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THE IDEA IDEA

For Tower Hamlets, the 'Idea' in Idea Stores is about more than buildings. 'It's about learning in its widest sense, ' says Idea Stores programme director Helen Wills. For example, this month's Idea magazine includes features on volunteering, gardening, events, the city farm and wildlife walks spotting spiders in Mile End Park.

Organisationally, the Idea programme involves the bringing together and rethinking of library and continuing education services. It is about 'joined-up learning? lifelong, ' says Wills.

The buildings do have a central role. In this poor borough, take-up of traditional services provision was among the lowest in the country. A large-scale consultation exercise in 1999, focused on what the borough could do better for people, came up with many service-improvement ideas, highlighting location as a major issue. Most of the existing service buildings were not where people wanted them: in local centres, where they went shopping. Libraries were often in faded buildings. Continuing education often used school buildings - an off-putting venue for many.

There was an opportunity to create new facilities, a new atmosphere, and to 'rebrand' the services, with the buildings intended to be local landmarks as well as highly accessible venues.

Seven Idea Stores are planned. Bow, the first, which opened in 2002, is a refurbishment by Bisset Adams; the practice provided branding expertise as well as the design services. It has attracted three times as many visitors as the facilities it replaced and has doubled course enrolments. It recently held a kids' sleepover.

Of similar size to Bow, Adjaye's Chrisp Street opened on 19 July this year. Whitechapel (next to Sainsbury's), also by Adjaye, is about three times the size of Chrisp Street; it will open next summer. Architects have not yet been appointed for the other four stores. The next two, currently being mapped out, are envisaged for Canary Wharf (next to Waitrose) and the Isle of Dogs (next to Asda). The last two are targeted for the local centres of Bethnal Green and Watney Market (in Shadwell).

Activities are to be broadly similar in all stores. Small exhibitions run in foyers. The stores house libraries of books, as well as a wide variety of audiovisuals. There is a lot of free internet access, both among the bookstacks and in the surf centre, which will sometimes be taken over for courses. Other rooms provide locations for courses too, run by the borough and with partner organisations. Learning is the first priority - 'there are targets to be met' as Wills says - so letting spaces for community use is not a main purpose of the stores.

Help with job-seeking, as well as choosing courses, is available from all store staff, with interview rooms for more-confidential discussions. But it is not all intense. Courses are both vocational and leisure: music, health, languages, cookery, ICT, family learning and more.

The much larger Whitechapel store will mostly be more of the same, though with more developed partnership with the local college, plus dance and complementary health facilities. Its four entrances will emphasise accessibility. There will be security staff in evidence, as there are at Bow and Chrisp Street but, with self-checking of borrowed items, a pivotal control desk is not needed (help/checkout desks are available). The retail model is more the modern bookshop or department store than the supermarket.

And the market research is not over. Bow has employed local teenagers as Ideas Champions to help understand what their peers would like to be offered by the store. Champions are then involved in developing and delivering courses.

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