Following on from our We Are One members stories released as part of Impact Hub Birmingham’s first birthday celebrations, we cannot wait to continue sharing more from our community as we move forward together. In that ilk, we are delighted to share an article written and submitted by member Christopher Jones, sharing his experience and reflections on working from Impact Hub Birmingham this year.
I’ve been at Impact Hub Birmingham for about 7 months now. It is my first experience of a co-working setting – indeed my first contact with the very idea – and I have come to find the whole place very intriguing. I am aware of a certain texture to the environment, a particular grain to the fabric, and since arriving I have many times wondered how much I lean with the grain, and how much of me inclines against it. The proposition of co-working – a growing community within an office-renting facility, where independent professionals work and practice, cultivating networks of both social and professional value, the two often undivided, whilst generating a collaborative and sharing environment with a distinctly non-competitive dimension – is a new idea to me. The furthest my imagination had ventured in this direction was to the hot-desking model, which I realise is quite unremarkable in comparison.
What I hadn’t envisaged when first joining Impact Hub Birmingham was the consensus of positive change that seems to run through the building like a pulse. There is undoubtedly a political aspect to this – a belief in the values of democracy and social inclusivity, and of the principle of sharing (space, time and skills) for the benefit of the whole. This is all remarkable and rather contagious, even if, I admit, I’m at an stage in my life where my political values are in disarranged flux. Perhaps best described as idealism soured by pragmatism, and like AJP Taylor, any extreme views I once had are now only weakly held. It is therefore with mounting curiosity that I listen out for conversations in the Hub and ask myself how I feel about it all. How much with the grain am I? But first, a few notes on the circumstances of my arrival…
I’ve been self-employed for a few years now. For my salary, I work in web development, in partnership with my colleague (and brother) Andy. For several years prior to launching our small business, I tried to make a living as an artist and a writer, feeling that the creative life, with all its freedoms and immunity to authority, was the pathway for me. Whilst that calling still feels like my true vocation, I recognised that the arts is a hard field to make a living in. My meagre income needed backup, so I took a part-time job in local government. Since it felt like a compromise, I began seeking an alternative, an escape of sorts. Five years ago I made the jump into freelance web development. I’ve since learnt that self-employment can sometimes feel like an uprooted existence, a cycle of weeks without the anchors of definite working hours and office colleagues. In such circumstances, peculiar feelings of waywardness can arise, especially if your workload and income are as erratic as mine have been. In many ways it’s a paradoxical impulse: as if to measure your freedoms you look for routines that bear the mark of servitude. The most obvious of these is a permanent workplace.
My first attempts to occupy a more scheduled existence was to take myself off to a coffee shop, if only to “make an appearance” in the world of the waking. Stroll into any high street barista-bar these days and you’ll find a wall of laptops, and behind them ranks of self-motivated enterprisers searching for relief from the caverns of home. Precious becomes the table near to the plug sockets, whilst deflating is the sight of a room full of leisured idlers assuaging themselves with chatter and cake, families of decibel hitting children, attention-snaring raconteurs, and all other recreational drinkers of macchiatos and cappuccinos who remind you that, after all, this is not really a place of work.
Prompted to find to more reliable conditions, I went searching for rented office space. A great many options were available, and yet, thanks to my inability to search on the internet for anything more imaginative than “office space for rent”, all of the alternatives were gloomily corporate and corporately expensive, not to mention surprisingly tatty and unrelentingly dull. Nothing happened for about a year, until chance opened up a new frontier. One conversation led onto another, which led onto Impact Hub, the least office-looking workspace I’d set foot inside in all my searching. My brother came here first, and enthusiastically described to me the modish collection of work spaces, within which a cheerful collection entrepreneurs, designers, charity start-ups, photographers, social improvers, urban innovators and old fashioned techies, seemed to co-exist and cross-pollinate with optimistic bravura. People weren’t just sitting and working; they were taking part, joining in and consorting. My first impressions, after being at the Hub for a couple of weeks, was that it felt like the physical embodiment of a digital network, a LinkedIn nexus made flesh and given the spark of genuine momentum.
In the intervening months, I’ve come to truly like it here. Housed in a converted warehouse, located in the somewhat cheerless (but regenerating!) environs of industrial Digbeth, sheltered by the railways arches of the main line to London, the effect is fresh and fashionable. Between the exposed, cleaned-up brickwork, there are as many clean lines and panes of glass as possible, creating a modern, naked environment which is both animated and permeable. The emphasis is placed on fluidity that seems specifically engineered to encourage conversation and cross-pollination. The furniture is moveable and interchangeable, so that underlying any particular arrangement of tables, desks, chair and screens is a sense of the spontaneous.
The vibe gives more than a passing nod to the hipster culture of artisanal crafts and healthy eating, so often the visible sign of twenty-first century regeneration in the unleafy suburbs. There are croissants and grapes in the morning, there is a barista-style espresso machine and a merry selection of teas, there is a break-out space, a quiet zone, a sleeping den, a small library, an array of invitingly polygonal desks, private booths, a children’s play corner, and a wall of Polaroid photos of every member of the community. The hipster reference is not a slight: it is recognition that the Hub is home as much to urban bohemians as it is to business-minded start-ups. And it is this blend that I find most intriguing of all.
Such categories are not necessarily in conflict any more. For those who associate socialist activity with the underfunded, dimly lit corridors of civil service and community drop-in centres, may find the Hub a distinctly salubrious, even high-end place. And unlike the sometimes sceptical atmosphere of local government, the Hub is a bloom of positive thinking. Notices on the wall proclaim the spirit in unambiguous terms: “Be an encourager, the world already has enough cynics.” We are entreated to write our “Ideas” and “Expertise” in lists on glass partitions.
As far as I can make out, there are two threads to all this: the first is an explicit concern for politically left-leaning concerns, such as social equality and community inclusion. The second, it seems, is a belief that entrepreneurialism, technological innovation and creative disruption can help make real changes where old methods have failed. This growing community wonders how it can help tackle the challenges facing the city. In this post-post-modern era, a long time since the disintegration of Grand Narratives and faith institutions, a new type of narrative arch is emerging, characterised by grass-roots collaboration, the sharing economy, and the power of the fresh thinking from inspired individuals.
To put it another way, it is an “innovation-driven” dynamic that seems to borrow as much from the ethos of Steve Jobs as from Jeremy Corbyn. Absent is the traditional standoff between left and right: the socialist’s sense that profit and ambition are dubious forces; the capitalist’s distrust of government intervention and the suffocating effects of regulation. Indeed, the Hub seems to render this old distinction antique. In its place is a new faith in the values of inclusion and democracy, and perhaps above all, the role of innovation to help solve pressing issues of the day. The correct term might be Left-libertarianism, stressing both individual freedom and social justice, supportive of private enterprise but under the condition that the advantages are made available to all.
A glance across the bookshelves of the Impact Hub confirms the blend: Owen Jones’s Establishment rubs spines with Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner; Will Hutton’s How Good We Can Be sits next to Civic Capitalism by Colin Hay and Anthony Payne. It is in this spirit that I think the Impact Hub, and other co-working spaces like it, are striding forward. Outright political positions are omitted from the literature; instead there seems to be an open-mindedness towards all political and economic ambitions, the very openness driving the benefits: free of hierarchy and prejudice, and at the same time, abundant in proactivity. In other words, this is a place where “ethical business” is not an oxymoron. Whether or not all these threads can be hewn into a single, logical programme I remain a little uncertain. But what is indubitable is the sense of purpose and ownership: you get the feeling that the members truly have a stake in the project – and since it is indeed a project whose outcomes are uncertain, so the stakeholder’s role is all the more significant.
Perhaps what underlies the proposition is the distinctly uncomplicated idea that honest effort and personality can spread great rewards. In a brief survey via Google on the rise of the Hub, both on a global level and in Birmingham, certain images recur again and again. Most prevalent are photographs of activity, from the obvious hard work that went into the Hub’s construction to shots of communal discussions between happy looking professionals in stylish, contemporary garb. As if to underline the gratification yielded by aspiration and industry, there are lots and lots of smiling faces. This seems important.
Consider, for a moment, the aesthetic value of the non-smile, the brooding frown of fashion shots and album covers. The non-smile suggests ambiguity, fragmentation, an inner mystery, nonchalance or ambivalence. The images that circulate through the co-working universe eschew the non-smile in favour of representing a newly organised and energised workforce. A workforce that is, through its efforts and its honesty, and through its non-competitive premise, happy. This strikes me as the proposition par excellence of the co-working phenomenon: that the effectiveness of the construction is evidenced and perpetuated by the sheer positivity of the people.
Christoper P Jones is a writer of fiction (novels, short stories) and non-fiction (art history, philosophy, reviews). He is author of Meteor short stories collection and has recently been published in Firewords Quarterly. For more from him be sure to check out his website and follow him on twitter.