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By Deborah Talbot

Why a creative coworking space for Wivenhoe?

Wivenhoe Creatives started as a Facebook group, but will soon become a CIC, aiming to establish a creative coworking and social space in Wivenhoe. Why did we want to do it?

We’re all pretty busy people. I’ve been freelancing for three years, and I get enough clients to occupy the part-time hours I have available to work. But shared spaces to work in are important for freelancers. In London, I loved working away from the mess and noise of home.

I tried many, many cafes, but there’s a limit to how much coffee you can consume in a day. Coworking spaces in London were great, but always too expensive for people who only work part-time.

My particular favourite place to work was the Blackhorse Workshop, a large wood and metal workshop based just off the Blackhorse Road E17, which housed a wonderfully make do hipster café. It made me realise that any kind of place could be adapted to make a creative space.

It’s hard to find space

In a place like Wivenhoe, property has become the new gold dust. Community meeting spaces are frequently booked up many days, let alone finding a low-cost office space to work (with other people!).

The idea that office space is expensive might seem baffling until you realise that most people working as lone traders or early start ups don’t earn enough to even pay for a small office.

So a group of residents and I, loosely working under the banner of Wivenhoe Creatives but soon to be a social enterprise CIC (the Directors are Kathleen Wenaden and I) will soon (we hope) be launching a new creative coworking and social centre in our town.

We are planning flexible studio and bench space, a café and social space, a meeting room, training and education, exhibitions, after-school art and craft clubs (and we hope to bid for money to make them free), health groups, and pop-up shops showcasing regional and London-based produce. Or anything people using the space would like to suggest.

We want to use the space to be a springboard for new ideas and provide an expertise and resource bank for funding applications to help the community develop creative and community projects, and shape its public space. Partnerships with the local library, Essex University, and the wealth of galleries and heritage spaces in Colchester bring possibilities.

We hope other people working in the area will come on board too. There are so many possibilities for collaborative working to add to the creative bundle of Wivenhoe. And we need to improve opportunities for work and amenities for everyone.

Rural coworking

Coworking spaces are largely an urban innovation. However, they have the potential to deliver new ways of making a living and economic activity to more rural populations.

The research is conflicted about whether coworking spaces can work outside of the ‘creative cities’, but the 2015 Global Coworking Conference Unconference (GCCU) point to an expansion to rural areas in the US. And it’s become something of a hot concept in the UK too, with a rise in demand outside of London, as property prices and the nature of creative working collide.

And given the cultural sector is worth an estimated £90 billion net, and employs one in 11 workers, it’s not surprising the regions want to exploit its value.

The creative sector in Colchester

Colchester, for example, has had a long-term strategy of becoming a digital and cultural hub, and the sector is seen to deliver multiple benefits. Julie Young, Essex county councillor for the Wivenhoe-St Andrews Ward and current Major of Colchester, is an enthusiastic supporter of creative coworking spaces.

Young says that the creative industries account for a very high, one in six jobs in Colchester, and in her view: “Creative ideas stimulate activity, and shared use makes the best use of premises. Being close to where people live supports a good work-life balance, and it’s better for the environment as workers don’t need to travel.”

And they aren’t necessarily conventional ‘cowork’ spaces. One place in the making is The Kiln in Worcester, which offers coworking and community space. In Colchester itself, the recently closed meanwhile space – the Waiting Room – provided a rough and ready, exceptionally useful place for studio working, recycling projects, music and children’s events, and a host of other outputs.

The spaces that give rise to trickle down creative aspiration are always a DIY affair. That also means they struggle with economic sustainability. So in Wivenhoe Creatives CIC, we are working on imaginative ways to generate revenue and to end the reliance on volunteer labour, because volunteering is not something everyone can afford.

Challenges

But there are challenges with setting up a co-working space in rural areas. They lack the population density of city spaces, leading to a footfall problem. And because people already know each other, finding formal ways to facilitate networking can be less pressing need and more passing entertainment.

But people are enthusiastic, and rural areas need jobs and community assets. These necessities are where creative coworking spaces can come into their own.

Making a success of rurally based coworking spaces works with three core ideas.

First, diversifying revenue sources (bench space, meeting spaces, pop-up shops, business partnerships and food).

Second, multiplying functions (training, education, workshops and after school clubs on top of the coworking space). Our coworking space will be used intensively, to make sure we get lots of footfall and it can be affordable for people to use.

And third, making sure the space is firmly embedded in the locality. It needs to welcome everyone, and we are particularly interested in working with traditionally invisible people, offering resources to launch creative businesses and activities.

And it needs to look like it belongs to Wivenhoe. I like places such as Duck Duck Goose, which combines simplicity with functionality to make a beautiful space. Our space will look like the town where we live.

The plan

We’ve yet to sign a lease for premises, though we hope to do so soon. In the meantime, we’ve got some small pots of money to get the word around and maybe even hold an event.

We’ll keep you posted.

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Featured image by Leonard Lenglemetz. The image has been edited for colour and exposure. It isn’t us, but I liked the feel of it.