A village square for the modern age

A network of workspaces where entrepreneurial change-makers can connect and collaborate is blossoming across the world. Jane Taylor visits Hub Westminster, newly opened in London, and discovers what makes these innovative hotspots the place to be for socially-conscious businesspeople

Close to London’s Piccadilly Circus, a buzzing centre for social entrepreneurs has opened at the bottom of Haymarket. Looking over to Trafalgar Square, Hub Westminster is the third and biggest Hub in London and the 26th to open in the world. Together the Hubs form a global community of 4,000 members spanning five continents, from Sao Paulo to San Francisco, Mumbai to Melbourne. With more in the process of being set up, they will number 40 by the end of the year.

The first Hub opened in Islington, London, in 2005, followed by Hub King’s Cross. Founder Jonathan Robinson explains that when he left university he was completely uninspired by the vision of work presented by big corporations at job fairs. Meanwhile, when interviewing people who had started businesses, for a book he was co-authoring titled Careers Un-ltd, he found that “all of them had the same story about how lonely it was to start their own business from their bedroom or garage.” He felt there had to be another way.

“We set out to create places for people who change things,” says Jonathan, “places that borrow from the best of a members’ club, an innovation lab, a serviced office and a think-tank, to create a very different kind of environment. Places to grow and develop new ventures and to access experience, knowledge, finance and markets. And above all, places for experience and encounter, full of diverse people doing amazing things.”

After scouring London for suitable premises and finding a derelict space on the top floor of a building near Angel in Islington, Jonathan and friends transformed it into a vibrant, eco-friendly, communal workspace, designed to nurture collaboration.

“We wanted to be different from government initiatives so we borrowed a lot from the Wiki idea,” explains Jonathan. “We were fascinated by what it would be like for a venture capitalist to be sitting next to an activist and a technologist, all who wanted to solve climate change, for example.”

“The Hub allows you to be a small organisation sharing a space with like-minded people and the direct benefits are banter, laughter and opportunities for networking”

Imogen Martineau runs her ethical PR company from Hub Westminster and does a lot of work for the United Nations. “What the Hub does,” she says “is allow you to be a small organisation sharing a space with like-minded people and the direct benefits are banter, laughter and opportunities for networking – so ultimately it’s more creative and more fun.”

Another member of Hub Westminster, founder of Gingerwink Films, Georgie Weedon, originally came to the Hub because she needed office space. But when she arrived, the former BBC and Al Jazeera filmmaker realised it was more than just an office. “It’s about cross-pollination of ideas and meeting people on the same wavelength,” says Georgie. “Among other things, I’m working on a proposal to set up a pop-up Hub in an under-used church in North London and I’m now collaborating with the team who are behind Hub Westminster.”

A ‘super-studio for the new economy’

The Westminster team are founding directors Alice Fung, Indy Johar and Tim Ahrensbach, who work together at the collectively owned architecture and design strategy practice 00:/, known verbally as ‘zero zero’. When they were based at Hub Kings Cross, Matthew Blades of Westminster City Council approached the trio with a proposal that they collaborate to create a Westminster Hub. With the council coming in as a 40% partner, the opportunity arose to scale up the Hub idea. After some time searching for premises, 12,000 sq feet on the first floor of New Zealand House presented the ideal location.

The huge empty space was transformed into what the team calls a super-studio for the new economy. There are assorted desks and tables, a communal kitchen, library, comfy area, cafe lounge, meeting rooms – including an internal greenhouse and a wooden WikiHouse (an open-source-design structure that can be built with minimal skill and training) – and a lecture room which seats over 100. It has hosted David Cameron launching the Co-operatives Bill, Richard Branson launching his autobiography, the New Economics Foundation’s Local Banking Conference and numerous other events including The Changemakers Fayre.

Organisations and individuals that are members at Hub Westminster, which is a community interest company (CIC), pay a monthly tariff according to size and time spent. The tariff can be altered from month to month according to need and those that don’t want workspace can become connecting members, able to tap into what’s going on and attend events.

Andrew Raingold, founder of the Aldersgate Group, a leadership alliance that campaigns for the environment, says: “I think the name sums it up. It is a hub of ideas, of entrepreneurs, an exciting place to work and for other people to come to. And, as it’s based at the top of Whitehall, it’s perfect for us as we are speaking to politicians and key decision-makers on the green agenda. It’s also very friendly and they do good food.”

Behind the food at Hub Westminster is an inspirational story of its own. Six months ago Naomi Smith and her small catering company, Munch, joined forces with a women’s refuge in Marylebone to create Munch in Marylebone and now the women in the refuge work with Naomi and her staff, making food to order, plus the food that they bring to the Hub each day.  This includes food for the Tuesday breakfasts at which Hub members take turns to present their work.

Genial young hosts look after members and oil the wheels of collaboration at Hub Westminster, which has started a Members Council to pool ideas for how it should develop. There is also a Hub Academy, started by Antonio Borges, which is offering courses and talks for entrepreneurs. “The Academy is an integral part of the way The Hub is redefining the way we work, learn, share and develop,” says Antonio.

An innovative business model

The three London Hubs – Westminster, Islington and Kings Cross – are connected via weekly newsletters with information about upcoming events, profiles of new members and monthly London Hub Clubs. Each Hub however, is quite different, and is run individually by its local founders who are financially responsible for their own business.

Each Hub is licensed by the governing body, the Hub Association, and contributes to the costs of maintaining the association according to its size. The individual Hubs co-own the assets of the network and make global decisions on the principle of one vote per Hub. New Hubs have to be approved before becoming part of the global Hub community to ensure standards of quality are maintained.

Jonathan Robinson, who now sits on the advisory board of the Hub Association, is particularly passionate about setting up Hubs in places that have fallen apart. “I think that in places that are moving out of crisis there is an opportunity to say ‘no thank you’ to American companies spending millions of dollars on old ideas of progress, and to say ‘yes’ to fostering the imagination and initiative of young fledgling entrepreneurs in cities like Baghdad, Ramalla, Port au Prince, Cairo, Damascus and Tripoli. I don’t want to romanticise disasters but, when things do fall apart, at least you have the opportunity to remake the fundamentals.”

“I don’t want to romanticise disasters but, when things do fall apart, at least you have the opportunity to remake the fundamentals” – Jonathan Robinson, founder, The Hub

Jonathan has recently been spending time in Afghanistan, learning about the Afghans’ vision for their future. “By the end of the year,” he confirms, “we expect to see the launch of the first Hub in Afghanistan: Hub Kabul.”

As for the future of the network as a whole, he has big ambitions. “I think it’s rubbish there are only 40 Hubs,” he says. “There should be 40,000. They should be on every street corner around the world. After all, we have schools, we have hospitals, we have prisons but where do we go to make ideas happen?

“In this new age where resilience is vital, we are all going to have to relearn the art of making things, producing and trading things. We are seeing the decimation of community assets and the high street. We’ve lost the places where we used to come together to talk and make things happen. In a way it’s about recreating the village square for the modern age.”

Hub San Francisco, one of the biggest with 1,000 members, recently hosted the biannual Hub conference, when representatives of Hubs from around the world met to discuss best practice. “Our ambition is to build a 21st century institution with democratic governance and ethics,” says Alice Fung, who attended with Indy Johar for Hub Westminster. “At heart, the ambition is to build a civic economy. This is one of the few organisations I know that is truly commonly owned.”