It was my first trip to Belgrade and I imagined a grey, post-socialist country with some signs of economic and social recovery after a more than troubled 20th century finale. It’s a vision in our uninformed minds probably shared by many people like me who are ignorant of the European Balkan reality. Even though a lot of that decrepit city is still there with its chess games in the park and clear nostalgia for Tito, two days were enough to discover an intense city at boiling point with its nooks and crannies and new projects that can match those of any of the continent’s great capitals. What`s more, they had another point in their favour: their eagerness to conquer the world and show the more than two hundred representatives and creative hub leaders from all over Europe who attended the forum “How Work Works”, from the European Commission’s European Creative Hubs Network, exactly what the Serbs are capable of.
There we went, Raul Olivan and myself, to learn about other creative communities and present La Colaboradora‘s model. Why Belgrade? Because hubs, online or offline communities who work together to take up challenges and look for opportunities from the collaborative perspective, usually emerge as a consequence of a difficult economic situation. It’s the answer of a few, keen people, usually inhabitants of Southern countries, to the search for new opportunities. Each hub is different in its origin, financing, processes and purpose. Belgrade, with the Nova Iskra hub at the head, was the perfect proof of this theory.
How Work Works was the first of three large forums which have been planned by this project for the next few months as well as workshops and bilateral working residencies. It’s an innovative project because, according to Barbara Stacher, the European representative and project leader, “it’s the European Commission that has a lot to learn about the collaborative economy, about creative hubs’ processes and the way they find solutions to problems such as social inclusion or youth unemployment”. Something worth remembering every now and then these days.
The community, that’s the question
Community was the most used word during the two days that the forum lasted. Sometimes mentioned lightly, others with scepticism or even intensity, but always touching on the desire to understand the secret of its success and its importance as the engine driving the work carried out in any hub. Here and in China. The community as a body which can be strategically designed from the selection of the candidates’ profiles who ask to join the hub or as a living network built on the basis of first come first served with a space rental invoice ahead. The community which almost always gathers steam either because of the community managers, the project coordinators or the voluntary work of one of their members. Lots of different models of management for these networks were proposed, all equally valid but perhaps not so efficient.
The forum also considered, in a tangential way, the role of impact measurement in the work carried out in the communities; an exercise which, as we saw in the examples put by different creative hubs, is currently reduced to the feedback provided by the members of the coworking space during conversations held in the corridors or by the number of spaces rented out. Perhaps, starting to measure the degree of cohesion of their communities by way of more formal mechanisms might be a necessity that privately – run hubs could start considering evaluating in their strategies; but for those hubs dependent on public funding it would be just logical to include measurement and evaluation reports that guarantee the transparent disclosure of how public funds are managed.
The Importance of Meaning
There were various recurring debates during the forum which gave rise to important questions, especially among the representatives of those spaces linked to work patterns surrounding the technological, cultural and social vectors. We considered the need, or not, to be strict about the name assigned to the great bag of “creative hubs” which, as its own name indicates, would include all those projects linked to the typical activities of the creative industry. For the purists, this category would eliminate at one stroke those projects which, while contributing much to the hub phenomenon, cannot be considered “creative” to the letter. To be clearer: I am referring, above all, to those centres of a more technological slant with a well-defined focus on business and whose collaborative values may be relegated to second place.
This debate would not be importance were it not for our recent experience of the giants- we all know who they are-who have monopolised the philosophy of the collaborative economy and on the way have taken over the meaning of the words and values that go with it, subsequently limiting the global impact of this not- so- new way of doing things.
Maybe it is time to start differentiating between hubs with a technological slant, start-ups themselves more focused on business development -perfectly legitimate on the other hand- and those hubs with a social purpose whose work focuses on the development of a creative, enterprising community based on shared values which benefit everyone and improve our society. The latter are the ones that must formalise their good practices and reveal their creative and collaborative processes. By doing this they will be able to receive the support of public and philanthropic institutions and extend their way of working to other social realities.
We must think about the roles that each actor must play in this game and the importance of analysing the purpose of the creative hubs in more detail. There will be as many purposes as there are hubs. In London alone there are more than 800 coworking centres and Barcelona has more than 150 registered so far. This European project of untangling the chaos of working spaces with different objectives but full of people who share more than a table and a shelf in the fridge is a great idea. We have the opportunity of leading an influential and cohesive network of thousands of European professionals who have similar concerns, needs and interests. Don’t let’s lose sight of this. Meanwhile, I’ll back to Belgrade.