonderful night and love the music because it’s extraordinary,” she said.

“I want them to feel as I felt, that this old ancient story has such resonance today, to feel moved by the protagonists and the journey they have taken. 

“I hope they feel we have done justice to some of the biggest questions of our time, about how to assimilate into our communities.”

THE FACTORY – A NEW VENUE FOR ROYAL DOCKS

Once used by Tate & Lyle for sugar production, this 5.2 acre site on Factory Road is now a series of work and event spaces run by meantime use specialist Projekt (also behind the Silver Building)

It landed the first grant from the Royal Docks Good Growth Fund for a year-long refurbishment and opened the 100,000sq ft space in June. 

Organisations that have made The Factory their home include Community Food Enterprises, Links Event Solutions and The Beams – a new venue by Broadwick Live.

Unit A is home to a cafe run by The Breadmeister, Unit D is a set of workspaces and Unit F is a refurbished warehouse that will be hired out for film and TV productions.

Projekt said the venue provides new work and event spaces that will “safeguard and grow the already burgeoning artistic and cultural community around the Royal Docks, as well as providing a significant amount of affordable workspace.”

Read more: Discover Pouya Ehsaei’s Parasang at Woolwich Works

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- Laura Enfield is a regular contributor to Wharf Life, writing about a wide range of subjects across Docklands and east London 
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Royal Docks: How Expressway offers industrial and office space to business

Royal Victoria Dock-based facility provides studio and growth space for small, expanding companies

An image of Expressway principal Jacob Sandelson
Expressway principal Jacob Sandelson – image Matt Grayson

For drivers cruising down into the southern slice of Royal Docks via the long, graceful curve of the Silvertown Way flyover it would be entirely possible to miss something extraordinary taking place beneath the smooth asphalt caressed by the rubber of their tyres.

But, turn right at the bottom onto the switchback of North Woolwich Road, and the hive of activity beneath the arc of the carriageways becomes increasingly apparent, a crescendo as the height of the units rises, culminating in a main entrance.

This is Expressway, a comprehensive revitalisation of the old Waterfront Studios Business Centre. General Projects, the company that bought the space in 2018, hasn’t so much updated the existing real estate as reinvented it, punching a fresh entrance through the wall to Royal Victoria Dock and installing a coffee shop serving Perky Blenders’ products to open it up to the public and fuel occupants of its studios and industrial units.

Outside, dark grey paint has refreshed the structure, while indoors, whites, greens and stencilled lettering alongside a profusion of plywood and real plants lend its communal spaces and corridors a light, airy feel. There’s no plastic foliage nonsense here, just a friendly welcoming atmosphere replete with community notice board and plenty of puns around the word ‘way’.

It’s a visual expression of the light-touch authenticity that’s at the core of General Projects’ scheme.

Studio space at Expressway in Royal Docks – image Matt Grayson

Expressway principal Jacob Sandelson said: “When the company was founded, the serviced office market was popping up all over central London, but what became apparent to us was that when you got further out, to areas such as Acton in the west, Croydon in the south, Haringey in the north and Royal Docks in the east, there wasn’t that same provision of space. 

“There were lots of blue carpet, white light offices but not much in the way of amenities or service for what we call steady growth innovators – hard working small businesses such as craft brewers, accountants, recruitment consultants and fashion designers.

“These aren’t the kinds of companies that are looking to raise £50million from venture capitalists. They’re looking to hire a couple of people who they trust, who will feel ownership of that business and will like going to work. Hyper-talented one-man-bands growing to five person firms.

“So when we were looking for locations as a company, we were hunting an incumbent sense of community.

“I’m not the figurehead of Expressway – it’s made up of the people who have worked here the longest. As a company, we’re just here to provide nice space for people and exactly the things that they want and not more than that because we know value is the most important part of our product.”

In addition to private office studios, typically 350sq ft, the facility boasts communal showers, cycle spaces, meeting rooms and a co-working space as well as industrial units of between 1,000sq ft and 7,000sq ft.

“We think this is London’s first truly serviced industrial space,” said Jacob. “We can provide spaces fully furnished or fitted at a basic level with services connected and wireless and wired internet connections included. It’s really up to the business. It’s also about supporting local people – around 50% of the people who work here live within 15 minutes’ walk.”

Key to Expressway’s offer is the importance it places on developing its community of businesses, whether that’s assisting firms in navigating through the choppy economic waters of Covid-19 or helping support the next generation of entrepreneurs.

“I’m incredibly proud of how we acted through the pandemic,” said Jacob. “It was a time when there was fear in every email. 

“As soon as it was clear Covid-19 was becoming a problem we set up the Expressway Genius Bar for our tenants, staffed full-time by a colleague of mine.

“His job was to understand and be the guy to go to on everything from VAT deferment to furlough, the Coronavirus Interruption Business Loan Scheme, grant funding and the bounce back loans.

“The aim was to communicate with all of our tenants and stand between them and the complexity of accessing assistance and money.

“We helped more than 60 businesses get more than £600,000 of grant funding and that really helped. We’re currently at 92% occupancy and I hope people here would talk about us favourably as an owner-operator.” 

Expressway’s industrial units – image Matt Grayson

General Projects is also working to create a circular model where Expressway, in partnership with the council-run Newham Workplace and the Royal Docks Team, hosts the Youth Incubator programme.

“Fostering small and local businesses is at the core of everything we do,” said Jacob. “We have a number of initiatives but this programme in particular offers 17 people aged 18-30 free membership of Expressway. Newham has very high levels of youth unemployment but, when you have that, you can also have very high levels of entrepreneurship.

“Our incubees get skills seminars, development support, social media marketing advice, guidance on accounting for small businesses and on how to raise funds. 

“They also get free, relevant mentoring – we’re not experts in any of those areas but we have an on-site network of 162 small and medium-size businesses that have all been down those roads, have trodden those paths and completely understand and empathise with the challenges. 

“Expressway acts as a social brokerage to match businesses with young people on the programme and we welcomed our second cohort at the end of March.

“What I would really like to see is someone go round the full circle, coming to the incubator, growing from a single person business and taking space from us and then in turn becoming a mentor. 

“I want as large a number as possible of our existing tenants to remain with us and for Expressway to be a place that feels lived in as well as worked in, for it to continue to be a space where genuine experiences happen.” 

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