BarCamp, Coworking (no hypen!), Empty Buildings
and Innovation in (Medway) Kent

The post below explores the beginning of a journey – its probably still worth reading! but please note we’ve now grown into the coFWD coworking community and workspace (Rochester, Kent, UK).

Disclaimer: the following post is in draft format, much of the information needs clarification and my thoughts fell from my fingers into the keyboard without much consideration for the good work already being done – the following is not meant to be taken literally and it is not meant to dis-colour any local, government or academic authorities and initiatives – its simply my honest opinion and open thinking because that’s what blogs are for right? …

This post is long (2000+ wordcount) but its hopefully worth a read – for those who’d prefer the short version, here it is:

Inspired by the great work, creative community and positive impact of The Skiff in Brighton, The Werks in Hove and the vision of Tuttle on Tour, I’m currently investigating the creation of Kent’s first open coworking space for Creatives and Digital freelancers – perhaps a space like this!

BarCamp Brighton #emptybuildings

Photo: BarCamp Brighton #emptybuildings
Original photo taken and licensed under creative commons by Josh Russell

Video: Walkaround BarcampBrighton 4 (2009)

Original footage filmed and uploaded by Chris Keene

The long version will be here (still writing and adding to it):

Nine weeks ago, whilst delivering some Creative Midwifery to a new client, they randomly and unexpectedly offered me a 2400 sq.ft. open-plan studio space in a currently derelict yet commercially licensed building that is approximately 4 minutes walk from Rochester train station, 3 minutes walk from a large public car park, a stones throw away from a large block of creative student housing, and 6 minutes walk from the Rochester campus of the UK’s first Creative Arts University (UCA). [The building in question was the disused art-deco fronted factory, formerly housing Spemco Printed Circuitboards].

I’ve seen growing numbers of derelict and vacated buildings in my local area, and stumbled across a variety of Creative Community Initiatives from twitter folk such as @artistsmakers and @p45Camp – this got me thinking…

Now I have *an idea* rather than a clear thought out plan but I have had some interesting conversations already, combined with the fact I’ve been pondering a ‘BarCamp Kent‘ for about 5 months now after finding a potential venue in Canterbury – I’d love your thoughts and input on the following please =)

The vision… 2400 sq.ft (including toilets, two self contained offices, a kitchen area and a large open plan space)… it could be the perfect coworking space for freelancers, start-ups and students to relax, work, drink coffee and hopefully collaborate and innovate 24hrs a day; the building in question has two additional floors which could be developed over time to support the wider creative community and the buildings basement is already perfect for local-band/musician practice area. I’d simply like to help the creative and digital folk of Kent by connecting them with each other and the wider *vibrant* communities such as Brighton (many of whom seem to originate from Medway) and introduce them to what I see as ‘perfectly logical yet seemingly innovative community philosophies’ such as BarCamp, Tuttle and FREE & Unlocked Wi-Fi (as yet overlooked by local creatives, business communities, local academic institutions and even Medway coffee shops – *please note that since writing this original article I have been informed that the NUCLEUS Cafe does in fact supply WiFi to paying customers via a login code upon placing an order* – but this still isn’t Unlocked Wifi). Given the current economic climate and societies growing lack of employment, self-esteem and self-worth I view this approach as a must.

Over the years, and within existing and future strategy, Medway authorities and Kent focused development agencies have spent (and will continue to spend) £millions investing government funds and tax payers money into renovating and building minimalist glass-filled office spaces (that try to look like The Hub), calling them Innovation Centers, and charging start-ups and freelancers a minimum of £300 per month for a serviced office space that has no real value or encouraged/flourishing *sense of community* (except a canteen like break-out space and a meeting room which can only be rented by the hour provided they can afford £15+ a time, and providing a host of monthly *traditional* corporate run networking events that are focused on the short-term bottom line and Return on Investment [ROI] rather that long-term Inspiration, Innovation and Social Return on Investment [SROI]).

I’d like to provide a space (nothing flash but clean, dry, secure, with kitchen and toilet) that houses some comfy weathered sofas, a few beanbags, some chairs and desks, book shelf, free Wi-Fi, some power sockets and a decent coffee machine (with an available free meeting room and projector for anyone who needs it). I’d then like to focus efforts on what I believe would truly help support and develop a sense of *creatively inspired community* within Medway’s (Kent’s) creative/digital freelance and student community (encouragement, inspiration, play and conversation).

Remember, 2400 sq.ft is a big space, and given that other floors are potentially available, I’m thinking BarCamp Kent and other fun stuff, including after hours social media workshops, portfolio discussions, and creative sessions for students and businesses – bring on your ideas! =) Given the seemingly low rates I’ve currently been offered (about £800 – £1000 per month +rates +bills) and a likely required upfront investment of £5000-8000 to fit and furnish the space, I think we’re looking for approximately 8-10 freelancers who’d be willing to commit approximately £100-150 per month for a full time coworking desk (with full access and priority to free meeting spaces and facilities). Then I’d look to fund the rest of the space in other ways such as Workshop footfall (Social Media is just one growing area where I know many a professional who could do a talk or skill-swap). I of course understand they’ll be legal requirements and processes to abide by but I’ll be looking to avoid traditional funders and authorities who’ll clog everything up with red tape, middle men and ownership issues – in my view, the space should be owned and run by the community with the freedom to do what they want in it (within reason of course).

I haven’t agreed or really planned anything yet! *please note that nothing is confirmed and I have no idea how to realise it yet*, but as with anyone with a concrete vision *not* I do have some ideas on names =) “Space – The 1st Floor”, ‘The 1st Floor’, ‘Level 2.0.1′ “Space – as yet indefinable…” Or we could simply run with ” Floor 1984″ – an interesting name for an open space that’s community focused and free (ask @documentally on twitter if you need an explanation for the #1984 reference but don’t tell him about the potential use of a community webcam =)
I’m currently running my thinking under the operation name ‘Floor101.org’ but this is likely to change – I’m also hoping to organize a Medway based Tuttle to see if the ‘Digital Creative’ (and broader creative community) community does indeed exist – lookout for tuttle.101.

Now I’m not saying that any such space will be realised quickly (or ever), this thinking (and your input) may simply help visualise a journey – Eg. it may lead to starting a Medway Tuttle to see if the right community players do exist for such a space to be sustainable long-term. As I type this I’m sat in Café Nucleus which doesn’t have FREE Unlocked WiFi (it does have WiFi for paying customers) but with very little investment and a few phonecalls – ‘anything is possible’ and they do serve a good latté for £1.75 =? I look forward to hearing your thoughts (more details, references and research below).

As some of you may be aware I live in Medway (Kent, UK) but have spent much of my past 3 years travelling in a triangle – between Kent, London and Brighton – mostly on public transport and mainly for client work, attending events, collaborating with creative/digital thinkers and fellow coffee drinkers (with the occasional pint of Guinness thrown in for good measure). In mid 2008, in addition to my Kent studio commitments, I made a decision to support the opening of a new Brighton based coworking space by taking on the rent for two full-time desks at TheSkiff; a space founded by my friend and colleague @JonMarkwell at Inuda (the company who developed my original SustainableWidget.com prototype). My intention at the time was to move my professional and personal life from Medway to Brighton (the additional desk being available to freelancers I work with, or simply available to the wider community when vacant) – a life-changing decision to move away from my long standing friends and family, a financial gamble with a good cause, but a decision based on a comparative fact:

“Compared to Medway (where I have lived, studied, teach occasionally, and have started two businesses during the past 8 years) Brighton has proven itself to have a *better* vibrant, creative and digital *sense of community* populated by some truly wonderful folk.”

(Massive thanks to folk including @stevepurkiss @thinkgareth @edevries @richtextformat and @jonmarkwell – you are all legends!). Many such folk have welcomed me on-board their creative projects and even offered up their sofas, spare beds and meeting-room floors as a place for me to work or sleep during random last minute trips South to commission or work with some really great Brighton based clients and to attend amazing events such as BarCamp. (Here’s just a few such events: BrightonBarCamp, BrightonTuttle, dConstruct, Full-Frontal…) The sense of *creative community* to which I refer is something I find hard to summarize in words (energy, buzz, enthusiasm, anything is possible, #tuttle-esq…), but it is certainly something I haven’t experienced in Kent apart from my early days studying at Kent Institute of Art & Design (KIAD) back in 1997.

After 25 years local experience I can say for certain that Kent (and specifically Medway) is home to many businesses (including many *traditional* design, marketing, technology and engineering companies) and it appears rife with industrial estates and enterprise hubs for start-ups and SMEs, as well as a newly opened Innovation Centre (which as far as I can tell is more focused on business rent than actual innovation). Over recent years (since at least 2006) Medway has become the focus of much Regional Investment and Regeneration and is viewed and written about by local councils and development agencies as a world class region for tourism and culture, and there appears to be a strategic plan of transformation into a city of learning, culture, tourism and enterprise by 2016 (and I’ve heard Academics, Strategists and Consultants talking publicly about Medway being at the heart of the South East Creative & Digital Economy). In support of the above thinking, Kent is home to three campus of the UK’s first Creative Arts University (one of which is in Medway, plus a host of other academic institutions including Canterbury Christ Church University and University of Greenwich). Medway is also home to funded initiatives such as The Joiners Workshop (a £3+million Space for Creative Businesses) and the NUCLEUS Arts Centre (formerly the New Art Centre – the largest artist’s studio complex in North Kent). There are also community initiatives such as Made In Medway founded by designer Steve Rowland (who as it happens used to be Brighton based).

Yet with all of the above in mind, and with my local network spanning Creatives, Developers, Academia/Learning, Training & Development and organizations such as MEBP I still feel a lacking sense of local ‘innovative energy’ and *creative community* – this frustrates me greatly. Partly because it doesn’t aid my personal creativity, but more importantly because I’m convinced that the area is full of passionate and creative musicians, artists, designers, sculptures, film-makers and technologists (including media folks and web-developers) who are spending their days working from their back bedrooms (or even in jobs they hate) because they lack the creative infrastructure they’d need to be a freelancer (or even feel that they could be). I believe that freelance creatives don’t need a full-time office or enterprise hub, nor can they afford one – I’m convinced that they do what they do because they love it, they don’t do it for the money (the truth is most would do it for free if they felt valued and could afford a roof over their head, a mug of warm coffee and the occasional pint of Guinness – and I’m referring to ladies too!). They do it because they want to communicate and express, some want feedback, exchange and conversation but most just need to know they are not alone – they don’t fit the traditional business plan model and most are allergic to filling in forms. Brighton has coffee shops with sofas, open Wi-Fi and a non-plastic, friendly atmosphere where developers and creative thinkers can go to talk, work from their laptop and moleskine notebooks, think and meet – its cheaper than an office but its probably more valuable. All of the enterprise hubs and £3m Innovation Centre’s in Medway are commercial, sure they have “break-out spaces” but sadly this term inevitably leads to a canteen like atmosphere with modern plastic furniture which should be replaced by weathered *old* comfy sofas where anyone can kick their shoes off and sit cross legged with a laptop, book or paintbrush. The only real thing I see in the way of such a simple idea are the complicated risk assessments of innovation and creativity!

The journey continues… on Monday 5th October 2009 I organized Tuttle.101… a year on (October 2010) there’s exciting things afoot! In November 2011 we opened the doors of http://coFWD.org

7 Comments

Michael L. Radcliffe

about 5 years ago

OK, I'm going to come at this from a slightly different angle. I'm going to talk about this from my personal point of view, rather than any objective sense of what works or what doesn't, but inasmuch as it is my personal point of view, it is my experience and therefore may or may not contribute something to your thought process. I've noticed that my Fine Art background and to some extent my temperament has put me rather at odds at times with this idea of communal working. Quite often the kind of work I make requires a lot of peace and quiet, patience and a steady hand, so to some extent, the idea of a "communal work space" often fills me with dread. I may be imagining it incorrectly, but to my mind, there's nothing worse than trying to do a very accurate brush stroke with a paint brush when someone's having a loud conversation, or playing their latest MP3 to someone. That goes for my particular discipline, but further, I would say that my temperament as such means that whilst I can gain a lot from being around lots of people for a while, I can only cope with it for about 2 hours before I need to go elsewhere and digest everything I've heard. In terms of psychological profiling, (something like the Myers-Briggs type Indicator), I think it's interesting that our culture tends to favour people who are extroverted go-getters - something that a workspace like the one you're suggesting would suit very well. However, there may well be people who whilst they are happier working away on the quiet in their bedroom, would still relish the ability to "drop in" and share themselves around for shorter spaces of time - to be able to spend time with people, to give and to receive, but to then be able to digest in privacy, and ponder what this means. This is why "tuttle-style" suits me a bit better. I'm introverted, but it's still important for me to be around people, to a degree that is appropriate for me. My guess is that a good 40% of people wanting to do what you're talking about will be similarly shy. I'm not sure how that works with your space, and how you get that to work with the fact that you have to cover a cost. Most of my money goes on a studio space in isolation from the rest of the world, in order to have some silence. I'd love to pay some more and be part of a communal space as well, but not sure that I could afford both. I think some sort of "drop-in" element would still do what you want, and would also fill the gap that you're seeing in the Medway area. It could also work as a "feed-in" for people who lack confidence and want to test the waters before committing to paying to be there full-time. Sorry that's all a bit of a splurge - hope you can get some benefit out of my randomness. I may yet have more thoughts - will send them as they occur. :-)

Steve Purkiss

about 5 years ago

Great idea Carl and I wish you all the best! If youre not already a member, do join the coworking google group: http://groups.google.com/group/coworking Recent discussions include one about Workspace Vancouver closing - a great coworking space started by Bill MacEwan whom I had the pleasure of speaking to when I was in Toronto and he was first starting the place up. He has some great advice re business models so thought Id throw the link in. I love his final quote: The only way it will work is if you succeed in building not just a space, but a club. short url: http://icanhaz.com/billscoworkingtips full url: http://groups.google.com/group/coworking/browse_thread/thread/6ca2d4a01b0ec65e/dd80a293b3b063a9#dd80a293b3b063a9 Steve

Neil Cocker

about 5 years ago

Hope you can bring this to fruition, Carl. It's a great idea and, as we chatted about recently, something you and I share a great passion for. Let me know if there's anything Nocci or I can do to help. Cheers! Neil

Jules

about 5 years ago

Great idea Carl, If I can help out at all I'm around for another year. I agree there seems to be alot of underground activity in Medway that has yet to come out so getting it to gather in one place would be a brilliant idea.

fellowcreative

about 5 years ago

Dan Dickinson's original comment can be found on his blog here: http://is.gd/2PRfC --- Carl Thanks for sharing your proposal - you’re definitely right that it is on the long side, but I had a chance to pick through it while on the train this morning. The justification as to focusing on Kent seems pretty sound - it sounds like you have the community there, and one of the things I keep finding everywhere I go is that there’s never enough good readily available space for mid-sized technologist gatherings. So kudos for taking the initiative. The only thing that’s jumping out as a possible red flag to me is the financial model. Under the proposed 8-10 freelancers at £100-150 a month, you’re looking at coming very close to the mere break-even point with what your expected monthly costs are. It’s clear your cognizant of this, you may just want to sketch out the potential budget further. Also: be sure to keep in mind the overhead of keeping the space functional. Will you need someone managing space/desk bookings? Taking the trash out? Replacing lightbulbs? Stocking the fridge? A lot of these you could certainly tell the community to DIY, but the more DIY load you add, the less appealing the venture may be to others. There’s a balance that can be struck, I’m sure. But past that, I’m jealous that you’ve found what sounds to be a great space to leverage for the community. More power to you! I’d offer to help, but it’s a bit far for me to get to Kent from NYC. Cheers! ---

Julius

about 5 years ago

Fantastic idea! Would love to see how it develops Julius

Alan Offord

about 5 years ago

I agree whole-heartedly that coworking spaces are brilliant spaces for generating creativity and just generally interesting conversations. TheSkiff is a truly marvellous institution! The company I'm currently working for have been using a lot of freelancers recently, especially developers, in order to reach some tight deadlines, but we've had to bring them in house which has made our small office even more cramped than usual, I had to share a desk with someone for a week. If there's a man to get such a venture rolling, I reckon it's you Carl! These guys don't need someone looking over their shoulder, but could remain easily contactable be being in a central space and obviously benefit from having lots of other creative types around them. To have a space where they could come in and set-up quickly and flexibly, and that potential clients could find them easily, would seem to me to be a massive plus.

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