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Thursday, 23 November, 2000, 12:44 GMT
Dome to the digerati

The Millennium Dome could soon be re-born as a home to scores of dotcom start-ups. But what will life be like inside this so-called internet "incubator"?

There's little to tie London's windswept and barren north Greenwich peninsula with California's sprawling, hi-tech home to IT business, Silicon Valley.

But in the mind of property developer Robert Bourne, the glowing disparities between the two are surmountable.

Working at laptop
Well, you can't wear a suit in a hothouse
Mr Bourne is leading the Legacy bid to buy the Millennium Dome, in Greenwich, after it closes to the public at the end of the year.

His plan is to turn this much-maligned government-run theme park into a hi-tech e-business campus, where dozens of up-start dotcoms could come together under one roof.

The talk is of turning the Dome into the UK's very own Silicon Valley, home to as many as 14,000 workers. It would be called Knowledge City.

It sounds radical. And with one million square feet of floor space - roughly equivalent to the entire office space of Britain's tallest building, Canary Wharf Tower - it is a highly ambitious venture.

If Legacy defies the sceptics, and make a success of the idea, what would it be like to work in Knowledge City?

Canary Wharf Tower
Canary Wharf Tower: It took years to fill the 50 floors of office space
The company talks of creating an "inspirational environment" that would combine not just e-commerce outfits, but also companies specialising on biotechnology, telecoms and wireless applications.

The current visitor attractions will make way for "a layout of structures ... based on successful town planning in hotter climates," says the official submission.

"The main buildings will enclose streets and piazzas with spaces for shops and restaurants."

The Dome's giant landmark canopy will keep out the London rain. Some parts will be replaced by transparent panels to give enough light for trees to grow.

Watertight plan

The structure might even house a hotel and have a running track around the 1km perimeter, while workers will get about in "Dome buggies".

There are also plans to attract support industries such as venture capitalists, legal and financial advisers.

Stressed man
Only another three weeks until the deadline
The plan is to create a self-sufficient "tech town". Offices will be built out of lightweight structures, so business can grow easily.

With a high casualty rate in e-business, it also means companies could disappear almost without trace.

David Hart, of internet "incubator" Brainspark, has admired the Legacy plan from a distance.

Brainspark's headquarters in Clerkenwell, London, - an area thriving with new media companies and known in the trade as Silicon Alley - is home to 17 start-ups.

Hothouse powers

Primarily a venture capital company, Brainspark offers the type of advanced technical facilities and support that Legacy plans for the Dome.

But money and infrastructure are only half the story. By bringing its progeny into one building Brainspark fosters a hothouse environment that allows likeminded workers to exchange thoughts and ideas, and pitch in with advice and help.

Vision of inside
The Digirati Zone? A vision of the Dome as Knowledge City
"As people come from such a range of backgrounds and disciplines they bring a lot of different skills," says Mr Hart.

It requires some subtle social engineering. The trick is to create an environment in which vying young brains feel free to chat and get along.

"The social side is massively important," says Paul Mason, deputy editor of Computer Weekly. "If these people have to work more than 50 yards from a cappuccino bar they're not happy."

Brainspark oils its social wheels with its own juice bar and roof terrace, as well as coffee bars on each floor.

It's the antithesis of the old boy network. It's the new boy network

Paul Mason
The surrounding streets are a hive of activity, where wine bars, gastro pubs and restaurants hum to the sound of dotcom wannabes pitching their latest business plan.

North Greenwich is a very different story. Apart from a tube station and low rents, there is little to attract workers to an area that, 20 years ago, was the biggest gas works in Europe.

However, socialising is more than balanced by serious hard work. If Knowledge City were to get up and running, there would be no shortage of energetic bright young things frantically stressing over their next deadline.

The 90-day cycle

"These type of businesses generally operate on a 90-day cycle. They get the funding and have 90 days to meet set criteria," says Mr Mason.

Creative drinkers
Creative thinking dotcom style
"In the last 20 days, they are working all hours. There's a lot of coffee and adrenaline and, unofficially, lots of other substances.

"The human network is what makes it work. It's the antithesis of the old boy network. It's the new boy network."

It's an irony that while the internet was supposed to promote distance working, there is still a prevailing need for physical proximity.

Simon Williams has experienced the incubator environment first-hand. For the past seven months his start-up, Nerve Wireless, has been in the stable of incubator GorillaPark, in London.

"It's not necessarily the structured conversation stuff that's important, it's more the informal stuff - Friday night drinking or at the coffee bar."

The intense atmosphere of an incubator also leads to a "creative chaos" that is alien to the culture of big companies, says Mr Williams.

But while doubts linger over whether Legacy will manage to pull off its ambitious bid, the government's critics are certain to say that chaos is one thing the Dome will have no trouble attracting.

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See also:

21 Nov 00 | Business
Dome sale to be 'transparent'
16 Nov 00 | Business
Legacy plans high-tech Dome
16 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Dome deal in doubt
09 Nov 00 | UK
'Ill-fated' Dome condemned
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