VR image from CityMix Sao Paulo project

Give new ideas the space they need to be tested

Beatrice Pembroke, Director of Creative Economy at the British Council, sets out their exciting programme of work on Creative Hubs

It’s no accident that the arts-and-tech pilot programme is being delivered through three of the most exciting creative organisations in the UK right now.

When Arts Council England, Innovate UK and the KTN set out to support innovation in arts, tech and business they did a clever thing by selecting Makerversity, Madlab and Near Now and giving them the freedom to decide how best to support new ideas and talent.

Each one is a different example of a trusted creative hub — a carefully curated space for enterprising individuals to access ideas, tools, investment and moral support. Each brings together a diverse community of creative practice with elements of start-up culture and design thinking to create new value; a nurturing, dynamic environment for collaboration, making and learning.

Games entrepreneur Alex Fleetwood has written about how such spaces provide crucial resources for new ventures: “These organisations are close to the networks they serve. They listen and adapt, they connect… Funding and support becomes more ad-hoc, more personal, more timely.”

Over the last decade, the number and profile of such hubs has grown rapidly, driven by changes in technology, economics and audiences. The rise of freelancers, homeworkers and micro-businesses; the maker movement and urban manufacturing agenda; the possibilities that digital tech affords for inventive work beyond formal disciplines and new business models. This is powering a generation that want to make a difference, from the ground up — and who understand that difference beyond traditional notions of purely ‘creative’, ‘social’ or ‘commercial’ enterprise.

At the British Council, we’ve witnessed a small revolution through hundreds of hubs in every part of the world. They may take different forms — fablabs, incubators, maker, hacker and pop-up spaces, artistic and creative clusters and community networks — but they push practice and impact beyond the traditional ambit of artists studios and formal arts institutions. They are rooted in local communities, contributing to vital social and civic change.

Here’s a few examples:

BOM (Birmingham Open Media) is a gallery and collaborative workspace for art, technology, science and open source culture. Founded by curator Karen Newman in 2014, the build was financed by a mixture of private and public funding, transforming a previously derelict building by the rail station into a dynamic new workspace, including an experimental restaurant calledWilderness. It also offers free studio spaces to BOM Fellows — artists, technologists and scientists working both alone and collaboratively to produce new work and research.

Working with a diverse range of partners from universities and schools to local community groups and businesses, BOM has built a valuable network that wasn’t here before, drawing together a distributed community of expertise, especially around activism and making. As Karen says ‘the people are the programme’.

Artist Nikki Pugh is working in BOM’s gallery space as she further develops the Colony project — a walking event combining a group of landscape-reactive animatronic critters and your curiosity about the urban built environment.Credit: Nikki Pugh

Nearby, Birmingham Impact Hub was set up a year ago after raising £65,095 on Kickstarter from 568 people in 36 days. A collaborative workspace for those that want to make Birmingham better, Impact Hub Brum is already home to a pioneering group of ventures, such as Radical Childcare and Dark Matters Lab (to prototype place-based system change to tackle wicked problems). Set up by an extraordinary local team, this shows that Birmingham is still home to radical social change.

Down in Brighton, the FuseBox was set up three years ago as a physical meeting space for the Wired Sussex network, which has over 2000 members, forming the biggest digital cluster outside London. FuseBox has a range of members in the creative and tech industries and holds regular events for members, acting as an R+D unit for the city.

Overseas, just one example from many: ATÖLYE, meaning ‘workshop’ in Turkish is Istanbul’s newest co-working space, set up after the founders returned from D-School at Stanford. As Turkey becomes more socially conservative and politically difficult for many creatives, designer Bilge Nur Saltık, explains their ambition:

Atolye workshop space. Credit: Atolye

“Istanbul is a city with huge potential in its making scene… However we are still having a hard time catching up with global dynamics. Creative people are facing obstacles in finding the correct information, the right people to collaborate with, funding and resources on the way to bringing their ideas to life…

“ATÖLYE Istanbul was created as an answer to all of these problems…We designed a co-working space suitable for an interdisciplinary crowd to experiment together, brainstorm, and build new ideas. In the common spaces of ATÖLYE we experiment, make models, test on each other and get instant feedback.”

This is key in understanding how best to support the fragile process of testing and developing new ideas. As Ed Catmull writes from his experience of honing arts and tech at Pixar: “A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions and criticisms…we believe that ideas only become great when they are challenged and tested….Don’t wait for things to be perfect before you share them with others. Show early and show often. It’ll be pretty when we get there, but it won’t be pretty along the way.”

It’s not easy to create this kind of dynamic culture of trust; to balance collaboration with individual agency, creative experimentation with market testing, traditional craft with digital tools. It’s why the creative hubs I’ve mentioned go beyond your typical co-working space more focused on real-estate.

Community powered co-working spaces often start with a community, not a space, take time to build and don’t aim for profit at first. They have hybrid business models and can struggle financially to become sustainable. Their main asset is the community, its diversity, its capability to create and innovate outside the standards of corporations or research labs.

At the British Council we’ve been working with and through such hubs for the last three years, attempting to map them through an open-source platformwith the Open° team. Most of them are operating in a global context and facing the same challenges, yet few get formal professional development. International connections provide inspiration, peer support and important market knowledge.

Makoko Community Hub and School, Lagos

Over the past 3 years, this has included:

· Convening over 200 creative hubs from across EU at a 3-dayforum in Lisbon last year and producing a creative hub toolkit. We’ve just launched our new EU-funded 3 year project European Creative Hubs Network which will see events in Belgrade, Athens and UK.

· Bringing makers and academics together in China with MadLab, Institute of Making, Nesta and AHRC, resulting in the first mapping of makerspaces in China, leading to a new 3 year programme of exchange

· Playable City Global Network connecting citizens through creative tech, in partnership with Watershed and other creative hubs

· Maker Library Network connecting designers and makers around the world

· Building Creative Communities in Turkey bringing over 40 local Creative Hubs with Birmingham Impact Hub and friends

· Creative Hub Making in Vietnam

· We’re about to launch a new piece of research into UK hubs and their assets, with City University, the University of the West of England and Watershed.

We hope that by understanding these communities, their processes and needs better we can support more innovation in arts, tech and enterprise. We believe that the shared knowledge and experience in these networks are key to finding new hope and solutions for how we live today.

Beatrice Pembroke (in åyr’s installation, part of Home Economics in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale)

Beatrice Pembroke: @beatricepem

British Council Creative Economy programme: @uk_ce