Serbia’s Coworking Pioneers

Serbia lies at the crossroads of Europe, connecting the East and West, creating a diverse mix of cultures. Its landscape is sprinkled with medieval churches and fortress, and the capital city, Belgrade, rests on the banks of the Danube. With its rich, yet not uncomplicated history, Serbia today has certainly experienced its ups and downs, and is most recently is facing a scarily high unemployment rate, especially amongst young people, of which almost 50 percent are out of work.

Partially due to the economic crisis in Europe, the country is also faced with a serious lack of programs aimed at offering the younger generation a chance to be creative and have access to the tools to become professionally successful in Serbia.

Potential solutions to the problem have been proposed, such as the “Active Participation of Young Unemployed”, which helps people find meaningful employment. But it is easier said than done, especially when the educational system in Serbia is still relatively outdated and fails to meet the demands of the current job market. On top of that, the labor force has left one foot in the door of the past, while the people have moved forward by leaps and bounds.

Three young entrepreneurs based in Belgrade, Serbia’s strikingly beautiful capital city, have decided to take matters into their own hands. Relja Bobić and Marko Radenković, two of the founders (out of a team of 8) of Nova Iskra are working side by side to create a platform for young designers to help them develop professional skills and a solid network. In addition, they connect with various social groups throughout the country to reimagine the educational system by aligning education with the current employment picture.

Right around the corner from the designer space is Serbia’s first official coworking space, Smart Office, founded by Miroslav Mijatov, who is not only a big fan of the coworking model, but also whose dedication to opening his space has played a major role in introducing coworking to Serbia.

Deskmag spent a day visiting the two spaces, both of which were beautifully put together. The founders warmly welcomed us to talk about starting from virtually nothing, to where they are now, and about what the future holds.

At first glance, Nova Iskra is obviously run by design enthusiasts. Holding on to a slightly industrial aesthetic, the space is sleek, light and open, with members working side by side in the main room. A 3D printer situated in the center is surrounded by glass walls, like a well protected artifact in a museum.

We joined both Radenković and Bobić in Nova Iskra’s meeting room, which also serves as a magazine library, full of colorfully designed publications that pop out in hot pinks and lime greens against the white walls. We leaf through a few, and enjoyed some good espresso. From the looks of things, Nova Iskra is doing very well; teams of 23 designers are hard at work. But it wasn’t always this way…

As we all know, it isn’t a simple task to open a coworking space from scratch. But imagine doing that in a place where almost no one around you knows what “coworking” even means. The founders of Nova Iskra discovered this when they started planning the construction of the space.

“I think you really have to change the mindset in a way, said Radenković. “When we started planning our coworking space we had a huge problem even just explaining what coworking even was, because people are not used to this open concept and sharing spaces.”

Creating a new work environment

There was also the issue of convincing people that paying to rent a space is worthwhile because of the benefits of working with others and exchanging ideas. And it wasn’t just the guys at Nova Iskra who felt resistance, but also the founder of Smart Office as well.

“I think there is something about the way the community understands work in general,” recalls Mijatov. “I must have seen about 200 of my potential clients in coffee shops who could have joined our coworking space, but they didn’t. I think the reason for this is because they are more interested in just sitting down and talking about business instead of actually investing in a space and being productive.”

Smart Office leans towards the more traditional style of coworking spaces, offering flexible desks, a meeting room ready to be rented, and of course, a creative, collaborative environment that is welcoming to everybody.

Mijatov has a passion for coworking. Without any government support, he invested his private money in Smart Office. That has resulted in one of the first major stepping stones in creating a successful coworking community in Belgrade.

“I think that coworking is really ideal, and that it will create a balance between collaboration and the corporate community of the future. As for Serbia, we have a specific labor market, and I am not sure how it will work. But there are certainly people who are promoting the concept.”

As we sat in the carefully designed cozy meeting room at Smart Office, Mijatov treated us to some Elderberry juice that was his grandmother’s own recipe, and gave us valuable insight into the beginnings of coworking in Serbia. He shared with us a wonderful story that gives a first hand look at the positive effects coworking can and will have on youth.

“See the desk in the corner?” said Mijatov, pointing towards a young man working with his headphones on. “There are six guys, working in that space who are developing a video game. They have dedicated their entire summer to working here to be able to code. It’s one thing to be so dedicated, but the amazing thing is, those guys are only 18 years old and only just finished high school. I saw the preview of the game and I really think it’s going to be very successful.”

Mijatov explained that many young people often have really great ideas, but cannot realize them because no one will support them.

“I offered them some discounts so they would be able to use Smart Office, because I remember how difficult it was for me to start off. I want it to be easy for them, and the example of those kids really shows what people can do when they are empowered. They are very productive, and they come to work everyday.”

Reaching out to the greater business community

The team at Nova Iskra also realized the many challenges younger people face when looking for a community, a work place and of course, the most essential part, a job.

“At this point we are somewhere in between a coworking space and an incubator,” said Radenković. “We are trying to put together a space where our members can work together and also work with us on the realization of our mission.”

Nova Iskra offers a few selected programs, such as the “Designer Lab”, which offers desk space and programs to aid with creative development, and the “Creative Hub” that uses an extended network of professional designers from the fields of furniture to graphic design. There is also the ”Industry Hub” which branches into educational programs in Serbia and the surrounding region, connecting members to professional contacts.

“Ultimately we aim to combine the creative side to the business and manufacturing sector. This is not just coming from a business idea but responding to a need from the young creatives, because for them it is almost impossible for them to get their first job here,” said Bobić.

In order to remedy this, the programs offered at Nova Iskra require members to apply or to be invited, giving serious deisgners the chance to build a solid network and hone their design skills. Nova Iskra is now on its way to expanding, by making partnerships with like-minded programs, to offering educational support through a series of workshops, and also helping their core team build international partnerships.

Smart Office is also catching the eyes of businesses and investors as well. Mijatov explained that for the moment he is happy that he can pay the bills, and has seen so many diverse clients come through. But there are also plans for the future.

“The government is trying to make some incubator spaces, and they asked me to maybe merge with them. I also have met with a landlord who wants to have a creative space. He saw the potential in my story, and wants my input. There will be lectures, exhibitions, mini concerts. Having a coworking zone attached would be perfect. It would not only bring in a bit of money to support the space in general, but also new creative ideas. We will see what happens

Both Smart Office and Nova Iskra have used their unique approach to tackle economic issues, reevaluate and reeducate. Both projects recognize that sharing ideas and empowering those around you is the essential step to success.

“Everybody is working together, and it’s really beautiful that everyone can have their own projects, but that they can also bring new ideas. Coworking is healthy for your mind,” said Mijatov

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