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Fremont Lab Aerial Shot

Nurturing and Activation of Urban Innovation

I attended the Business and Innovation Network session on Innovation and Urban Manufacturing a few weeks ago and I’ve been meaning to write a post on the experience since.

Excluding the fact that I stumbled upon the session simply by the fact it was hosted in the building in which we now work (but I otherwise wouldn’t have known about it) and that it was poorly attended (two are likely directly related . . .), I really enjoyed the session.

The session revealed many of the challenges that urban communities have in protecting existing manufacturing and innovation, but also in nurturing new innovation, specifically in the UK but I suspect the same challenges apply across the globe.

It was attended by a number of local advocates and activists from both areas (innovation and manufacturing) who all had slightly differing perspectives on the issues that are faced in trying to activate and sustain positive innovation and manufacturing within a urban environment.

Speakers included representatives from The Portland Works  (in their words – a community owned home for traditional crafts and creative arts in a unique settings), Access Space  (UK’s longest running free, open access digital media lab), Chop Shop  (a CNC fabrication and design facility for creatives, start-ups and social enterprises), Roco Creative Co-op  (a creative co-op in development in Sheffield, with lab and shop facilities) Manchester FabLab (an open access lab offering the latest in digital fabrication equipment) , MakLab  (Scotland’s first open access digital fabrication studio), IDEIA.M  (a Porto based innovation lab based in UPTEC  funded by Porto University).

The overwhelming sense I got from the day was that of independence or self-reliance (not unexpected) and small networks of like-minded people, driven by self-motivated individuals. It was interesting to hear the varying models that were applied/required to allow these entities to exist, some of which had a greater dependence on funding (in some respects challenging their true independence) others based more on a co-op/membership model.

It felt a number of these operations had been ignited or born partly from the ashes of central government funding at the start of the period austerity, but also potentially in defiance of the organisations that fuelled the recession in the first instance, the large and growingly faceless commercial organisations that are moving themselves further from their social responsibilities within the economy in a bid (on the whole) to appease shareholder demands.

This independence and self-determination had driven them to make/find their own way into existence, learning along the way the pitfalls, but all seemingly fighting for a sense of a shared/communal common good.

The success of these enterprises at driving innovation and attracting interest from everyone from individual maker/hackers through to SME’s and the education sector has raised their profile to a point now where more established organisations are turning to them for inspiration, but also with a sense of wanting a piece of the action. The event on the day was organised by The University of Sheffield, who showed a keen interest in the various operations and revealed on the day plans of something similar in the offing driven from within the University.

However, whilst it was great to see these organisations get the recognition that they deserved, it felt the very spirit of this independent and naturally forming network was an inherent part of the strength and success of these operations and that the interest now being shown by larger, more formally structured organisations could easily be a threat to the organic environment within which they currently thrive.

On the day I light-heartedly likened the situation to that of the British brewing industry. A once proud and globally recognised industry, brought to its knees by the greed of large brewing corporations through the destruction of the pub business across the country and the homogenisation of their products into an unpalatable, but efficient, smaller selection. From that destruction has risen the micro brewery and craft ale sector, driven by individuals that wanted better and is now recognised once again as global leader.

In a similar tale, from a sector I’m very familiar with, larger agency players in the media/creative/advertising sector have been trying to replicate the success of smaller agency businesses at creating incubator/lab programmes within their existing business to try and change the way they operate to varying degrees of success. Often finding that their nature (size, scale, existing processes, philosophies etc.) gets in the way of real success (they need to let go of the reigns more than some are comfortable with), but also some struggle to find the right type of thinking to make it a success.

This challenge of how we bring real innovation into our society/economy without it being affected by the problems of scale and bureaucracy (that can be the very death knell of the process that we’re trying to grow) is something that drives us in our work here.

In order for this type of innovation to happen in larger organisations it’s going to take some very open thinking and collaboration to crack the real challenges that key decision makers face – something that some are going to find really uncomfortable or even too hard to accept.

Whatever happens with larger organisations and their drive to adopt new methodologies to improve their own innovation process, let’s hope it’s never at the expense of the smaller networks that have done it off their own backs through hard work, self determination and belief.

Here’s to innovation.