Discussing the multi-dimensional characteristics of London’s creative workspaces: a summary of CWL’s Creative Hubs Symposium
On January 28th Creativeworks London’s PWK Strand organised a sold out symposium examining the multiple dimensions of ‘creative hubs’. In partnership with City University London, Knowledge London and Higher Education Entrepreneurship Group (HEEG) the symposium was held on the 8th floor of the Keyworth Centre building at London South Bank University. The room offers stunning views across London from the Vauxhall Tower to the Houses of Parliament; an apt place to discuss how the creative sector is manifested and perpetuated in this city. In this particular case, over 70 people from a number of creative organisations, universities, local authorities, creative businesses and third sector organisations gathered to discuss ‘creative hubs’.
Our starting position was the fact that the term ‘hub’ is absolutely everywhere; evidently so is the term ‘creative’, but that debate has been raging for a long time and not discussed here. Specifically, ‘creative hubs’ seem to be a global phenomenon. According to the literature, the term started being used around 2003 in policy documents primarily dealing with London’s creative clusters and regeneration policy. They are now global, (see here for a useful look at creative hubs in Europe).
This being said, the work on creative hubs is surprisingly scarce. The term has no commonly accepted definition and has been criticised for lacking clarity as well as being all encompassing. They have been understood as co-working spaces, studios, incubators, accelerators, districts, quarters, zones and/or a mix of all of the above.
In light of this, we used a panel format to investigate and discuss the creative hub by bringing a number of people who work in this area together (see here for our list of panelists). In order to get to grips with the term we divided the day into four panels. Each panel dealt with a specific aspect of the creative hub concept.
The first panel examined the academic work in this area. Professor Rosalind Gill from City University London chaired the panel which included Professor Graeme Evans (Middlesex University London), Juliana Martins (University College London), Dr. Caroline Chapain (University of Birmingham) and Professor Andy Pratt (City University London). The panel discussed their work but also stated that we need to be careful about treating hubs as a new phenomenon. If we were to understand them as spaces (in the form of buildings nested within clusters of creative activity) that were designed for artists and ‘creatives’ and that had reduced rents due to subsidies or other arrangements, then they have been around for a long time. However the nuance and specificities brought about by: the digital age, the London property market, the emergence of global creative clusters, and the pace of change that local communities are witnessing, all add layers of complexity.
The second panel dealt with issues of temporary versus permanent strategies regarding the use of creative hubs (and other types of workspace that are enterprise oriented) as a force for regeneration and redevelopment efforts. The panel was chaired by myself and included Sarah Considine (GLA), Huw Morgan Thomas (Tower Hamlets), Paul Augarde (Poplar HARCA), and Thomas Ugo Ermacora (Clear Village). The discussion centered on tensions between community and culture-led initiatives aimed at regenerating parts of east London in particular. We discussed whether community and culture are incompatible in an enterprise development context and whether the pace of change fuelled by developer-led initiatives was something that needed to be re-examined in more detail.
The third panel focused on: workspace provision, local policy initiatives, and university-led strategies towards urban enterprise. Wendy Malem (Centre for Fashion Enterprise) chaired the session. The panelists included: Henry Trew (Bootstrap Company), Cllr. Guy Nicholson (Hackney Council), Professor Alex Williams (Kingston University London), Charles Armstrong (The Trampery) and Penelope Wilmott (Somerset House). This panel focused on the difficulty of running these types of hubs and workspaces with respect to policy and the real threat that rising rents have on London’s local and creative communities. The panel also discussed the tensions between housing-led policy and enterprise, and how pressure to provide housing is leading to badly thought through development projects that might be better situated in other parts of particular boroughs.
In the fourth panel we spoke to businesses and hub managers. Evelyn Wilson (The Culture Capital Exchange / Creativeworks London) chaired the session which included Francesca Guidali (The Trampery), Octavia Hirst (Skillab) and Chris Moisan (AiT). This session really got to grips with what it means to be part of a start up as well as to manage start ups in a workspace environment. Francesca spoke of the sad closure of The Trampery London Fields due to tensions brought about primarily by the landlord, highlighting the very real threat that many of these types of workspace-oriented organisations face in London. Chris spoke about being mindful of how we treat our start ups and how adopting a faceless, ‘battery coding’, ‘start up farm’ type of working mentality may be detrimental to the sector. Octavia discussed the issue of measuring impact and the ‘tyranny of numbers’ and ‘how we protect the space between the numbers where the magic happens’.
Needless to say, there was much more discussed at the symposium – some of which will be turned into a short film about ‘creative working’, and showcased at Creativeworks London’s Festival on April 29th, 2016 (please do register). It was an informative day and I’m still processing the multiple dimensions that our discussion of creative hubs illuminated. One undeniable outcome of the day was the fact that many Londoners are facing real threats to their way of life due to the rising cost of living. In particular, the issue of how property, community, industry and policy come together at borough level to effect positive change in housing, livability, workability, and keeping rents affordable is a real challenge. One that is already culminating is people being driven from the city by being priced out. Additionally people are not only being driven out due to it being too expensive to live in London, but also because it’s becoming too expensive to start something up here.