Startups, urban psychology, and creative cities

Pictured: the Pinterest office in San Francisco via Stuck in Customs.

Last week an important announcement was made in Sydney that will give a boost to coworking spaces and the freelancers and startups who mostly use them. The NSW Government announced it will make a significant financial contribution to a new startup hub in an 11-storey building above Wynyard Station on York St. Fishburners (I’ve always loved that name), Australia’s largest coworking space and home to hundreds of ‘high impact scalable startups’, will be an important anchor tenant of the new space at Wynyard Station. Others in the mix include Tankstream Labs, The Studio, and Stone & Chalk in what will be space for 2500 creative entrepreneurs.

It all sounds great. And I’m happy for Fishburners who have expanded rapidly since their 30-desk-one-floor-beginning in 2011. For some time now they’ve needed more space than their current (and beautiful) Harris Street space in Ultimo can provide. But if this is going to work for all involved, then some careful attention to how this new spaces is set up will need to happen. More than ‘just’ cash, this about-to-be startup hub will require some clever design thinking about soft infrastructure. If not, the creatives it seeks to attract will not come.

Soft infrastructure is about the feeling of a space. It’s about the look, the atmosphere, the sensory experience. This requires thinking about the psychology of the space and the city beyond its doors. Part of the reason creative spaces and cities succeed is because they get this part right. Urbanist, Charles Landry has much to say on this topic. The soft infrastructure of cities, according to Landry, includes having spaces that encourage a ‘creative milieu’ to work and reside. In short, this means surroundings that stimulate and inspire creativity.

In their current location in Ultimo, Fishburners are in such a milieu. In most of the mid-to-late 20th century Ultimo was run down and quite derelict (I worked in the area in the early 1990s, and yes, it was) but in more recent years has ‘evolved to be a digital creative hub, with the highest density of tech startups in Australia‘. It’s home to some good neighbours too: the University of Technology Sydney, Sydney TAFE (home to an amazing fashion school), the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, and the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC).

The space Fishburners is currently housed in is a beautiful medium-height building known as Millinery House, the name reflecting the 15 woolstores that were once located in the area. In terms of thinking about the soft infrastructure of that building, Fishburners has done a fine job. Inside it’s all natural light and floorboards and plants and open space serving multiple purposes. The few times I used it I definitely felt inspired! These are the kinds of spaces Landry says that cities need to offer if we’re to develop creative zones. Of course there’s much more to this idea, with communication being a key ingredient, but how a spaces feels and looks and functions is right up there at the topic of the creative city priority tree.

What about the Wynyard building, soon-to-be home of the new 11-storey startup hub? Well that’s yet to be determined. The little information I can find about the building at 17 York Street tells me it was formerly Railway House and completed in 1935 for the Department of Railways. Despite its uninspiring facade, a 1930s building always suggests promise in my view.

Let’s hope the project invests in some serious design thinking involving those who are likely to use it (creatives of many different stripes) to make sure they get that soft infrastructure alchemy right. If not, I worry. That part of the city is not known for its creative milieu or startup network. In its eagerness to support innovation (which Wired describes as the most overused and important word), my concern is that a one-off investment in a startup hub in this building may not focus on the important details. A cheaply fit out ex-government building would be a disaster for this kind of project. Bundling a whole lot of creative people into a space without a consideration for the conditions that foster creative activity is a way to waste everyone’s time, money, and energy.

But if some serious thought (and planning and $) goes into understanding the psychological environment needed to encourage creativity to thrive, then that could mean a very different outcome. One idea would be to involve a broad range of creatives, and include studio spaces in the building. A cross-pollination of creative activity can manufacture a very dynamic environment where the unexpected and delightful has the possibility of taking flight.

So, let’s think carefully and get this right Sydney.