PEARL (Person-Environment-Activity Research Laboratory) is located on the London East site, in Dagenham, East London. While PEARL has its origin story of how it came into being as one of the most unique facilities in the world, the ground upon which it stands has its own story to tell that includes pioneering innovation and scientific research.
Beginning in the 1930’s, May & Baker (Sanofi-Aventis), owners of the 60 acres site, made several breakthrough pharmaceutical discoveries. These included the development of the first antibiotic drug used to treat pneumonia, which was also effective in the prevention of gangrene. The company was also a world leader in the chemotherapeutic field, creating drugs that benefited patients and their quality of life around the world.
Between the 1960’s and 1990’s, the research and development undertaken received the recognition from some rather prominent figures. May & Baker received no less than five awards conferred from Her Majesty The Queen for various achievements, including technological innovation, export achievement, and for reaching milestones of continued success.
For the local residents of Dagenham, the manufacturing plant was one of the largest employers throughout the decades, with over four thousand staff working at the site at end of the twentieth century. The longstanding presence of Sanofi-Aventis in the community meant that many generations of families had worked at the site, forming a strong reciprocal bond. The relationship was most notable when, in November 2009, it was announced that the Dagenham site would cease manufacturing by 2013 due to expiring patents and reduced demand for drugs. However, the company began an innovative regeneration programme aimed at transforming the expanded 108-acre site into a multi-occupancy science, business, manufacturing, and retail park. The goal was to retain specialist manufacturing, research, and development buildings to be used by likeminded enterprise, ensuring a legacy of new jobs and new business opportunities at the location for the future.
In 2013, Cheshire-based regeneration specialists SOG Group purchased the site from Sanofi-Aventis along with its specialised R&D and manufacturing buildings, creating what is now known today as londoneast-uk. The new business and technical park that serves London and the Home Counties was then, finally, purchased in 2018 by BD (Barking and Dagenham Group) owned by the borough councils.
Today, London East is thriving, and its legacy remains intact. Occupants of the site continue to develop pioneering technologies, carry out cutting-edge research, and push the boundaries in multiple specialised fields. Additionally, construction of London’s largest film studios is underway led by Barking and Dagenham Council in partnership with global media real estate leader Hackman Capital Partners. This exciting prospect will add even more diversity and excitement at London East, creating over 1,000 jobs across the half a million square foot space that will include 12 sound stages, three acres of backlot, offices and more.
Before PEARL, came PAMELA (Pedestrian Accessibility Movement Environment Laboratory). Part of the Civil Environmental Geomatic Engineering’s Accessibility Research Group, the purpose of the lab was to better understand how different aspects of design affected people's ability to move around the environment. But how did PAMELA get started?
PAMELA’s conception began in the late 1990’s, sparked by work carried out for London Transport and the Department for Transport by UCL’s Professor Nick Tyler. The goal of the research undertaken was to make bus stops more accessible, thus improving the mobility and autonomous movement of user groups with accessibility needs. To test various design interventions, behavioural practices and the interactions involved in this process, buses were used to test three differently designed bus stops in the Royal Docks. Conducting this research confirmed Nick’s theory that live large-scale testing was incredibly useful and, not to mention, fruitful. A proposal was created by Nick’s team soon after in collaboration with the Research Council to create PAMELA, which opened in doors 2006.
PAMELA was equipped with a fully configurable pedestrian space, used to replicate real-world conditions in a controlled setting. The facility quickly attracted attention from a wide range of experts in different fields, including clinical and medical researchers, city planners, and psychologists, to name just a few. However, the overarching mission of everyone working with PAMELA remained the same, establishing how to make the environment accessible for the population as a whole. By working with such a spectrum of colleagues, PAMELA was used to explore issues and study interdisciplinary science in the life-sized multisensory laboratory, in a realistic environment which offered almost total control for the experimenters. PAMELA proved to be such a success that capacity gradually became more of a problem. The hunger for the kind of research enabled by the lab expanded to a point where the team were outgrowing PAMELA.
In 2012 the U.K. Government announced that it was to spend £600bn on infrastructure over the coming 50 years. Academics and researchers used this opportunity to stress the importance of developing new science, capabilities, and ways of researching the next generation of infrastructure to ensure that future development reflected the changing needs of the 21st century. In response to this call, the government were persuaded to distribute £150m of this budget between universities that could then use their individual strengths and skillsets in specific areas. The United Kingdom Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities (UKCRIC) was setup to oversee the distribution of this funding, which of course came at the perfect time for Nick and the team at PAMELA, that by this time were well-positioned to expand the horizons of their work.
Funding was awarded to build the Person-Environment-Activity Research Laboratory (PEARL) in 2017, where the search for a location to build the facility was already well underway. Eventually, London East was chosen as the place to build the massive 4,000 square foot facility, among likeminded neighbours upon ground that has housed innovation and scientific discovery for almost a hundred years. The work at PEARL represents the next generation of science, bringing together multidisciplinary expertise to understand and change the world.
What we do is person-led and continues the community spirit that began with May & Baker almost one hundred years ago. We are working to establish deep roots in the local community, actively working to connect the universities work with local people. We welcome those around us into the space and encourage their input into shaping the work we do. Our desire to be led by people’s needs influences everything we do, even the architecture of the building itself that uses a great deal of natural materials, artistic design, and progressive features to create a space that feels human, comforting, and welcoming.
We couldn’t be happier to be in Dagenham and are incredibly excited to continue making history in the borough together with our growing network of colleagues, collaborators, and neighbours.
Article by Craig Smith