The intellectual community of Oslo is not yielding the results it were intended to do. Will the new contribution of Life Science Center fuel or solve the existing problems in the region?
Tin Phan, student at AHO and member of the Web Editorial.
In September 2014 Ratio & CO won the competition for a new Life Science Center in Gaustadbekkdalen Oslo, the biggest research facility ever planned on Norwegian soil. The winner entry “Vev”, which in this context translates into the term, fabric, is meant to be a nod towards how the project proposes to interweave the entire Oslo University campus. Through its landscape, pathways, open floorplan and an exuberant research facility the project clearly states how it also is meant to become a major forum connecting the entire elite society of Blindern. Another fact pointed out in the draft; it is presenting itself as a necessary expansion of Oslo Science City. Although using the correct rhetoric in answering the needs of Blindern Campus, historical facts and analysis indicate the current development might not in fact succeed in achieving its goal.
OSLO SCIENCE CITY (OSC)
To understand the context of Gaustadbekkdalen, one has to acknowledge the entire area as a part of the Oslo Science City strategy. A science city or technopole is based on an interdisciplinary cooperation between research, education and venture capital by placing them in the vicinity of each other. By doing so, the technopole will generate growth on every level of given city or region. These modern day industrial structures have been the center of attention in major innovations of our contemporary society, most famous are Silicon Valley, MIT, Cambridge etc. In an attempt of aping such ideals, OSC maintains 33% of all research activity in Norway within a 1,5km radius of the University of Oslo.
Can one assume the entire OSC a success or failure with the major development of Life Science Center? A report issued in 2003 by the Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research (NIBR) clearly states the contrary. The critique is not pointed at the lack of research, but the lack of social networks in the area. In a scheme where vicinity, intelligence and collaboration is essential, OSC is missing one crucial factor; the natural synergy across different profession that function together. The fact is this: all the institutions within OSC have not been able to generate anything extraordinary. Nobody is actually cooperating. So, with what logic can something as trivial as social networks be more important than research facilities?
Analysis into our apparent role model Silicon Valley, reveals that the only factor which validates competitive spirit in a global market for the long haul, are the social networks. They ensure future generations to stay in a given area during financial peak and recession. By cultivating social networking, the ambition is to acquire bonds that transcend profession. True innovation is not based on inventions, but on the human ability to see connections in interdisciplinary work and break professional boundaries. This phenomena has produced the greatest innovation our civilization has seen. Prestige cannot exist without the foundation of social networks.
A clear example of how the absence of social networks has hurt OSC, is the “Forskningsparken incident” in the 90s. It was established in 1984 right on the other side of the metro tracks of the Blindern campus, as venture capital and funding for the pharmaceuticals and IT services yet to come. Without a clear strategy other than being the image of a forum on campus, it lacked essential virtues in establishing a collaborative culture. Such as: strong identity, social culture, sharing mentality, community etc. With Forskningsparkens shortcomings, in a liberal market, Fornebu saw its mark in establishing its own IT community, causing a great a hiatus on the Gaustadbekkdalen development throughout the 90s, as it became irrelevant in every aspect.
Where opportunities for regional partnerships have been possible, further decentralizations have occurred. For better or worse, we have today more successful communities in IT, biotech and tech in IT Fornebu, NMBU and Kjeller Tech respectively. They spun out of OSCs inability to maintain them. Looking at it in another way, the campus failed internally long before having a chance in reaching the 1,5 km radius mark of OSC or a shot at the regional market. In other words, a billion kroner investment is not being collected. An investment placed in the courtesy of the Norwegian taxpayer.
FOCUS OF DEVELOPMENT
Studying the site, the reason why it appears as two singular sites becomes apparent. There are two campus axes, where the old in the direction of Majorstua and the new development of Gaustadbekkdalen is leaning in the opposite direction. These two parallel axes have generated a questionable use of the 65 000m2 in-between, as this space is essential in connecting Blindern to Gaustadbekkdalen. The west-east axis is today torn by property fences, parking lots, infrastructure, metro and limited recreational land. This axis is the very same one that was supposed to ensure the relevance of Forskningsparken to Blindern in 1984. Why is the property furthest away in Gaustadbekkdalen from campus center sold to the public as the most central spot? With relevance of uniting the campus in mind, this in-between space is most definitely higher on the pecking order than the site of Life Science Center.
THE IMPENDING REALITY
The Life Science Center belongs to a string of state-of-the-art projects developed in Gaustadbekkdalen in recent time, and with all of its high level of quality it is almost impossible to criticize. The problems may only reveal itself in the context of the regional market it is a part of and what prestige it has achieved in the upcoming years. Are the current development only trying to seize back lost grounds and communities that were lost, in this case with the establishing of NMBU, while it should have been trying create a regional partnership instead?
Another point to discuss may also be the holistic strategy for the Gaustadbekkdalen, which is considered as the most dysfunctional area of the entire OSC. The development has been prolonged for decades, creating many socially self-sustaining projects. Should not the overall plan have been to lessen the convenience of self-sufficiency and increase the independence of each other?
In an article by Aftenposten in 2010 the principal of the university, Ole Petter Ottersen, calls the Life Science Center “Silicon Valley light”, pointing out the importance of collocating biology, chemistry, medicine, ecology, IT and bio tech in one building in order to solve big problems like cancer or Alzheimer. It is the same rhetoric and jargon used to establish earlier institutions such as the National Hospital, IT departments and in our very own Forskningsparken etc. It is easier to sell the public a two billion kroner project aimed at academia and research, rather than social networking and leisure. What has to be understood is that they are two sides of the same coin and can not exist without the one or the other. Another problem is the subject of social networking. The attempt of recreating something intangible as it already is, is like trying to explain an inexplicable phenomena.
Photo credit: Tin Phan