I spent a couple of days in Liverpool this week, catching up with Adrian McEwen, an old friend, author, technical #iot consultant and founder of what I consider to be one of the most embedded and sustainable maker spaces in the North: DoES Liverpool. We talked a lot about what’s happening in his city and that’s fed my thoughts on the future of cities which I’m sharing at the V&A tonight.
This summer is strange, the summer before Brexit. I’m having lots of coffees with peers who are feeling the pain of what looks like a creative knowledge economy slow down. It might just be a summer lull too but it’s a good time to reflect on what makes cities like London great places to make things, for now. Every city, city district or area that hopes to call itself ‘great for makers’ needs to get some things right:
– Be more than a real estate play
Nevermind the gag-reflex inducing WeWork, space isn’t the most important problem an artist, maker or product entrepreneur has. If it is, they’re probably not very good at what they do. There is a very rich history of people running cottage industry businesses from their living rooms and spare rooms. Space is in a way both compulsory and optional. Karen Finch (who I helped add to Wikipedia the other day) started and ran a whole textile conservation practice from her home for a while. I started selling Arduinos from my boyfriend’s flat in Hackney in 2007. Those businesses are, to a city, as relevant as the digital unicorns we champion. So what are hyper-groomed co-working spaces there for? They should be championed as a stop-gap.
A real business is sustainable enough to pay council tax. A real business is sustainable enough to pay its own water and electric bills. A real business is interested in shaping a culture that isn’t just about how to use Slack and github, but how a space feels and how lunch happens. You can’t do that in a co-working space someone else owns.
Co-working spaces are great before you start running a larger business and you value being out of the house and engaging with others. But there’s a tension there. Ideally a city probably needs people in a co-working space to work somewhere, go to lunch somewhere else (a local market or restaurant), have meetings in a local cafe and go out for a beer somewhere else again (a local pub). If a co-working spaces tries to offer too many of these economic functions, it’s as good to the city as someone cooking themselves lunch at home. So the city has to think about this when it funds ‘innovation spaces’ in the middle of nowhere. Are there cafs nearby for people to go to? or a good pub? Will people just commute in and out of this ‘innovation space’ and never meet their buildings neighbours?
– Support informal networks not just networking events
Tom Cecil who makes the UK’s enclosure for the Good Night Lamp works in an arch in E14 in London. That’s far. He doesn’t even have much of an online presence, but he’s busy all the time. Artists who show their work at Frieze will commission him to build their furniture or sculptures. He’s got an amazing light industrial space right next to a taxi service, MOT shops, a fabric distributor and some metal workshops. He knows everyone there. He cycles to work and has been fitting the space out through years of work and investment. The first batch of Good Night Lamp was assembled by some Goldsmiths students he trained. There were 3 of them who had odd jobs and were studying in the Fine Art courses. These informal routes of work weave themselves naturally through the city. With Brexit, this will become a big problem. Visas will be required to transition a young talent to a collaborator. Tier 2 visas are annoying and their process will need to be completely redesigned especially for creative skills. Cities may want these kinds of processes to be devolved away from Westminster to attract the most talent locally or to keep the foreign students who will contribute to the universities budgets but can’t stay on afterwards. Especially if the UK wants to reboot a dying industrial sector, it has to be able to both train and keep talent around.
– If it’s about real estate, make it accessible.
Networking events are also a strange way of building relationships between city stakeholders and its makers and entrepreneurs. Often the city delegates networking to where it thinks it belongs, with ‘innovation agencies’, incubators, accelerators, universities. They’ll give them money to put on events with no ROI attached to these apart from the numbers they might collect like attendee numbers and some awful feedback forms that a small percentage of people will fill. No one ever questions who goes to these and why. Are they too early for parents, too late for mums, too expensive for students and not wheelchair accessible? Did they actually trigger a conversation that started a business 4 years down the line? How often does someone come along and what have they done with the knowledge that’s being shared? These questions almost never get asked of an ‘networking’ event and that’s a shame.
I’ve been running the London #iot meetup for almost 8 years and I know people have left jobs, found funding, found out about accelerators and more through these events. But that’s not from people showing up once, it’s from years of convincing, talking, having a drink together, complaining, whatever. Building a city that’s good for makers means being able to accomodate and more importantly champion the long-term work that needs to be done and is done rather informally by meetup organisers, maker space founders, small conference organisers or yearly tradeshows producers. Cities should be supporting these people more directly with free space or reduced service access. After all, these kinds of events make people believe that they can move to a city and make their dreams come true because a community is created.
– Make the tools do more
When we talk about making, we might talk about maker spaces which to a lay person is an office space crossed with a light industrial unit. These tools are often expensive to purchase for those space owners and a city needs to be aware of this. Because it’s not only the tools, but the talent and training that happens around those tools. A smart city that wants people to be making should subsidise some of the costs of both paying someone to train others, and the cost of training, especially when it happens outside of formal education. It’s already hard enough to get something like a CNC machine in, if the people who owned them were incentivised to train others more directly, imagine how many more people might learn how to use the, get ideas or get excited enough to enter more formal education as a result.
Cities in short could engage far more with the informal networks that are brittle and can suffer quite quickly from political turmoil or economic downturns. And it’s not about massive grants nor elaborate multi-year funding programs but about having enough emotional intelligence to put people in the right places, helping the people who are helping others.