Don’t Build Spaces, Build Ecosystems
When opening creative spaces, it is not enough to simply designate a space and add tools and technology, says Roman Vydro, co-Founder of Garage Hub, a community workshop in Kharkiv, Ukraine. What is way more important, is to include a variety of people and let their input create an entire creative ecosystem.
Parents’ Tools and Junkyard Machines
In August 2014, four students in Kharkiv got tired of doing the things they loved at random locations: Welding on the balcony, soldering in mother’s kitchen, or milling in a university lab was simply impossible. That’s why they opened their first workshop in a 22 square-metre, rented garage. The workshop was funded with pocket money, and within the first three months, it had everything needed for an average hobby project.
They mixed 1000 gallons of concrete on the floor, put a stove in the corner, and built furniture out of wooden pallets. Parents’ hammers and screwdrivers were complemented by rusty machines, picked out at the nearest junkyard. This independent creative environment delivered outcomes shortly: someone soldered first audio amplifier, someone brought welding equipment to play with metal, someone brought a computer to learn 3D modelling.
I was one of these students. I did not manage to be a student for long: within half a year, our garage created more opportunities for engineering self-actualisation than our local university’s curriculum. So I dropped out to move the project further.
Things were simple: we wanted to carry on with hobby projects. What was needed? A garage, better multiple garages. And machines, better multiple machines. Pocket money was running out, so we took on a few commercial projects. We developed and built various things: from furniture for coffee shops to puzzles for escape rooms. The money was enough to pay the bills. Fortunately, garage costs were low.
Growing in Size, Growing in Expertise
Different people, who faced the same lack of space, started joining in. Our environment gained new members, expertise, and equipment. Within the first two years, we rented five garages. It was a real community workshop, with its own civic projects, along with educational and public events. This was not a part of our strategic plan. In fact, there was no strategic plan!
Each project started spontaneously. We have people who don’t know how to mill? Ok, let’s launch an educational course. We have a resident who wants to do inclusive projects? Ok, let’s 3D print some models and make a sensory exhibition for people with sight problems. We have people, who want to show our garages to friends and family? Ok, let’s organise an open gates day.
Spontaneously, our project engaged incredibly diverse people of all ages, from 17 to 60: we had self-taught engineers and architects along with musicians and philosophers. Consequently, this community delivered a variety of aspects, from entrepreneurship to education and civic responsibility, in short.
The winter of 2016/2017 was coming, and we did not feel like spending it in garages: Preparing wood for the stove took about half of our time, while keeping the fire alive consumed another half. Fortunately, we managed to get a grant from a USAID programme.
The Power of Community
Our main objective was to transform the space. The Garage Hub community played a key role in the process: a team of 15 volunteers worked 24/7 for two months. That’s, for instance, how we installed 500 metres of electrical wires and turned two tons of metal and two tons of plywood into nice furniture.
It worked out nicely: we managed to institutionalise the platform and to keep the project alive. We grew by a factor of five within four months. Garages were substituted with 200 square metres of open space, with a brand new workshop, a kitchen, and zones for prototyping, conferences, and lectures. Long story short: due to the grant, Garage Hub got its own neat creative space that any hipster magazine would strive to put on its cover.
As all nice things, grants have one main feature: they end. We faced an issue, familiar to any teenager, who grew 15 centimetres over summer and has no idea, where to apply new muscle power: Garage Hub had growing pains. Yet, bills were not as low as earlier, so the entire team went back to commercial projects.
Within a year we ended up milling for half the time, while communication with customers took up the other half. It had direct consequences: no one paid attention to community building any longer. Our core idea was lost in a series of pointless coffee shop furniture projects; team members started burning out.
Space Vs. Environment
We barely got out of crisis. It forced us to take a step back and ask ourselves a question: “Which Garage Hub are we building?”. Four years of trial and error and many days of strategic analysis gave us a quite simple answer: We thought we were building a platform, while, actually, we were building an environment. Our first garage would have never been rented without a passionate group of four students. The new creative space would not be there without crazy early adopters. We realised that not being a platform, but rather creating a nurturing environment is the true core of the project.
A platform is just a shell, a Petri dish. For four years, we had been obsessed with the space, with no one paying much attention to community or inner environment. The fact that the inherent, nurturing environment has survived such lack of attention is pure luck.
The process caused us to realise the need for a carefully tuned balance between platform and community. Building an ecosystem around a single institute, a platform, is simply impossible: there’ll be no life in a sterile Petri dish! What is essential is the creation of institutes such as community building, entrepreneurship, education, and media along with an external ecosystem allowing for collaboration with other creative businesses. This is an essential part of our current strategy, and we observe a daily growth of cultural exchanges.
We constantly talk to people who want to launch new creative workshops and FabLabs. Everyone thinks that a single institute, just a platform, will do. We are asked advice on which 3D printer to buy, but not on which creative groups to engage. The fact that our kitchen is far more important to the project than the actual workshop is a shocking revelation to them. It shouldn’t be: ideas may be delivered in a workshop, but they originate in the kitchen. If you are thinking of launching your own creative space, I have one advice for you: don’t do it! Instead, build an ecosystem.