Video: The multi-million pound Norwich project that never was… Meet Technopolis
16:00 04 August 2014
The Forum rose to replace the Norwich Central Library after the devastating blaze of 20 years ago. But, as DAN GRIMMER reports, things could have been even grander... and rather bizarre
Head to The Forum these days and you can enjoy a slice of pizza, pick up some leaflets about what to do in Norwich, borrow some library books and sit down with a cup of coffee.
But if original plans for how to replace the Norwich Central Library after the devastating blaze had been successful, you might instead have been able to travel back in time, meet your friends in a cybercafé, see the secrets of the city’s past uncovered in an archaeological excavation or try out the latest in virtual reality.
Those were all ideas for a concept called Technopolis, an £80m project intended to place Norwich at the forefront of the early days of people embracing the internet.
Norfolk County Council and Norwich City Council joined forces to come up with the project, which sought funding from the Millennium Fund.
The idea was that, as well as replacing the lost library with a modern one, Technopolis would make Norwich one of Europe’s leading communication centres.
The hope was that it would boost the city’s flagging economy, by putting firms at the cutting edge of the latest technology, while attracting up to 250,000 visitors a year.
Along with the Millennium Library, including a virtual library using multi-media technology such as CD Roms, the project also promised wonders such as:
The National Exploratory of the Past & Future City – a national attraction using “state of the art virtual reality simulators” to allow past and future cities to be explored. For instance, visitors could see Norwich Cathedral being built or head into the future to see what Norwich would look like in the year 2000. And they could watch a permanent archaeological dig exploring the city’s Norman past.
What if? Would Technopolis have been a visionary success or a white elephant?
With the 21st century having been characterised by the growth of the internet, social media and information technology, did the scaling down of the Technopolis project mean Norwich missed out on being at the forefront of such a revolution?
Or was the city spared an expensive white elephant which would have been outdated within years of being built?
Norwich City Council deputy leader Alan Waters was City Hall leader when the Technopolis proposal was put forward.
He said: “The name itself had a rather Dan Dare-ish quality to it and there was a kind of retro-forward-looking-forward concept behind it.
“I remember at the time, the Nestle chocolate factory had closed a couple of years before. There was a feeling that Norwich was a bit isolated and that, maybe, there was an opportunity, through the internet, to change that.
“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.”
As it was, the original proposals ended up being scaled back. So does Mr Waters think the city missed a golden opportunity?
He said: “I think the concept was ahead of its time and was quite visionary. But, looking back and seeing how quickly technology changed, it all could have been 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.
“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.”
The Digital City – a UK centre for providing a showcase for IT products and a place for businesses and individuals to go to find out how to use the internet which was dubbed the “information superhighway”.
The Networked Society – a populist and accessible interpretation of the internet, superhighways and computers, similar to the museum of Information Technology in Boston in the United States. It would, the promoters said, be “a Millennium Bridge between past and future technology linking entertainment, through education to enterprise, by explaining the technology in a clear, comprehensible and entertaining way”.
The Agora – the hub of Technopolis and a place where tickets could be bought for cinemas, theatres, football matches in Norwich and across the country. It would also include a crèche and the Megabyte cybercafé, where people would meet to use the internet, experience virtual reality and view the other elements of Technopolis from video monitors.
But promoters struggled to show strong evidence of local support.
The New Technopolis became The Forum, hugely popular today and boasting the most visited library in the country.
But you can’t travel back in time...
• WHAT WAS TECHNOPOLIS?
A brochure produced to drum up support for the Technopolis concept attempted to give the public a reason to back the £80m scheme.
With the tagline The Future Is In Your Hands, there were pictures of sunshine emerging from a cloudy sky to suggest the bright way forward.
There were pictures of babies tapping at huge computers with enormous monitors and, with iPads and mobile phones yet to revolutionise the way people use technology, smiling young people gathering round to squint at computer screens.
There was a strange picture of a silhouette on a digital surboard hurtling through space towards an enormous planet Earth and an even odder one of a gurning man in a leather jacket, with all sorts of gizmos strapped to his head and arms. That appears to be the 1996 vision of what virtual reality was going to involve.
“What is Technopolis?” the brochure asked. It then answered itself: “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.”
Promising a place to surf the internet and have fun with virtual reality games, the brochure also said people would be able to shop for games and software, home entertainment systems and computer equipment.
And, perhaps someone from Amazon was paying attention, because the brochure also said: “It will not simply be the case that you will be able to go into shops and browse.
“You will be able to shop electronically using super mail order like you have never seen before”.
But, what of the fantastically-named National Exploratory of the Past & Future City? Well, according to the brochure, that would have been “much more than a museum, it will be a place to experience the past...
“And you will be able to journey far into the future to see what Norwich will be like in centuries to come.”
There’s also a picture showing a “computer simulation of Norwich skyline in the year 2000”.
Apart from the dodgy pixellated graphics, that was probably a pretty accurate rendition of what it did end up looking like.
• What do you think? Write (giving your full contact details) to: The Letters Editor, EDP, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich NR1 1RE.