As professor of geo-information at the University of East London, Allan Brimicombe had a close-up view of the preparation, delivery and aftermath of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games. But his interest is not merely that of a curious neighbour. Instead, with the support of the ESRC and others, he has been answering the knotty question of whether the Games have had a lasting transformative effect on the East End of London.

2012 Olympics on the ThamesThe Vancouver Winter Olympics of 2010 and the London Games of 2012 were the first to have their impact and legacy consciously measured. Experience gained from these two very different games has led to the creation of an International Organization for Standardization (ISO) global standard for sustainable events that can be applied to anything from Formula 1 to the football World Cup.

Professor Brimicombe says that the London Games have had a permanent effect on the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) view of legacy. He explains: "The IOC needs some good legacy stories to tell as it tracks the effects of future games. London is one such good story in many ways. For example, there are no big white elephant stadiums left over and not in use."

But the real lesson of London 2012 is that legacy is about working with existing thinking, not cutting across it. Putting the Games in East London meant that they could produce a legacy consistent with established plans to regenerate the area. Brimicombe says: "Olympic candidate cities now have to show that they are planning a sustainable legacy that chimes with the city's existing ambitions and aspirations."

Brimicombe sees London 2012 as a 'mega-event'. This is a special category of event, which is big enough to have a transformative effect on the city in which it takes place. "Another example," he says, "was Liverpool becoming the European City of Culture in 2008. That was a mega-event for Liverpool, but would not have counted for a city on the scale of London. Because these events offer scope for the genuine transformation of a major city, it is essential to think carefully in advance about the type of change the organisers are going for and how the event can catalyse it."

This approach is now standard. For example, organisers are required to show that they have minimised the climate change effect of the event they are proposing, and that they have organisational, governance and financial structures in place for the period of the event itself and beyond. This approach is known in IOC circles as 'additionality' – the idea that the Olympics can make it quicker and simpler for a city to achieve its existing aims.

Brimicombe points to the example of transport in East London. The Olympics meant that the Docklands Light Railway got a new line, the London Overground was revamped and the Underground refurbished. "The IOC said in an early report that the Underground was 'obsolete', and that stung Transport for London a lot. As a result, about £6.5 billion of investment took place that would otherwise have taken a decade longer to complete."

While his research does not include formal economic analysis, Brimicombe is sure that this spending will have brought a substantial economic benefit to London and to the UK as a whole. But this example illustrates a more general problem with measuring legacy. As he puts it: "You can only measure the legacy against a counterfactual idea of what would have happened without the Games, and a city such as London changes all the time."

The baseline for the 2012 Olympic legacy is the government ambition for the people of East London to have the same social and economic chances as the other inhabitants of London by the year 2030. The immense affluence of some areas of London makes this a big ask.

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