What happened to Technopolis? A look back at Norwich’s £80m virtual reality hub
PUBLISHED: 16:07 10 October 2018 | UPDATED: 14:49 11 October 2018
As part of our new series, Norfolk Pipe Dreams, looking at the schemes which didn’t make it. Lauren Cope recalls the £80m dream Technopolis.
Today you couldn’t imagine Norwich without The Forum, so at home is it on the Norwich skyline.
But as the world prepared for the turn of the millennium, and technology began to infiltrate our daily lives, planners were dreaming up a different future for the site that previously housed Norwich Central Library.
Devastated by a blaze in 1994, the city centre spot sat empty. But a cutting-edge vision loomed on the horizon: Technopolis.
It was hoped the £80m project could put Norwich at the forefront of the digital revolution, as the way we read, socialise, job search and communicate was transformed.
A joint brainchild between Norfolk County Council and Norwich City Council, the authorities sought cash from the Millennium Fund, with a goal of making Norwich one of Europe’s leading communication centres.
It would have, in the vision, been a key tourist spot - experts hoped it would attract a quarter of a million visitors a year, while putting city businesses on the map.
And it included features which would today still be futuristic - the National Exploratory of the Past and Future City would have seen users engage virtual reality simulators to explore past and future versions of cities.
Visitors could, then, see Norwich Cathedral being built in the 11th century, and head into the 21st century for a future glimpse at the fine city.
While the final version was scaled down - the authorities struggled to show strong evidence of local support - there are some overlaps with the Forum, which was instead built in 2001.
The modern and distinctive build of the Forum initially divided opinion, and hundreds use the library - the most visited in the country - and its computers, shared spaces and café every day.
Alan Waters, leader of Norwich City Council, was City Hall leader as the plans were being developed.
He has previously said that the Technopolis proposal emerged a few years after the Nestle chocolate factory closed.
“There was a feeling that Norwich was a bit isolated and that, maybe, there was an opportunity, through the internet, to change that,” he said.
“You’ve got to remember people were only just getting interested in that at the time and people didn’t know if it was going to take off.
“Just like the industrial revolution rather passed Norfolk by, we wondered if we would be left behind again or whether we could really be at the forefront this time.”
He has described the concept as “quite visionary”, but said its futuristic approach could have quickly become out of date within a couple of years.
“With the way things have moved on, I don’t think the idea of people physically going to a building to use the internet would work now,” he said.
“But it was an exciting project to have been involved with and, of course, we ended up getting The Forum and the Millennium Library, which is enormously successful, out of it.”
A brochure for the project makes for interesting reading - it includes photos of babies tapping at large computers, and, with iPads and smartphones yet to revolutionise technology, young people gathering round a computer screen together.
“What is Technopolis?” the brochure asked. It answered: “Technopolis will be more than a unique new library. It will be a place to learn, a place for business and a place to meet, eat and have fun in the centre of the city.”
But it did predict the boom in online shopping, then still far off - saying that people would be able to “shop electronically using super mail order like you have never seen before”.
Elsewhere in the complex was the Networked Society - an accessible interpretation of the internet, which promoters said would bridge past and future technology.
The Agora would have been the hub, and a place where cinema, theatre and football tickets could be bought. It would be home to a crèche and a Megabyte cybercafé, where people would meet to use the internet and experience virtual reality.