A little over a year ago, I wrote about coworking taking root across the North of England, with five coworking communities either side of the Pennine mountains, strung along the M62 corridor. More recently, “hackspaces” have also begun to spring up around the UK, drawing in people involved in “make” groups and a wider community of technologists.
Last month, Manchester saw its first coworking community — FlyThe.Coop — move to a new location shared with the recently-launched MadLab hackspace. MadLab, also known as the Manchester Digital Laboratory, describes itself as:
“a community space for people who want to do and make interesting stuff — a place for geeks, artists, designers, illustrators, hackers, tinkerers, innovators and idle dreamers; an autonomous R&D laboratory and a release valve for Manchester’s creative communities”
Last week, I got the chance to talk to one of MadLab’s four founders, Dave Mee, about the vision for MadLab, its history, its residents, the challenges it has faced, and his advice for other coworking space founders.
Imran Ali: Tell us a little about the background of MadLab. What were the motivations of the founders?
Dave Mee: We spent a lot of time around hacker user groups and communities, and often found ourselves in pubs for the events they held. Pubs aren’t great locations for these events: Projectors wouldn’t work, DJs would show up halfway through presentations, and generally they’re not geared up for reliable Wi-Fi and soldering, particularly with alcohol around. At the same time, we saw there were no real alternatives; other presentation spaces were either too expensive, lacked facilities, or were too far out for people to get to.
At the same time, we missed some of the events we were used to from London: DorkBot, Flash user groups, MiniBar, the Takeaway festival. The was the talent, passion and eagerness for these things to start in Manchester, but without the infrastructure to support bottom-up cultural activity, they never could get off the ground and move beyond being meet-and-drink events.
We spoke with people around the city; there’s a vibrant Social Media Cafe in Machester, and this provided a great way to get involved with many of the people and institutions that supported us as we set the project up. The Manchester Digital Development Agency (MDDA) were a great ally early on, and understood the value of a cross-disciplinary space in the city, in readiness for the next cultural and technical waves we’ll be hit by.
Manchester — technically, Salford — is seeing huge investment as the BBC moves to Media City. There will be a huge growth in media and technology companies here over the next few years, and we see MadLab as a space for tomorrow’s media and cultural professionals.
Imran: Do you see much collaboration between residents? What’s the general breakdown of residents in your space — what kind of work are they involved in?
Mee: Our basic aim was to provide a free space for community and professional groups to use to explore their practices and share them with new people and groups — a kind of “digital salon” for the 21st century. We’re approaching this in three ways:
- Establishing programming and events (such as our Robot Hack Day, which we arranged with the Museum of Science and Industry).
- Providing a platform for new and established user groups to build from, and giving them some permanence and infrastructure to rely on. As organisers, we’re actively engaged with the local council, education schemes, libraries and agencies to provide us with further programming and events which we can bring to people who wouldn’t normally be aware of them — from contract law workshops to book clubs.
- Supporting a local coworking organisation, FlyThe.Coop, who provide a bridge between people exploring digital spaces and those establishing their own businesses.
Imran: What were your greatest surprises in bootstrapping MadLab — and the largest operational challenges?
Mee: Finding out how much spaces like the MadLab are needed in modern cities has been the most surprising thing — our basic idea of open practices and collaborative space has been adopted by a huge number of communities around the area. We’ve found we’re bringing together animators with robot builders, permaculturists with screenwriters. We always hoped for a mixed group of users, but the variety of people who have embraced what’s going on has been inspiring.
It’s been hard work; we don’t want anyone thinking of starting their own that it’s an easy thing to do. As a new organization we’ve had to start everything from scratch, but enough people value the idea and the work we’ve put in that we were offered a lot of pro-bono support and assistance. This is ultimately what it’s about; building a framework around which people can get together, find each other, and support their activities.
One of the biggest challenges is securing funding. We set out with the aim of making the MadLab free or low-cost for people using the space, and that there would be a democracy of participation, rather than having room-hire or membership fees. This means there’s constant background activity in chasing applications and finding sources of funding, and building a solid network and outreach between the regional and national agencies and organizations we want to work with.
Imran: What’re your plans for the future?
Mee: We are establishing a few new strands of programming, and we’re bringing in a broader range of speakers and events on both the national and international level. We’re also working with some of the festivals and events around the region, and building a platform to provide greater exposure to our community’s work to these other audiences. On a longer-term basis, we want to build ties across the world and organize MadLab and hackspace exchanges.
Imran: What are the key pieces of advice you’d give to people thinking about establishing a coworking space?
- Don’t underestimate your running costs!
- Never, ever undervalue the strength of your community; build out and spread the word far and early.
- Local development agencies and business advice groups are there to help.
Post your thoughts and reactions to Dave’s observations in the comments below.