Plexal is, in the words of Russell Gundry, “the place where physical and digital collide.” It aims to provide an inclusive and accessible workspace and, at the same time, boost the UK’s inclusive innovation sector.
Accessibility for people with disabilities was the theme of an OpenDoor showcase this month. Innovators from Plexal’s inclusion accelerator programme pitched their solutions to investors and industry giants.
These solutions ranged from making travel more accessible to employability for young people
Russell Gundry, Head of Innovation Strategy at Plexal, explains that the OpenDoor initiative was about identifying what a good working environment looked like. That includes looking at how people with physical accessibility needs move around.
“Part of that is having the right information software,” he says. “A consistent problem is the lack of trust in accessible information and the amount of stress it causes people with accessibility needs in their journeys. There are several disabled-led organisations on the accelerator programme who are looking at how to get better information to people with accessibility needs so that they can have a better experience.
“We also have quite a broad definition of accessibility and include entitlement as part of that. Badu, one of the companies that we’re working with, made the point that accessibility is not always a physical barrier; it can also be a psychological barrier about ‘do I deserve to be in this place’?
“And they exist to create better opportunities for young people, which partly is about just showing them what’s possible. A lot of these people are working in start-ups, their career will not be a direct route from A to B, but where else are they going to get that type of input from?”
Here East is a catalyst for growth and London’s fastest growing innovation campus. Plexal is Here East’s innovation provider. Together they have transformed the former press and broadcast centres on the Olympic Park into a technology-led campus and innovation hub.
Plexal is part of the London 2012 Olympic legacy, along with sister organisation Here East. Together they have transformed the former press and broadcast centres on the Olympic Park into a technology-led campus and innovation hub.
Several academic and research bodies, including UCL East, Loughborough and Staffordshire universities, Ford’s mobility division and parts of Sager are represented on the campus. Plexal is home to 120, mainly technology-based, start-ups as well as Disability Rights UK.
Collaboration is an important element. For example, two of the members – Love Language and Idea East – have a joint project called Love Learning. This aims to address the disparity between the number of deaf people in the UK and the number of those who sign — also looking to employers to address the problem. Another is Fitt, which has developed a virtual fitness app, which people can use at home.
Russell says that Plexal exists to connect the organisations in Here East with start-ups, “based on the idea that, if we create these rapidly evolving, agile organisations they are then more adaptive to solving problems at pace. But we also need collaboration between those start-ups, governments, larger organisations and technology companies.”
He adds: “A research fund has just recognised us as being an enterprise zone for accessibility. What that means is they’re acknowledging the potential of that collaboration. It’s partly about creating a place where inclusive innovators want to come and make this the home of what they do. Another part of it is being flexible to what are the needs of inclusive innovators.
“For example, we work closely with UCL to work out what’s the right customer journey for somebody looking at how to change the world to be a more inclusive place. They have developed a master’s programme in disability-led innovation, and we intend to work with them to develop some of the ideas to market. Also, to help shape the research projects with real-world practice.”
Plexal has an unusual business model, which Russell describes simply as “the place where physical and digital collide. There’s huge potential in your phone as an accessibility device, but we can’t solely rely on that to move around. So how do you address the physical aspect of that?
“If you look at Old Street as the UK’s version of Silicon Valley, Plexal is an enormous prototype play site within Zone 2 London, where we can develop new technology and new services quickly at scale with a huge population. We can also bring people together with some of the best universities, the best innovators in the world and really put London on the map and make a big difference to the world.”
He points out that, although Disability Rights UK is not a technology business, it feeds into the collaborative work because it excels at representing the rights of people with disabilities.
So how does Plexal work? It has an evolving model that recognises that the problems it tries to overcome have been intractable for a long time. There are three levels. The first is putting people into a shared environment that aids collaboration. Level two is events, such as ‘Social Inclusion: Whose Responsibility?’ held in April, which involved speakers from Microsoft and Barclays discussing the state of diversity and inclusion in the technology sector and what can be done to change the status quo.
“Thirdly there’s working out the models that support that,” Russell explains. “We know that these problems are not going to be solved by government alone, and a tech start-up is not going to address these types of challenges alone. ‘Social Inclusion: Whose Responsibility?’ highlighted that there is a shared responsibility for inclusion.
“Still, one of the dangers of shared responsibility is that everybody perceives that someone else is doing it. So, it falls between the cracks. We need to see it for what it is and identify where some of the overlaps might be. Then develop sustainable models with sustainable amounts of resource to support them.”
He says a survey of 2,000 people ahead of the ‘Social Inclusion: Whose Responsibility?’ event showed more should be done. Since then, Plexal’s focus has evolved and the organisation is keen not to make statements about inclusion that are difficult to do anything about. Accessibility is part of that and the assets to which it has access.
“For example, Here East runs a shuttle service from Stratford station,” Russell reveals. “But as footfall to the campus has increased, there’s more and more demand for buses. Here East approached Plexal to assist with a solution, taking in to account the current trial of Bird scooters and potentially other mobility solutions.”
A key outcome of the ‘Social Inclusion: Whose Responsibility? ‘ event was the OpenDoor accelerator programme which brought in 10 innovators that were developing solutions in accessibility.
While many companies within Plexal have been there from the start, others may only stay for a few weeks or months. There are also wider networks, such as the cybersecurity accelerator, involving businesses outside, not all of which in the UK.
Long-term Plexal wants to share what it’s learning and develop similar set-ups in the rest of the country and abroad. It hosts regular trade delegations and has built relationships with similar organisations, such as Capital Factory in Texas. The challenge was how to get universities, government and technology companies together to make a difference?
Another issue is building partnerships that make services that solve the needs of real people affordable. As Russell points out: “That doesn’t happen, and often it’s not because the resource isn’t spent, but it doesn’t get to the right people effectively.
“What we’re really trying to do is to bring together the real-world experience of people’s commute to work and how it can be improved. Once we have the data, we can advise the people setting the specifications on what is
“I think from a public sector point of view, there is recognition, for example in London, that the transport footprint is not accessible enough, but one of the problems is that it’s costly to provide the infrastructure. We need to think quite radically about how we solve those problems and put a business case in front of the government body where they can see the benefit of that investment. This has historically been quite difficult to do.”
Plexal will be launching its next accelerator programme in the New Year, which will continue with the theme of accessibility. The Olympic legacy has partly driven this.
Says Russell: “A core part is looking at how to create accessibility for everybody in sport, which I suppose is one of those most iconic aspects of human endeavour. So, we’re challenging the tech sector to say if we can achieve that in sport, how can we achieve it in technology?
“Next, we will showcase some of the innovations they’ve developed, and invite organisations to visit, participate and set the challenges. For this to sustain and grow, we want to bring in big tech companies, government, and those who are addressing the core business challenges.
“We want to move it beyond CSR, which always seems to be non-core and a nice thing to do, into it being recognised as a business issue as well as a moral one focused on people providing products and services that meet the needs of everyone. If they fail to do that, then they’re missing out on a market share.
“We think that by presenting that clear business case, with examples of the types of models that we’ve evolved for how you can come together, do something which primarily has social value but also is a sustainable financial model, that we can compel that change. It has to have big organisations on board to make that happen.”
He stresses that 15% of the population has a formal disability; that there’s an ageing population that will all have accessibility needs. Mothers with prams have accessibility needs. Therefore, accessibility is relevant to a large proportion of the population.
Culture and making people feel included was also important. Summing up, Russell says: “We’re looking to solve problems that haven’t been addressed before. We’re looking for people to collaborate across sectors and we believe that big tech and government bodies need to do more. So, we’re inviting them to come and participate and help to set the challenges and help to learn so that other products and services are free.
“We’d like to create a middle ground where we’re not a standard corporate environment which makes people feel uncomfortable. But maybe occupy both sides of that so, have a foot in the community and have a foot in
“To draw those two things together, we also need to work with them to create that journey and that connection between the community side and the business side. We think that by doing that successfully, both benefit.”