Reflections on the superhero space network in London

Aerials

If you were to arrive in London today, without knowing anything of the city’s developments across domains in recent years, without having experienced the riots, the games, the aftermath, the new vision; you might be forgiven for seeming a little lost and maybe confused, when faced with the now intricately interwoven ecosystem of physical establishments and intangible networks, blurring lines between traditional distinctions of community and business.

There’s certainly something to be said of the culture harboured here, and its contribution to the prevalence and existence of superhero spaces the world over. However, whilst the history and documentation of the present day are topics worthy of exploration, I would like to begin looking at London, the way all of us do at one point in time, through the eyes of a stranger.

Soon upon your arrival, you’ll realise that the diversity of people, boasted in marketing, in literature, in any type of media produced here alike; is actually often shockingly understating the situation to the world outside. Stay longer still, and you find that even the distinct subcultures and independent worlds that pervade across the city are incalculably numerous, perhaps even beyond its resident population.

Of course, subscribers and participants of every unseen tribe will have their own particular lenses through which they view the city, each with instinctive feelings and associations for particular locations, none of which could capture the entirety, or offer an objective viewpoint for a newcomer to map from.

With the myriads of intersecting interests comes the cross-pollination of ideas and methods; giving rise to precarious social-action centres, procured within the shell of corporate infrastructure; industrial hubs which feel like community spaces and behave like park benches; tooled-out creative workshops mistaken for libraries on first inspection.

Short of enlisting the aid of a gatekeeper-concierge, or explicitly knowing the exact domains that pertain to certain spaces; making sense of who can help you, and where to find what you’re seeking can feel like an overwhelming task.

It is perhaps possible to begin forming an ontology; a way to understand the emerging practices and rapidly remixed organisational structures that have been proliferating; in the wake of a cultural drive for innovation and entrepreneurship; built on the centuries-old protocols of the city.

My own attempts to deconstruct the dimensions by which these spaces can be compared, has often led to intuitively discerning a few variables, by which to minimally describe them.

Perhaps best thought of as axis on a graph, where a spectrum exists between the extremes:

Permanence:           Transient       -           Fixed

Openness:                Public             -           Gated

Objectives:               Social             -           Private

Activities:                  Education – Research – Creative – Enterprise

Structure:                 Decentralised – Distributed – Centralised

Governance:            Autonomous – Heteronomous

These are just a personal shorthand for differentiating between social spaces and their patron communities; with the expectation that some, especially those that perpetually transform over time, will not fit neatly inside single categories.

One might take the London Hackspace as an example; an oft referenced and model superhero space, which has across the years, directly inspired the opening of other community hubs, corporate and social. Which is not to say that it’s a fixed point, rather, the hackspace has changed location and the way it operates multiple times; moving around on the scales mentioned above.

londonhackspace

Incomplete and imprecise, it’s difficult to be empirical about the engagement that takes place between a space and the people that frequent it; especially when the experience of its patrons and the mission of its caretakers may not always be identical.

Importantly to me, this is an exercise in getting to the heart of the characteristics of Superhero Spaces as a phenomenon. We know that these places exist, because we’ve either sensed their radical impact, or witnessed intangible synergy, of a place behaving as more than the sum of its pragmatic parts. What we don’t know is their ‘genetic makeup’, and how they achieve this effect in wildly different ways; with varying combinations of approaches and methods. To the point where imitation alone, doesn’t actualise similar results.

By taking this step toward deciphering a vocabulary for Superhero Spaces; we begin to better understand the mechanics that give rise to their desirable interactions. An empowering prospect to consider how these base elements might be harnessed to design for purposeful, people-enabling, future cities.

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This post was written by our London Superhero Spaces ambassador Muhammad Khaleel Jaffer, who’s a keen observer on the changemaker / collaboration space ecosystem in London. You can follow his explorations here.

If you are interested in joining Superhero Spaces as an ambassador for your city or country, please get in touch with us.

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