I interviewed Lachy Ritchie to discuss the innovative way Sprout Ventures are establishing community hubs early to become bustling centres for public life.
Tell us a little bit about the background of how you came to build Sprout Ventures?
It came about as a process of trying to design solutions for the community aspirations of the developer. Initially I was brought in by a large developer as a consultant for the health and youth engagement strategy in a project in Western Australia. In the process of doing that work I got a deep understanding of some of the needs areas in new developments in a Greenfield context. It was blatantly obvious that there was a huge gap in early social infrastructure and there wasn’t much point talking about engagement programing if you didn’t have some kind of central focal point or meeting space in the community.
There were a few key things we focused on, one being the long term sustainability of community activities, especially after their role in the development ends, and another one obviously being “Let’s get in early and do something quickly as social infrastructure.” Out of that we pitched the concept for a portable community hub built out of architecturally designed shipping containers, including a social enterprise cafe, digital community portal and a locally-led grassroots grant which we distributed 10% of café revenue to local groups. Essentially what we’ve done instead of trying to create ‘just a building’, is looked at what tools, resources and support the community need to be able to take charge of their own activities, programs and development, building a platform for locally-led community economic development. Now 12 months on we’ve got the first social impact reports coming out with really encouraging statistics. We’re now taking the approach ‘let’s treat social infrastructure as a platform not just a building and apply it to social infrastructure of all kinds – a library, a post office or whatever.’
At the time of putting the temporary hub in place, what sort of catchment was already there?
There were 16 residents, we’re talking super early, within the first couple of houses being occupied, we had opened the doors. We do draw from a broader catchment area and we know from survey results that at least 30% of our visitors come directly from the immediate community, 20% are building houses at the time and are visiting on the weekends, the remaining 50% generally come from about a 10 kilometre radius.
Can you tell us a bit about your business model?
I would consider the hub a social enterprise, we have a café. One misconception of our model is that the cafe is a money-maker. It’s more of a place-activator, the doors couldn’t be open five days a week without someone having to pay for a manager. There’s no net profit coming out of the cafe, we are funded by Alkimos Beach project partners Lendlease and LandCorp. Essentially, our role is to seed community as early as possible and then progressively wean our way out and hand over the community to take on as much as possible. We will eventually get replaced by future local businesses, social clubs and groups and the permanent community infrastructure.
Is there a strategy in place for that?
Absolutely, one of the things we’ve got with our ‘Seeding Fund’ operating out of the space is 10 cents on every dollar goes to a local community fund and locals vote on it’s distribution. Part of that process is a local governance committee formed to manage that fund, because the fund would live on beyond us. That’s one of the little stepping stones in our community governance model, is that we’ll find some local leaders to sit on the board of that fund and then that will become the nucleus to continue on a lot of these activities beyond our tenure.
What’s your anticipated time frame?
At least three years, potentially longer. We’ll just have to see how it pans out.
Are you actively involved yourself or are you setting the structures and business model in place?
We’re a team of three directors. There’s myself, Kate and my sister Bridie. Kate’s a registered architect. Bridie has a background in marketing, digital and web design. Between the three of us we are overseeing getting this thing up and running and pumping, from design and build all the way to software systems to managing the cafe staff to the works. But we don’t spend much time there physically anymore, being 12 months in. We’ve got locally-placed managers who work there.
So where are your energies focussed now?
We’ve got plenty of projects in the pipeline but they’re all in the scoping phase, they take quite a while to get off the ground. We are working now on how to package up our learning from this first project and work out a scalable model where we can support lots of hubs to become the thriving epicentres of lots of communities all over the country.
Did you need to seed some of those initial development programs?
We have a balance between facilitating things and completely standing back and letting the community do what they want to do. There is a pretty good mix of completely grass roots and things we’ve instigated. For example we ran a workshop series for women in small business and after one of those sessions the group decided that they would have regular fortnightly meet ups at SproutHub and support each other to run their businesses.
69% of all activities at SproutHub in Alkimos Beach are led by the community, which we think is a fantastic demonstration of a tend to more locally led initiatives.
Do they pay to use the space or is it free to use?
It’s free for not-for-profits and events what give direct benefit to the community, provided they’re not taking the whole space up on a Saturday and impacting café patrons. If it’s a small business or private event, we charge a small fee.
Is the longer term plan to have the community help guide the direction of the permanent hub?
That’s the next step in our thinking. We’ve been in discussions with councils all over the country and we see over capitalization as a huge problem to social infrastructure. So what we’re really interested in exploring, especially in the context of local hubs in greenfield suburbs is; could they be the first part of a community activation precinct, the starting point where the community centre itself grows around, over time? So maybe we could add on a couple of modules or eventually incorporate a more permanent structure, but the big idea is to grow the centre alongside the community- let the design be driven by a demonstrated need and use.
What size is the space now and what facilities do you offer apart from the cafe?
It’s a really tiny space, we’ve basically got a cafe in there with four co-working desks, the rest of it’s multi-purpose event space with portable furniture so people reconfigure it to adapt to each days needs and uses. We try to prototype and test what will and what won’t work in a permanent hub.
How has the co-working space been received? Is it being used much?
It’s probably the slowest of all our stats. The community-led activity statistics are really impressive for the first 12 months, but our small business usage is something we’ll have to improve, the community only has a population of 600 people currently, December 2015, so it’s not going to get a lot of business use. It’s used more for meetings. We’ve had a lot of small businesses run training workshops at the hub, or use the space for product expo’s and demonstrations, it’s used more for small venues and events rather than a co-working venue. A few people pop in and informally co-work and have their away from home meetings in the café.
How do you organise who can access what space when?
We have an online booking system and then our cafe manager coordinates it.
What are the hours of operation?
We’re five days a week about 9:00 to 5:00, we’re closed Monday and Tuesday.
How have the council responded?
Councils are keen and eager to explore new ways to engage and connect with residents. This is a really good way for everyone to test the water and slowly see what’s going on in the community rather than waiting six years and then coming in and dealing with a community of upset residents and try and work out what they need. The local Mayor, Hon. Tracey Roberts, has been very supporting of the hub, and regularly uses the space to hold her ‘meet the mayor’ community engagement sessions. Furthermore the space gets used to deliver pop up council resource hubs and as a venue for activities like youth week programing.
When you look to take this model other places how do you start to decipher which ones Sprout can be involved in or not?
We’re really conscious of not trying to just carbon copy this model. The approach at our pilot project, Alkimos Beach, was custom designed to fit with the community and surrounding context. We would look to customise every project, based on a design process of deep understanding of the local area, setting goals on social outcomes that are trying to be achieved by the project and then go into a creative design phase; what’s it going look like, what kind of unit, etc. We’d also look to attract innovative partners. We’re already working with other social enterprises on the ground or other place making organizations.
Do councils offer any services out of this start up?
The more council’s can support things out of the hub the better. So they can run regular activities and events, we had the volunteer officer hosting info sessions for the public, the sustainability officer has attended and presented at some of our events and the local youth team are really engaged too. Seeing their support and willingness to use SproutHub as an outpost is great.
How have your future projects started?
The catalyst is usually local, from all the inquiries that we’re getting – the local government or the developer. Then we’ll have a discussion of who else could be involved, then we’d ideally be engaged to come and help them design the project – what it would look like. Part of that process is working out what is involved, how it would work and what the money looks like.
Is part of the long term financial model that the building be reused or re-purposed once they eventually build a permanent building?
Absolutely, in the long run we have it so we can back a truck in and take it to another site, the idea is it gets reused and re-purposed.
How did you choose the current location?
Mostly the developers thought it would be appropriate. We are smack in the middle of the first park opened in the community and a kid’s playground next to it. It’s really important from our perspective to be near a public open space because we really maximize the use of thresholds in the design of the building, a lot of outdoor deck space is integrated in and out of the park seamlessly.
Is there a way of measuring the economic return or the value add back to the developer? Or is it more social outcome result?
We have a social outcome measurement framework as part of our model but we don’t measure the economic return for them.
When you had 16 people in the community what kind of initiatives did you employ to begin the activation?
We put our energy into supporting the local people who came to us with their ideas. We also focused on fostering partnership with local groups, council and other service provider who are great at what they do.
People have been coming together and creating communities for thousands of years. It’s just that a lot of local communities have barriers that make it hard for people to engage and connect. SproutHub is one way of moving around those barriers and creating a space that is open and accessible. Once the hub gets going the resident take over to make the community great. People want to connect; SproutHub just makes it a little easier.
If you could change one thing about the way we currently create communities what would it be?
Communities need some kind of central focal point that acts as a meeting place and provides space conducive to casual social interaction. I can’t stress enough how important that casual, non-programmed activation is. Half the time coffee is enough to bring people together. We found that coffee is enough of a catalyst to create a space that people want to come and connect in with each other in a really informal way.
A lot of local communities have barriers that make it hard for people to engage and connect. We’re just simply bringing down that barrier and making it really easy for neighbours to informally bump into each other. Then people just naturally take over – it’s what we’re meant to do, connection is key to creating communities.