Some things we learned from curating an experimental community hub for two years.
During the past two years, we in the enkel collective have run what we called an experimental community hub in East Vic Park.
It was a venture into collaboration, cross-pollination of ideas, social innovation & the re-invigoration of public space. The main collaborators in the endeavour was enkel, the local government Town of Vic Park and the Vic Park Collective — an enthusiastic like-minded bunch of locals with a genuine passion to make significant and positive changes in their neighbourhood.
Each of these stakeholders has its own unique approach to catalysing communities for positive change.
The intent of the Vic Park MiniLab was to expose Vic Park and the broader Perth community to innovative futures-focused thinking, and provide them with opportunities to experiment with new ways of working, learning, making, eating & drinking.
During the first year we focussed mostly on events, workshops and other activities that were run over a short period of time — a couple of hours, a day, night or weekend.
We regularly held practical workshops, both for kids (DIY robotics, coding), and adults (furniture making, ‘Build your own wind turbine’, health, free computer workshops, mindfulness, how to make a hot water solar panel and many more).
We also hosted many discussions, film screenings and talks, such as in positive psychology, design thinking, changemaking, local exchange trading systems, the slow movement and simplicity.
After some time hosting events, we started getting inquiries from external organisations who wanted to use the space. These were local community groups such as the Transition Network, some ladies sewing boomerang bags, a mental health support group, a group of architect students, boardgamers and environmental groups. We also leased rooms to local start-ups and non-profits for a very cheap rent.
Later we partnered with local social enterprise Co-Laboratories, which created a place where coworkers could come together to create new opportunities, develop passions, expand social circles, strengthen skills and bring dreams into reality.
These external organisations booked the space ongoing (monthly, weekly, every day), rather than for events, which was a good source of stable income. Events are good but take a lot of organising and never really make any money considering how much time is spent.
1. Building a community of communities is very difficult
We know that the by far most important factor in a successful community hub, whether it’s a makerspace, artists collective or coworking space is to create an actual community. In our case, this task was even harder due to the nature of the collaboration. We needed to build a community of communities. The communities (organisations) that were in the space as mentioned above are very different, and a natural “us vs them” dynamic needed to be overcome. We attempted this through shared parties, dinners and other activities.
Having shared members is also good. We asked the organisations that used the space most to become members of enkel in order for them to have a say in how the space was run. In hindsight even more organisations, for example our collaborator the Vic Park Collective should have been an enkel member. Or vice-versa. Becoming member of, rather than partnering with an organisation creates a deeper, less transactional relationship.
Some kind of catalyst role is also needed to create links between the various people and groups in the space.
2. Keep it beautiful
Aesthetics… a subjective thing and soo difficult to get right!
In general we operated the MiniLab on principles based on do-ocracy — sometimes defined as “if you want something done, do it, but remember to be excellent to each other when doing so”. Normally this works but not for aesthetics. Someone loves a painting, others hate it. One person brings a chair that they like, but it doesn’t fit with the general design of the space. Some people love reggae music and others can’t stand it.
We’ve seen many of these experimental spaces here in Western Australia and across the world, turn into messy places where people dump old sofas, desks, chairs and other rubbish which might be good for parties and large events. The challenge is that people love adding stuff, but no one ever removes anything. And this accumulation will clutter the space, i.e. you will have less space available for running activities or hiring out. For ex. we had a small meeting room for hire, which eventually turned into a storage room. A bad decision.
Regular working bees are important to keep the space beautiful. People working at the Agora space in Berlin (one of our inspirations) told us that they bought a trailer just for this purpose — to take things to the tip regularly.
Another way of doing this, which we learnt from the biggest makerspace here, the Perth Artifactory — is to ask people to label things that belong to them and then have a person being responsible for getting rid of unlabelled stuff once in a while.
Before being able to use the space, we needed to repair, redesign and furnish. Around 50 people from enkel and the Vic Park Collective came to our working bee days. In addition to giving the house and gardens a complete make-over, the working bee was an excellent exercise in building community among the people who were going to use the space.
3. One group is responsible for structure
The boring stuff like paying bills, invoicing, maintenance, cleaning etc is better handled by one organisation that is responsible for these things. This organisation should get a cut of all revenue for that work. In our case enkel paid for everything and was responsible for the space, and in return received all the income.
4. Coworking is not a viable business model in a small space
Figure out your business model before you start.
Even if you’re lucky to get a peppercorn lease like we did, you will have costs. We covered these by renting out the space to external organisations.
We tried coworking as a business model for a while, but this is difficult as you must have someone hosting every day — preferably the same person for continuity and making people feel at home. And if the space is too small there’s not enough income to pay this person.
A really good coworking space also needs a manager, a community catalyst in addition to the host, and even if volunteers can do this it’s not viable. We’ve heard some seasoned coworking operators mention a minimum of 1000m2 in order to run a “real” coworking space.
5. Daytime activation is hard
As coworking isn’t a viable business model for small spaces, it’s hard to activate it during the daytime. Most people (here in Perth at least) work full-time elsewhere, and the few freelancers and small organisations in our network weren’t enough to create a buzzing space. Sure, we had people and organisations working in there, but us organisers didn’t have enough time, energy and money to create a good enough workplace to attract people to work there during the day.
6. Shared calendar system
Keep shared Google calendars for each separate area on your website so that people can see what’s going on in the space. Give admin access for this calendar to all collaborators so that they can book the space themselves. Get rid of as much admin as possible.
Another tip is to always prioritise paid events, if getting money in from space hire is a key revenue stream.
7. Prepare for negative local community feedback
“Why can’t we get a peppercorn lease when they can?”
This question will eventually come up if you have a low- or no-cost arrangement with a local government.
We managed to postpone this question until the end of our residency by scheduling a varied program of workshops for the community — even if these didn’t generate any income. Publicising these on Facebook or elsewhere is crucial for transparency and showing the community benefits.
Soon after opening we hosted a Saturday session, where 16 local community organisations came together to present what they’re doing, what they need and what they can offer. This was a very popular event, and having that many community organisations in the same room was very inspiring according to the participants. Some of these were the local Men’s Shed, arts centre, community garden, bicycle network and library.
It is also key to give local community organisations reduced rates for space hire.
8. It’s better if you live in the community where the hub is based
Most of us in the enkel collective don’t live in Vic Park, and this made the activation more difficult. Many travel hours were spent to get to the space, and if you don’t live in a community, you obviously don’t have as much interest in a community space there.
So make sure that you recruit members that live locally. And of course, cities with less urban sprawl or better transport system than Perth won’t suffer from this problem.
9. The values and purpose of the space must be clear
We didn’t have many problems with people, groups and activities as we in enkel are very clear on our values Courage, Community, Conscience and Creativity, which guide pretty much everything we do. This made it easy to decide what activities we would have in the space.
A clear purpose must also be in place and the earlier you nail this down, the more time you save and the more conflicts you avoid.
10. It’s hard to get people to do things
Don’t expect that people will use the space!
People will naturally think that a hub such as our MiniLab is managed by one organisation which decides who can use it and for what activities. In our modern society we are not used to experiment and test things without anyone telling us.
Another reason for people being reluctant or hesitant to use the space is that they don’t identify with the activities and organisations there. If there are a lot of old people in a space, young people will feel it’s not for them. If people in suits frequent the space, environmentalist tend to keep away. If people sit around and think too much, the doers will leave. In fact these perceptions are virtually impossible to change in a short time without a skilful facilitator or catalyst.
I.e. there’s a fine balance between curation and letting go of control.
And don’t underestimate the pull of Netflix and HBO series, which for most people are more attractive afterwork activities than hanging out with others in an experimental community hub these days.
The MiniLab is now closed, but we believe that such cross-sector collaboration spaces between startups, community groups and local governments are very important for community building and weaving the social fabric, so we hope to see similar projects flourish in Vic Park, greater Perth and beyond.
So to sum up, we’d love to see experimental community hubs such as the Vic Park MiniLab play a big role in the future of how we live, work and learn.