Thursday 24 September 2009

Space Makers Agency

When we sent out the email inviting people to tonight's Space Makers relaunch at the Young Foundation, it listed me as the "Founder" of the Space Makers Network. "Finder" might have been a more accurate term, because I didn't so much create the network as stumble across it.

Space Makers came about by accident. Back in March, a group of us were due to meet UnLtd (the foundation for social entrepreneurs) to discuss funding possibilities for "alternative third spaces" - defined by Vinay Gupta as "facilities which are neither office nor cafe nor workshop but have elements of all three and more." On the day, the UnLtd representative had to cancel due to illness, but the message didn't reach us until we had already arrived at their offices, so we had the meeting without him.

Ten of us talked about projects we'd been involved with - co-working spaces, hack labs, art spaces, community cafes and take-overs of empty buildings. We also found ourselves talking about the number of high street spaces coming empty because of the recession and the possibilities for reusing these creatively and in ways that would respond to social needs.

It felt like it would be worth continuing the conversation, so Maria from The Hub, Islington asked me to organise a meeting there the following month. Lots more people came to that event - including Gaia Marcus, who volunteered to coordinate what we were now calling the Space Makers Network. Over the months that followed, we met in a variety of spaces around London, reflecting the mixture of worlds coming together in the network - from Space Studios in Hackney to NESTA, the Whitechapel Gallery, and even a set of treehouses in Regents Park.

We've also built relationships with other organisations interested in the creative reuse of empty space and the larger questions this raises - from the Empty Shops Network (with whom we're organising a national conference in Worthing on 19th October) and the Meanwhile Space project, to architecture practices like 00:/ and social innovation centres like The Young Foundation. And, through the online version of the Space Makers Network, we've connected up with individuals and groups around the country who are involved in exciting projects to bring dead space back to life and create collaborative environments for work and play.

Although Space Makers is still very new, my involvement with this area goes back to my experiences as a journalist and a community activist in Sheffield. Much of my time there was spent in the Cultural Industries Quarter - the first of its kind in the UK - which owed its existence to the reuse of empty industrial buildings following the city's economic collapse in the early 1980s. By the time I arrived, twenty years later, the origins of the Showroom and the Leadmill were only preserved in their names - but the DIY culture of making and recycling was still at the heart of the city.

I got involved in projects like Access Space, a walk-in IT centre using recycled computers, and the MATILDA centre, a chaotic year-long takeover by artists and activists of a huge empty building in the middle of the city. Those experiences taught me a huge amount about what can be achieved with enthusiasm and imagination, but also (in the case of MATILDA) about the limits of projects which can't find a way to relate to existing structures and institutions. Both the buzz of the city at that time and the tensions between top-down and bottom-up approaches to cultural regeneration were brilliantly captured by Go! Sheffo - a fanzine that read like a love letter to the city.

For me, the spirit of Space Makers is rooted in the spirit of those projects - joined with their lessons about the importance of building relationships between different kinds of organisation (and individuals) which don't always understand each other's ways of doing things.

The need for that attitude today is not just that we're faced with large numbers of empty spaces in need of imaginative reuse - although it's clear that the ghosts of Woolworths will be with us for a good while yet. Beyond the immediate effects of the recession, the events of the past year mean that, whoever is in power after the next election, there will be less money to spend on the kind of cultural and community regeneration projects that we've seen in the past decade. Across the range of activities which government - local and national - supports, the same choice will be faced again and again: do we do the same things we have done before, but fewer and cheaper versions of them? Or do we do things differently?

There is a reason why the ways in which government does things tend to be expensive: it is seldom able to tap the reserves of good will, enthusiasm and deep pragmatism which people draw on when they get together and make things happen for themselves. For all the welcome enthusiasm which government has shown for "slack space" projects this year, those projects which are happening around the country are largely being driven by this kind of bottom-up energy. I can't help thinking that these projects offer a more inspiring starting point for thinking about the future of public services than Ryanair or EasyJet.

Tonight, we're announcing the Space Makers Agency, a parallel organisation to the Space Makers Network, which will collaborate to develop ideas and practical projects to create the kind of collaborative, sociable spaces we've been talking about over the past six months. The agency is still taking shape: we have a group of associates with a wide range of experience and a record of making things happen, and several projects getting underway in the next few weeks, working with local authorities, property owners and local communities. Like the network out of which it has grown, though, its core strength should be the ability to bridge between worlds and to work with the energy that is released when people come together with a determination to make something happen.

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