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Clerkenwell pioneered coworking long before anybody had heard of the idea

Posted on May 19, 2016 by Fresh Workspace

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CSexternal12_1There’s no doubt that the idea of the coworking space has gained a great deal of prominence over the past ten years or so. But the idea of a space which sole traders and small businesses use as a flexible, short term place to work alongside like-minded people goes back a long way and has some of its roots in Clerkenwell and its longstanding association with creative talent, startups, philanthropism and the arts and crafts movement. Prominent figures in the regeneration of the area such as the architect Mike Franks were able to weave these strands together as well as drawing on the multicultural and anarchic associations of the area to create hothouses of entrepreneurial talent long before anybody had coined the term co-working.

Franks was able to take advantage of the largesse of the then Greater London Council who in the mid 1970s leased him and the Urban Small Space collective a redundant book depository from which was created the Clerkenwell Workshops. The space provided basic but cheap and short term facilities to foster the establishment of new creative businesses, especially those in the arts and crafts sector.

The Workshops still exist although their ownership, model and client base has changed in the intervening forty years. As Thomas A Hutton writes of the space in his book The New Economy of the Inner City the development of the Workshops has mirrored that of the whole of Clerkenwell and indeed many inner city industrial districts. The ‘metalworking, printing, weaving and instrument making … has largely given way to a contemporary tenant base which conforms to the dominant orientations of the twenty-first century global metropolis including applied design, cultural production, media and communications and property management’.

The Workshops now offer a range of studio spaces but retain its associations with creativity and small business (and are playing a role in Clerkenwell Design Week). They incorporate an award-winning restaurant, The Clerkenwell Kitchen and the space for up to 75 small businesses, encouraging them to share ideas and knowledge. It’s not alone in this regard as the idea of collaborative space has found a new dynamic with the proliferation of technology, media and telecoms businesses in Clerkenwell and neighbouring districts.

It’s not just high tech, small and creative businesses who are looking to harness the power of interdisciplinary and ever-changing collaboration. Back in 2013 the UK Government announced it would be applying coworking principles to a new pilot scheme for its ‘One Public Sector Estate’ strategy covering a large number of local authorities in England which will encourage councils to work with central government departments and other bodies so that staff share buildings. The scheme has been extended a number of times over the past three years to include other councils. The Government claims the scheme will enable the authorities to encourage collaboration as well freeing up space for resale or reuse.

This kind of thinking may still seem radical, especially in the context of the much publicised co-working phenomenon, but the reality is that it is a practical solution that has been around for many years, is bound up with the history of Clerkenwell and will continue to exist and thrive while people retain the desire to innovate, start up new businesses and apply creative thinking across everything they do.