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

VITAL for Creative Students & Professionals

Here’s a little social-media goodness @FellowCreative delivered back in 2008 for the students at University for the Creative Arts, supported by the lovely folks at Nokia.

You might even recognize a few names in the speaking lineup:
Christian Payne is now widely seen as the UKs #1 Social-Media Journalist.

If you would like more information on the VITAL Event and the Pioneering VITAL Conversation Platform please do click here to download the Press Release PDF.

VITAL for Creative Students & Professionals