Can a City Like Austin or Hackney Stay Cool Forever?

By SUSAN LAHEY
Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Fairs, Armstrong, Gibbs, Johns, photo by Susan Lahey

Fairs, Armstrong, Gibbs, Johns, photo by Susan Lahey

It was a lot like that old Sesame Street song “One of these things is not like the others,” when Kevin Johns, director of economic development for the City of Austin joined Londoners Marcus Fairs, editor-in-chief of Dezeen, Charles Armstrong, founder of co-working space The Tampery and Richard Gibbs, business development at HereEast, for a discussion at Hackney House about how space and environment shapes a startup and creative community.

The purpose of the conversation was to find out what births a place like the London borough of Hackney and the city of Austin, centers where artists, entrepreneurs and others who Richard Florida famously labeled “the creative class” convene.

Hackney, one of the poorest and most neglected and crime-ridden boroughs of London in past decades, had incredibly cheap rents that drew artists to an area called Shoreditch. They were followed by entrepreneurs who loved the low rents and collection of likeminded individuals. A number of these startups formed what they called the Silicon Roundabout and the English government renamed Tech City.

Moderator David Epstein of Gessler pointed out that there’s a certain romance, mystique and cool to the idea of startups that begin in a garage. But, he asked, what is it that makes something cool?

“I think it often comes down to luck,” said Marcus Fairs of Dezeen, architecture and design magazine in London. “There are clusters of vibrant human beings for reasons that can be put on a spreadsheet but nonetheless random things happen. The random genius can collect people around him.”

Armstrong, though, pointed out that a random collection of creative people need to be in fertile spaces that constantly change. “If you have a working environment where everything stays the same week after week month after month you can get stuck in your ways,” he said. “If your floor plans change, you change your walk routes. If there are new decorative items, new things to play with, people come in feeling that something’s going to be different this week that it was last week” and that creates innovation.

The reality, though, they pointed out, is that ‘cool’ keeps moving. And if a city or a startup or creative community doesn’t move with it, it will get left behind.

“I am reading these articles that Shoreditch is ‘over’” said Fairs. “You know…the battered sofa with the low tables and the guys working on their laptops. They move somewhere else. It’s the brutal cycle of fashion. The cost of things. Rising office rates…the price of accommodation is literally killing businesses.”

Historically, the group agreed, gentrification comes in and destroys what “cool” drew people to the area in the first place. But in the startup community, where being yourself and being authentic are paramount, that gentrification cycle could look very different. Startups, they acknowledged, often create spaces that “look like them” and that inspires innovation.

In the midst of this conversation, Johns rattled of a number of dollar figures about Austin’s economic success. He pointed out that any economic development Austin contemplates that’s a big investment is entered into UT’s revolutionary data visualization tool Stampede and specific ROI numbers are spit back out again, then rattled off several more numbers indicating that a rail system, for example, would have a very positive economic impact on the city. There’s some combination of data and serendipity that makes for cool.

Richard Gibbs who is in development for HereEast, an office and artistic development in Hackney, said the main thing people are looking for is where offices are “cool.” Because that’s where the talent wants to work. But in the process of creating such a center, the panel acknowledged, some of the sense of organic-ness and authenticity are lost.

But authenticity, Fairs said, isn’t something you can create.

“Hackney was a train wreck, now it’s the center of authenticity….Eindhoven (in the Netherlands) has an incredibly dynamic culture and it’s just a shithole. And Singapore is totally different and it has incredible creative things happening and it’s very expensive.”

Ultimately, the panel agreed, you can do extensive research, data collection, reconfiguring of space but a place’s “cool” partly just rests on its willingness to evolve and submit to the city’s natural lifestyle which may include parts of the city falling down, gentrification, displacement of populations and other uncomfortable realities.

As Fairs, said, it’s like the bumper sticker he saw recently: “Hackney was better when it was shit.”

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