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Harry Robbins
04 Sep 2017

Creating space for the new digital economy: Space4

Outlandish has created a physical co-working/incubator/community space – Space4 – as our latest effort to bootstrap and accelerate the creation of a new, co-operative digital economy.

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The members of Outlandish have developed a business model which offers significant advantages to both clients and workers and many more could benefit from it if we could make it more widely known and easier to adopt. Getting others to emulate and improve our model is probably easier than having to take over the whole tech sector single-handedly, but it’s still not easy.

Our main efforts to date to grow a co-operative technology ecosystem have included our fellowship, Co-operative Technologists (aka CoTech) and, now, Space4 – a physical space in Finsbury Park, North London. We aim to bring together people who are interested using technology and to create the world a fairer better place; we hope they will create valuable relationships and a self-sustaining community.

Focusing on physical space may seem counter-intuitive for a technology company. While we agree that decentralised/distributed teams are potentially very powerful phenomenon (which CoTech is set up to leverage) we’ve found that there is no substitute (yet) for physically meeting.

Why a physical space?

Outlandish is a digital agency – even if it is an unorthodox one – and its main inputs are leads for new business and talented people. We hope this space will expose Outlandish to lots of people and opportunities. Non-cooperative tech agencies couldn’t trust each other not to poach each other’s staff or clients but within CoTech there is little point in weakening one part of the network to strengthen another. Instead the we hope the relationships will work more like departments in a multi-service agency – the design team cross-selling work for the development team and vice versa.

CoTech is badly under-capitalised as a whole – it has no central funds and many of its members have little or no spare cash – which makes information/skills sharing via physical exchanges difficult to afford, especially for members that are not in or near London. Skills/knowledge sharing is one of CoTech’s key aims and will be a main source of competitive advantage against our less ethical and co-operative competitors. We hope that by bringing people closer together we will reduce the cost of skill sharing. While this won’t directly help the CoTech members who are not part of the space we believe it will pump-prime a culture of sharing and exchanges that will benefit the whole network.

Face-to-face meetings are, for many people, a great way to generate a sense of belonging. We’ve noticed that people who’ve joined CoTech digitally via our Loomio decision-making system have tended to be more silent or more noisy than people who first met CoTech people in person. We assume this is because they’re less sure what they’re part of and tend to think the but they can see (a message board) is the main thing (it’s not). This is a stark contrast to the inaugural event of CoTech at which members of ~30 different businesses named CoTech, built a website, mapped the network and agreed a manifesto with a speed and effectiveness that surprised even for the optimists.

Physical spaces such as offices are often about doing things, while digital spaces are often (though of course not always) about discussing things. You’re unlikely to ask someone “Why are you here?” and have them reply “I’m just hanging around listening to people’s conversations in case they come to a decision point, at which point I’ll get involved and tell them what I think they should do” in the real world, but is common on the web. CoTech’s had some great successes online but there is definitely a lot more doing when we meet (and in the short burst of hyper-enthusiasm afterwards) and a lot more discussing when we don’t.

Several of the smaller CoTech companies wanted their first office or a better one, and an office where you’re surrounded by people with similar interests is better than one where you don’t. Outlandish found that having an office boosted our productivity and alignment and we want to support other growing co-ops to take advantage of that benefit.

We hope that once people think of themselves as part of a larger network they will identify opportunities and create new services for CoTech that reduce the friction of doing business within the network. We’re developing our CoPich tool, refining a framework agreement and looking at lots of other ways to make CoTech more scalable/reproducible. For example, we are investigating the creation of a ‘skills finder’ to help member co-ops or external clients identify people with key skills or experience. A normal agency wouldn’t do this as recruiters would poach their staff, but we’re not very poachable which again gives us a key competitive advantage. It’s these tools that have the potential to turn CoTech into something more like a platform co-op which it may or may not want to become. If it doesn’t want to become a platform co-op, new co-ops would be spun up to offer ‘platforms as a service’ to the CoTech ecosystem.

Ultimately, we have no idea if this will work or not. We’re website designers and data specialists so setting up a space and marketing it to people like us falls into what’s distastefully referred to as ‘the suicide box’ in Ansoff’s matrix – or ‘diversification’ if you’re selling it to stakeholders:

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It basically means “if you try to sell a product that you’ve never sold to people that you’ve never sold to, you’ll probably fail”. We know a bit about people and a bit about services. We’ll take a measured risk and see how it plays out. It’s probably not the optimal thing to invest in, but from where we’re standing it looks the most promising right now.

Progress

Already we have some amazing organisations from the Co-Tech network and beyond. Go Free Range, Animorph and Open Data Services are already onboard from Co-Tech, and CAST, Lazy Atom, The Engine Room and Creative Opportunities are a few organisation who aren’t co-ops (yet!), but still work on amazing projects that we think are well worth supporting. Events planned for the space will cover encouraging more minority groups to work in the tech sector, supporting the cooperative movement, providing digital training to adults, and inspiring workshops to young people. The events space and desks are available to hire, and we’re seeking collaborators to deliver public events. Let us know if you’ve got an idea that we can help you bring to life.

Outlandish has been based in Finsbury Park since its inception in 2010. But with Space4 we hope that our presence will be felt more strongly. We’re playing a role in bringing more progressive tech companies to the area and make a case for Finsbury Park being a home for the digital cooperative movement – as opposed to the crowd around Silicon Roundabout. We’re also in discussions with Islington Council and local community organisations about how we can support the  local community – so far ideas include mapping the local voluntary and community sector, and providing training sessions to local people and charities, or providing free desk space to local non-profits. If you would like to hear more about this or if you have an idea please get in touch.

If you are interested in desk, meeting room, events space hire or the programme of events email polly@outlandish.com
If you’d like to work with Outlandish or find out more email info@outlandish.com