IPSE’s Sophie Gibson explores a growing trend across the UK of turning disused spaces into shared workspaces.

"Family and friends helped paint and rip up carpet tiles. About 60 desks and chairs were donated to us and we bought industrial amounts of paint."

It’s not always plush swivel chairs and a mountain of funding when it comes to first establishing a shared workspace. Krisi Hayman, Member and Studio Manager at Makerversity in London, recalls stories from the early days when things began, back in 2013. They are one example of countless similar stories across the UK from groups of self-employed people.

The death of the high street was national news several years ago. The despairing sight of derelict shop fronts and various other empty spaces filling town centres was enough to prompt a government investigation, coverage of which was spurred on by famed retail consultant Mary Portas, who led the Inquiry. The recession sucked the high street dry, along with many other things; however, there is one distinct solution we have seen since – to turn empty spaces into shared workspaces for the growing number of self-employed people in the UK.

A collaborative economy

It may seem outdated to look back to the Portas Inquiry, published back in 2011, but recommendations included in the report laid important foundations for reclaiming disused spaces. These were based around creating community support networks or a ‘Town Team’ and also set the precedent to “explore further disincentives to prevent landlords from leaving units vacant.” There are important guidelines for towns and cities to take note of across the UK.

Such guidelines are part of a growing collaborative economy, or ‘sharing economy’, driven in a large part by the rise in accessibility to, well, everything. According to a report by Nesta released at the end of 2014, this is outlined in one defining sentence: “In many ways, the holy grail of the collaborative economy is helping the economy and society simultaneously by unlocking the value of idle assets while also rebuilding social capital.”

Communities and networks created through a shared working space are one example of this, and are not only commercially beneficial for rent costs and other potential business costs, but they also foster shared knowledge and innovation. Despite falling earnings and concerning interventions announced in the Budget this summer, freelancers are still in demand and are working at high capacity utilisation levels. Freelancers and the self-employed are increasingly turning to shared workspaces to foster growth and development. On a simple level too, writers can work next to people that want writing, artists next to people in need of art, and IT technicians next to those in need of IT support. Being part of a community lets you develop ideas and can lead to new clients.

Make can do

After extensive hands-on renovation, in 2014 Makerversity began to resemble the thriving community of self-employed makers that it is today. However their space is a little more extensive than most, and lies hidden under a London landmark.

The holy grail of the collaborative economy is helping the economy and society simultaneously by unlocking the value of idle assets while also rebuilding social capital.

“Somerset House was looking to support creative enterprises and reinvent its disused basement. We were linked through a friend while one of the founders of Makerversity (Tom Tobia) was running a workshop in Waterloo called ‘Assemble and Join’. The space is around 3,000 square metres and unfortunately at the time was completely derelict.” It is now a heady mix of all kinds of entrepreneurs and businesses, all ‘makers’ in some way. “We have 160 members who boil down to 55 businesses in coworking spaces and self-contained studios. Be it physical, digital or edible, they all have one thing in common – they make stuff. Being part of the community means you have access to 160 other people, all working on inspiring projects and going through the same things as you – setting up new businesses, working with new materials and open to both receiving and offering support.”

Somerset House is a cultural hub which holds events and exhibitions with prestigious names, something which no doubt supports creative development. At the time of writing, partner events involve Fortnum & Mason, Hergé and Tintin and various talks from famed photographers and artists. Downstairs however, in the shared workspace, the keyword is community.

“The community often means you can take on projects that seem much bigger than yourselves. You’re surrounded by talented people and can flex and grow your team with those around you. We have also recently launched our first business support programme – mv. works – an experimental programme supporting makers, artists and designers with technology to succeed on their terms.”

Shared workspaces reclaiming disused spaces is taking place all across the UK

This is a fantastic example of a very successful community developed for and around self-employed people. Aside from the physical shared workspaces they have developed, the community extends to support programmes and also alternative and free routes to hands-on education for young people. A ‘mothership’ has been created by reclaiming a completely unused space, and supported by various trusts and organisations in setting it up and continuing their great work. This is a truly innovative way to drive social and economic growth among the self-employed.

A UK-wide phenomenon

This phenomenon isn’t just taking place in London. Disused spaces are being reclaimed and used as shared workspaces all across the UK.

Fruitworks is a fast-growing supportive community of entrepreneurs in Canterbury, Kent. It was set up originally by local business student Liam Gooding, who was looking for a property to upscale his local business, and to incorporate other small businesses to create an innovative hub. He walked past a 2,000 square foot empty Victorian warehouse with a sign up, and the rest is history. Jamie Andrews, part of the team behind Fruitworks, gives some insight on the sorts of people who operate from their venue.

“We currently have 60 businesses based at Fruitworks. At least 80% of these are either freelancers or self-employed. Over the four years that Fruitworks has been open, there have been 157 companies based here with sectors ranging from web programming to architecture to social care to copywriting.”

The success of Fruitworks means that they are currently at maximum capacity, but have plans for expansion. They are one of so many examples reclaiming spaces up and down the UK who are seeing an overwhelming response from the self-employed, eager to become a part of innovative new workspace hubs.

From Campus North supporting tech freelancers in Newcastle, to Brighton Fuse and Wired Sussex on the south coast connecting creative, digital and IT freelancers and innovators, the UK is witnessing a renaissance in shared communities and workspaces springing up. Such communities feel incentivised to reclaim disused spaces due to the level of support they are receiving; And also due to a heightened sense of empowerment driven by the collaborative economy. Here at IPSE we can only see this continuing.

Club Workspace commented:

"Freelancers are breaking away from working alone in their living rooms and cafes and are seeing the benefits of surrounding themselves with like-minded individuals and businesses. Co-working is providing an environment where a business can both be sustained and grow."