Managing the emergent: hubs and how to handle them

Even as a mobile workaholic, June is not generally when I feel the itch to work outside, so it was counter intuitive of the state government to hold the ‘Peel St Festival’ on a cold wet day to celebrate ‘co-working’ with its new flagship, Hub Adelaide. I know the Hub Adelaide guys. I think it’s crucial Hub Adelaide works. I’ve spent time in its sister franchise, Hub Sydney. I’m ‘pro-hub’ even if what follows is a curious kind of ‘pro’. And so I dropped in on this Festival of co-working, only to find something much deeper being played out. Something that goes to the role of government in city activation, and what it takes for non government to flourish.

Hub Sydney

A lot has been written about the government’s $1m funding for Hub Adelaide, and the unintended consequence it had on Format Collective; a not-for-profit hub for local musicians, visual and performing artists in, um, Peel St (see here, here and here). This story has been too well documented by others to go over the same ground. And, to their credit, even those involved have moved on.

But while we’re declaring prejudices, I’m with those who believe a city’s cultural and economic vibrancy means less chest-beating banners and yellow pavement stickers from government and, while I understand a department’s desire to lead the charge, the reality is it doesn’t work like that.

So how does it work? Away from the Hub Adelaide hype, there’s a quiet blooming in creative co-working spaces. Just not broadcasting on a government frequency. Yes, Hubs are here. And with support in last weeks budget for a creative hub somewhere in the city, lets hope we can learn something about how to land funding successfully for start up enterprise.

But first, why do we want a ‘vibrant’ anything? Vibrant places are alive. And life appeals and attracts. It attracts businesses to come and start up, traders to open shops and take a chance, people to come and meet and talk and think up ideas that might just go somewhere. Vibrant places in cities generally attract those who are part of what’s called the ‘knowledge economy’, the ‘creative economy’ and the ‘digital economy’ – all faster growing parts of the whole economy. These workers are skilled in emerging fields that are technology-rich; high value environments that are generally fluid and demand rapid-fire collaboration with others. They deal in wild ideas and use todays tools to make them real (like a site sharing university textbooks that went viral and was quickly snapped up by a larger tech giant).

‘Vibrancy’ often involves some minor chaos as groups are given permission to go off with youthful haste; learning as they go. The Governments ambition is 100% right. Vibrancy is good. But having fired the flare, we’ve got to let a thousand ideas spark in a hundred corners of the city (and, gasp, some outside it, too). Some will take hold and some won’t. Innovation can be messy. So too can vibrancy.

So this is one program you just can’t hope to manage with a single flagship concept store. That’s picking winners. Or rather, one. Yes, a hub needs a home. But a vibrant growing economy needs many hubs with many homes. Lessons here for how we land the mooted creative hub, perhaps.

The Mill

There are a few independent creative spaces already up and running. Besides Format, there’s The Mill – a co-working space now home to more than forty micro businesses exporting products and working globally online. There’s Majoran Distillery’s tech-focused space, and Magazine Gallery’s cafe, graphic and publishing co-working studio and exhibition space in Clubhouse Lane. Co -West is a co-working space for writers and the community funded Soundpond is moving from studio to multi purpose hub for music that doesn’t find its way on to commercial radio.

So with all these shoots sprouting, what’s the evidence we’re getting it so wrong? Don’t these independent creative spaces just happen? They do. Add Tuxedo Cat, Tooth and Nail, Paper String Plastic. And the good news is, they can be sustained with small leveraged investments (unless you’re after a concept store). They often don’t need large capital funding. What they ask for – if you listen – is to be mentored, supported and gently guided.

So before another ‘street fair’ – or even another flagship hub – we’ve got some work to do, including;

We need to re define ‘creative’ beyond the arts

Creative spaces are generally off the radar because we’ve classified them as ‘struggling artists’, but since most independent not for profit hubs aren’t producing artworks they can’t access grants. So they’re not really on a spreadsheet anywhere. ‘Creative’ is not a synonym for ‘arts’. It’s animators, graphic and product designers, architects, fashion designers/makers, web developers, animators, jewellers, photographers – a whole cultural ecology beyond ‘arts’ involved in making things. We need to redefine the creative sector as ‘creative business enterprise’ and take it seriously. There’s a danger in a separate ‘creative hub’ further reinforcing that creative ‘types’ are somehow ‘over there’. No one knows this better than the guys at Renew Australia who have acted as a broker, shield and defacto mentor for many micro enterprises finding spaces over many years.

For more on what creative enterprise is, and what it needs, the UK’s NESTA has covered everything brilliantly, here.

 Be data driven 

You don’t value what you don’t measure. Many of those in the ‘hub’ space are yet to register for GST. They don’t know payroll. They don’t exist to government because they don’t generate a trail. They fall between the cracks. The best way to collect data is to have it given to you. So get out on the street, form relationships with them. Know them. Ask them. Yourself. Leave your clipboard in the office and bring your ears and some empathy. Start with the hubs. All of them. Use the data to formulate policy. You may find they’re all relying on crowd funding to get going. So how do you do that well? Listen, collect, learn and do it again.

The solution is shared

Along with the Department of Planning’s lead on the Vibrancy agenda, our creative economy crosses the Department for Manufacturing and Innovation (DMITRE), the Department for Further Education, Employment, Science and Technology’s (DFEEST), Business and Consumer Affairs, Arts SA (we’re talking a city’s culture afterall). It’s the City of Adelaide’s Digital Strategy. It’s in the ANZ sponsored Innovyz program that gives start ups a hand up. Are we really working together on this? Not yet, if Hub Adelaide is anything to go by.

If we could wind the clock back, we’d have listened for those green shoots waving at us quietly. Instead of the reported $1m to a single concept store, we’d go for a slow release strategy to five or six hubs based on some performance targets, and supported with mentorship on ‘how to grow as a creative’. Last week’s budget carried the hope of a Creative Hub in the city. If so, the lessons of Hub Adelaide need to be learned and those green shoots supported.

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4 Comments

  1. I like this post, especially (a) “why do we need a vibrant anything?” and (b) ‘creative is not a synonym for arts’. I’ve written a number of posts about the geography of creativity on my own blog, monographer.wordpress.com – would you mind if I reblogged this post there?

  2. Reblogged this on Monographer and commented:
    I’m very pleased to reblog this post from Tim Horton’s blog. I’ve only just discovered the blog and find it very sympathetic indeed. I doubt that regular readers of Monographer will find it difficult to see why I like the blog. I particularly like in this post the exploratory analysis (notably behind the question, “Why do we need a vibrant anything?”). I’m also very sympathetic to the view that we should fully acknowledge creativity beyond the arts – a point I hope to blog on further in the near future.

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