On Shoreditch & informal innovation

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I wrote a blog post 2 years ago about the Tech City announcement, then I wrote another blog post a year later. Because of this compulsion to write about Shoreditch and its transformation at the hand of the government and corporations, I was interviewed on Friday for BBC News as part of a piece on the new Barclay’s sponsored Central Working building on Bonhill St. To avoid giving the impression that I’m simply a grumpy bastard, I thought I’d elaborate a little on the point I’ve been trying to make.

Then & now
I love Shoreditch. When I moved to London in May 2007, I set up Tinker and sold Arduinos from my at-the-time boyfriend’s apartment (thanks Matt) for the first 6 months of the business. We were the first UK distributors of the platform that had grown from a platform for students designed and used in my MA course in Italy to a world-famous tool to easily learn how to tinker with electronics & programming. Since 2007, I moved around the area, constantly hanging around Shoreditch for meetings, vietnamese dinners and pints in local haunts.

Now, the things I love the most haven’t changed much. The vietnamese is still great, the few pubs I go to are still around and I still have meetings in the Book Club even if they insist on deafening their customers with their increasingly loud music (don’t get me wrong, the music is great). I get the most out of the area, professionally, by walking the streets at lunch, discovering new places and bumping into people all the time. If anything, the “Tech City” thing has increased the amount of serendipity in the area. It’s made my network very accessible and made the area very friendly.
These are all good things, and also why I don’t understand the construction of what I can only describe as innovation factories. What Google Campus and other such large buildings do is to cut people off from that serendipity. Places where lunch can be had at a desk because the café is downstairs and the coffee machine is only 3 steps away actively disengage people from the area they work in. Not only that, but it puts pressure on the environment to deliver “value”. They act as hot-houses for a particular type of business as opposed to help different types of businesses meet and knowledge sharing to happen.

The informal innovation machine
Back in 2008 when Dopplr started and Matt wrote about the Silicon Roundabout, the heartbeat of the area was the offices of Moo on the Old street station roundabout itself. Already quite large at the time, Moo had extra space in their offices which they rented to small businesses and startups. Both benefited from great press with the early days of the new Wired UK. A few years later, Tech Hub had moved into the same building, White Bear Yard had properly started and Moo moved to the building I have worked in for the last 3 years. They continued until recently to host companies like Tweetdeck, arguably the last great success of the area in terms of acquisition. None of these transactions, moves or relationships were formalised by calling any particular space an “innovation hub”. The pressure wasn’t necessary and the space was cheap.

Do the maths

View Les carnets d’Alexandra: the price of a desk in a larger map

With its new building and desks costing £449 + VAT a month for single occupancy, it’s hard to think how Central Working will compete with the informal San Francisco laptop-in-a-café culture. The point of being a startup is that you have no money! The types of startups that will have the money for 3 desks ie around £1 500 a month won’t be the ones who are starting out, they will be the ones that will already have received funding and are looking for a second round. The ones that need help will still be in cafés, university libraries or at home.

This is typical of London’s approach to business and the corporatisaion of space and activity that can often be found in the way areas like London Bridge are getting turned into shopping malls or Spitalfields market in 2008. Once an area gains in reputation, corporate interest emmerges and prices go up. The cost of a square meter in our postcode has gone from £24 in 2010 to around £32 in 2012.

What to do?
Shoreditch is an environment that not unlike an unkept garden, benefits from a light touch approach. Concentrating on creating pedestrian areas, event spaces and allowing the creative people in the area to take over a bit more would help get people out of their ivory towers and foster the type of serendipity that makes things happen and allows artists, designers, coders and fashion designers to hang out and influence each other’s work. Because that’s exactly what makes Shoreditch so special.

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So with that, I think I’ll steer clear of the topic for a while. I’m busy with my own startup after all :)

By designswarm

Blogging since 2005.