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The Rise of Co-working Spaces in Leeds & Why They’re So Darned Important to Our Future

· James Tweddle · Discussion

Are co-working spaces the key to start-up success?

Duke Studios

Co-working has already transformed the way modern tech companies work, but that’s just the beginning…

Business is booming in Leeds right now. Last year, 4,915 new start-ups opened up shop in the city, and that number has only sky-rocketed in 2018. One of the biggest reasons for the blossoming business climate? The rise of co-working spaces. Within collaborative work environments, small companies work side by side in shared offices. They inspire each other, they support each other and innovate together – and that’s great for Leeds.

“The way people work has fundamentally changed,” Tom Almas, Managing Director of co-working space Wizu, told us. “In order to attract and retain the talent that tech companies need, they need to work in a space which inspires the people. No business survives in solitude, and being in a community-centric workspace is key to collaboration and innovation.”

They encourage collaboration

Wizu

Innovation through collaboration is something that Wizu have themselves been championing with The Ideas Exchange. Here, people from across their whole co-working space come together once a month to help solve a specific problem one of the businesses has. It’s the ideal environment for friendly collaboration, and the 200Mb broadband speed and unlimited coffee from La Bottega Milanese certainly helps too.

Perched on the top floor of Munro House, Leeds’ Online Data Institute (ODI) also has a co-working space ready to use, with 36 desks, alongside lightning-fast wifi and as many biscuits as you can eat. But they’ve taken the group problem-solving ethos one step further, by inviting everyone in the community to engage, through hackathon-style events throughout the year.

Home to millions of pieces of open data, ODI’s challenges have involved everything from air quality to flooding and train fares, all designed to get people speaking and problem-solving en masse. And since the problems all relate to local issues, the collaboration is benefiting the city too, by offering solutions and making the results accessible to everyone. “Our open data projects have explored various aspects of Leeds, all powered by open data,” Amy Evans, part of ODI Leeds’ Comms & Content Design department, explained. “Local elections, gender pay gaps, council spending, broadband coverage, mapping local assets. Not only is there potential benefit to citizens and the public, but we also share a lot of our working method, so they can make suggestions.”

Synap Platform

Credit: Jeremy Kelly

It’s not just open data though, the top-drawer facilities on offer city-wide are another reason why Leeds is especially good at nurturing collaboration. Take Platform for instance, a city-based tech incubator and co-working space, their entire space has been designed with collaboration in mind. Not only can you enjoy over 5,000 square foot of shared space, with a rooftop terrace, open-plan kitchen and mezzanine terrace, but there’s also a business support programme covering finances and mentoring from national experts. And if you need to blow off steam, you can even do that with others at their weekly yoga classes and social running club, so wellbeing is at the heart of their offering too.

It’s an approach mirrored by one of Leeds’ biggest co-working spaces, Duke Studios. They’ve been shouting about the benefits of collaboration since 2011. “Nothing gives us more joy than seeing our residents coming together to plot and create something together,” Community Manager Amy Balderstone, told us. “A co-working space isn’t as simple as placing a series of desks in a room, it is designing and cultivating a peaceful working platform that also encourages engagement. All supplemented with socials, community initiatives and information sharing.”

They drive innovation

Duke Studios

With collaboration comes innovation – something that Duke Studios has a reputation for. It’s home to a surprising array of tech companies, all bringing something new to the market. From Gigappy, the social network for touring bands developed by residents Fish Percolator, to My Browser, a web-based tech support site that helps ward off computer bugs, they’re challenging the norm with new tech.

Tech is often at the centre of innovation, but it’s not always online. Thanks to the dedicated workshop in their co-working space, Leeds Hackspace were able to join in on one of the biggest events in the city’s social calendar, Light Night. Hackspace members collaborated to create the innovative Ubercube, an 8x8x8 LED cube that used over 5,000 parts and half a mile of wire. Not only was it a hit at the festival, but it’s also toured the country.

Hackspace Cube

Credit: Jon Stockill

One of the newest co-working spaces comes from not-for-profit trust mHabitat. They’re part of the NHS and their sole purpose is to find innovative solutions to help solve health and social problems, so they created Co>space North, a new co-working space that brings together individuals and organisations that are passionate about digitally-enabled health and care.

“Individuals and small companies work on great ideas but the problem is that they’re isolated. They’re not in an environment where they can bloom and flourish, the whole idea of co-working gives them opportunities to collaborate with people who are also trying to do the same thing, people who might have solved those problems,” Andy Mobbs, Development Manager at Co>space North, told us.

They help to restore the city, piece by piece

ODI

Credit: ODI Leeds

Beyond the obvious benefits, the rise of co-working spaces has led to a spate of restorations. Platform took over a space above Leeds Train Station which had been empty for a decade and they’ve transformed it into a powerhouse of modern design, while Leeds Hackspace’s latest move has turned a neglected building into a thriving workshop out of nothing.

“Our current space was an empty shell,” Adrian Dunbar, a member of the Hackspace committee, told us. “Over the months, members spent hundreds of hours a week building the space as it is now – we built 3-4 metre high sound deadening walls, sanded and varnished poorly maintained parquet flooring and installed hundreds of metres of new electrical cabling.” The end result is an amazing co-working space, packed with woodworking equipment, electronic test gear and digital fabrication tech like CNC machinery and laser cutters, that most independents and individuals simply couldn’t afford to buy themselves.

The rise of co-working spaces in Leeds over the past few years has been nothing short of incredible. They’ve nurtured a raft of innovations that can help both this city and the country as a whole. They’ve encouraged collaboration and given start-ups access to cutting-edge resources. In short, they’re changing the way we do business, and all for the better.

Cover image credit: James Abbott Donnelly