Events / Hubs

The 4th ESCies Workshop @ SOAS: Getting bold about the productive ambiguities that innovation hubs create

By Vera Petersson and Dr. Tuukka Toivonen.

The main aspiration of our fourth ESCies workshop, held on the 21st of November at SOAS, was to get closer to the field and rethink key ‘entrepreneurial spaces and collectivities’ concepts in light of presented evidence. We enjoyed short presentations from members on a range of topics, from tech hubs in Zambia and creative hubs in Berlin to the simultaneous emergence of seven hubs in sub-Saharan Africa. The workshop concluded with a consideration of hubs as network creators and social innovation labs as organisers of collaboration. Based on our discussion that covered a substantial range of angles and topics from sociological, management and economic geography perspectives, we present four take-aways that future research needs to consider.

(1) Hubs have found it a struggle to balance productive ambiguities with demonstrable impact. Ambiguity clearly has positive impact as it facilitates experimentation and adaptation within different local contexts. It allows hubs to potentially cater to the needs of diverse audiences and users. However, ambiguity tends to be very hard to maintain due to mounting institutional pressures, such as pressures exerted by funders (incl. development organisations) who expect to see a narrow range of standard outputs in a very short amount of time. It typically becomes apparent that there is a difference and a contradiction between the flexible internal logic of hubs and fairly rigid external expectations. Ironically, while hubs may indeed be a useful and highly adapted organisational innovation for fluid times in dynamic contexts, they might very well fail due to misplaced expectations. As was reaffirmed during the workshop, it is still common to expect that hubs would create investment ready start-ups at a rapid rate, which signals that many investors are failing to distinguish between hubs and what are generally known as incubators.

(2) It’s important to be bold about the ambiguity of hubs and what they should not be expected to produce. Relating to the previous point, how do you counter misplaced expectations and facilitate the survival of hubs on the ground? Through her research with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Andrea recommended that hub advocates need to be open and bold about the benefits of the ambiguity of hubs. They need to be mindful that hubs are often an excellent vehicle for emerging startups that are not yet ready for structured competitive programmes, and hubs can thus be viewed as “pre-incubation vehicles”. Andrea also raised alarm that public agencies that want to invest in hubs often unproductively lump incubators, hub and labs together, adding unnecessary confusion to the process and making it even more difficult for real world hubs to explain what they are doing. Tuukka added that a related way to view the role of hubs is to see them as mechanism for widening participation in entrepreneurship at a time when entrepreneurship itself has become a global (youth) phenomenon and is attracting greater range of diversity than say 10-15 years ago.

(3) The impact of hosts and different communication practices on the productivity of hubs remains a key question for research. Is there even a need for an active host? The curation of hubs can take the form of both social and spatial settings, and it has varying outcomes depending on the local context and the internal expectations. This social interaction and need for guidance depends partly on the stage of an entrepreneur’s project. Furthermore, the homogeneity of the mix of people at a given hub can heavily impact that hub’s communication processes and innovative outcomes. Janet brought up the case of freelance spaces being incredibly heterogeneous compared to certain workspaces in New York which host hundreds of rather homogeneous startups in competition with one another (which leads them to engage in little communication). Rigorously controlling the mix of people at a particular hub can be difficult, and diversity may not always encourage interaction; however, without some degree of rigour and monitoring, it may become more difficult for many hubs to claim that they are places where diverse people come together to innovate through combining their knowledge.

(4) We also posed questions around the function of hubs beyond supporting early stage entrepreneurs. Janet raised case of Supermarket, a leading hub in Berlin, as an example of a productive force in the global freelancer movement. Tuukka suggested that hubs can also be positioned within wider sustainability transitions (as described by Frank Geels and others). For instance, Berlin’s car sharing ecosystem seems to have been greatly accelerated by prototypes that developed within the city’s hubs.  Agata added the example of a single person who has become a “hub” of comical anarchist networks in Japan. She also pointed out that hubs can play a part in the formation of transnational entrepreneurship networks – a point explored in more length in Chris’s presentation. With his LSE-based research team, Chris pointed out that Kenya’s iHub has had remarkable successes in generating both local and transnational networks and social capital with implications to the rest of the continent. As all of these comments suggest, hubs can take on multiple productive functions as what some ESCies members like to call “boundary organisations”.

So, what next for ESCies? Things are definitely on the up: one of the co-founders has just secured an ESRC grant to look into creative interactions that unfold within London’s ecosystem of collaborative spaces. Many other members are generating their own publications and related funding bids, and ESCies members are constantly collaborating behind the scenes with ambitions of developing a generally global body of research on cutting-edge phenomena in the collaborative spaces field. The next workshop is likely to take place between late February and late March 2016. Until then, we look forward to your contributions through blog posts and sharing of any ESCies related research with the rest of the group.

A special thanks to all of those who attended the workshop, we really appreciated all your contributions. 

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