Norwegian Good

Oslo’s smart new workspace at Tøyen Startup Village looks at ideas that change the way our cities think about communication, transport, social welfare and finance. And it focuses on how those ideas and opportunities work for the local community. Fiona Shaw went to look at the best view in Oslo.
Published —
09.25.17
Writer —
Movement —
,

For many years, Norway was the baby sister of the thriving Scandinavian startup scene; Oslo comes fourth in StartUp Heatmap’s ranking of fellow Scandi capitals, behind Stockholm, Copenhagen and Helsinki. Yet the city is Europe’s fastest-growing capital, with a growing startup scene and an innovative, progressive outlook built into every new business.

2016 saw – with the backing of IKT-Norge, the Norwegian Tech Industry Association – the development of the inner city Tøyen area as a new ‘smart’ district, designed to support startups, whilst creating opportunity for young people in the area by feeding those tech and entrepreneurial skills into local schools and colleges. Yet in spite of a strong focus on startup growth, they have kept one eye on the recurring question: how do you create opportunities and a self-titled ‘startup area’ without unleashing a wave of gentrification that drives out the area’s residents?

One of Tøyen’s key strengths is its diversity: it has been a haven for refugees and immigrants since the 19th century. It’s also one of Oslo’s most vibrant districts – central in the city, it brims with parks and botanical gardens, boasting the Munch museum alongside paleontological, geological and zoological treasure troves. But its recent history has been marked by social issues, and one in three children in the district still live below the poverty line. A new science centre and swathe of student housing – alongside 30,000 new homes – are headed to the area, but there remains a number of empty properties.

The seed that became Tøyen Startup Village (TSV) was designed to make it easier to start up a sustainable business for entrepreneurs, facilitate cooperation between large and small companies, and focus on innovative solutions to city life. It will concentrate on the development of city, community and welfare services, bringing those values – the expertise, opportunities and IP, to both Tøyen and the people of Oslo. And, whilst doing so, will establish a TSV mentor programme and startup school.

The city is working with consultants from London’s Hackney district to make sure that the project is as sensitive and sustainable as possible. Charles Armstrong founded Shoreditch co-working space The Trampery in 2009 and first got involved with Oslo’s startup scene in 2011, forging a creative triangle with the city and Austin, Texas. “I was fascinated by the city’s energy and how rapidly the community was growing,” he says. Armstrong saw the potential for Tøyen to become an innovation district, giving a well-received speech to politicians and technology leaders in April 2015. The idea led to a summit on Tøyen and The Trampery’s engagement on a project to speak to stakeholders and develop a long-term strategy.

Tøyen Startup Village is based in the 12 storey tower of a former tax office, part of a ’60s-built shopping precinct surrounding a central square, with a post office, grocery shops, bars and cafés. It is the intersection of two of the city’s metro lines, and site of extensive housebuilding. The aim now is to transform the area into an innovative and enriching startup arena, with both local and international relevance; a natural landing place for companies looking to open in Oslo’s fertile economy. That, in turn, will provide expertise, networks and other resources, creating jobs across the neighbourhood.

“Historically, innovation districts have tended to grow by displacing established communities, accompanied by a polarisation of opportunity where existing residents are excluded from the benefits,” says Armstrong, who saw its effects first-hand in Hackney in the late 1990s, “despite the best efforts of the council. From the outset I believed Tøyen needed to follow a different path, with the established community fully involved in the new opportunities. But it had to be baked into the project from day one. We dedicated a whole section of our report to recommendations for an engagement programme with local schools and ethnic groups to make them part of the project.” Sustained commitment is the key, he says. “If the city government and other partners sustain their commitment to this, Tøyen will become a case study for a socially-inclusive cluster formation that has worldwide significance.”

Oslo is already home to a number of successful co-working spaces, including Mesh – which merged at the end of 2016 with Copenhagen’s Founders House – Startup Lab and 657. Armstrong says: “They made a huge contribution to the emergence of a cohesive entrepreneurial community and provided an interface that helped government and corporations engage with startups. The Trampery’s research in 2015 indicated there was no short-term pressure for additional co-working capacity but Oslo lacked grow-on space and needed more facilities for corporate innovation. We also identified opportunities to create new ‘hot spots’ to support sectors of strategic importance. The plan for Tøyen Startup Village set out to fill these gaps.

“The first people I met who saw its potential were Heidi Austlid and Fredrik Syversen at IKT Norge. In the past Tøyen definitely wasn’t somewhere entrepreneurs would consider as a location – when I started interviewing stakeholders it was clear that people were open to the location, but they needed to see a critical mass of infrastructure and activity before they’d consider moving.

“Tøyen,” he says, “is an interesting paradox. It is geographically quite central with extremely good transport connections, yet psychologically it’s thought of as a peripheral part of the city. Many cities have neighbourhoods like this, and they often have good potential for innovation communities.”

TSV’s purpose is one of balance – alongside the cultural events the area has become known for, like Øyafestivalen, it will create relevant jobs and opportunities for the next generation. A focus on city-led solutions for education, health, social development and trade will have a positive impact on Tøyen, Oslo and further afield.

At investment body Oslo Business Region, managing director Fredrik Winther says: “Technology and globalisation means that a rapid growing number of us will have an employer, an office and a colleague who works from somewhere far away. Increasingly our work becomes even more based on projects, and many more will be self-employed instead of having a fixed employer. Because of this we need co-working spaces where we can meet, also in person. Places where people can learn from each other and collaborate so brilliant ideas can be born. Today, a large majority of such co-working spaces are tailored to entrepreneurs or the creative industry, but in the future, other industries will need to be part of such environments, big and small.”

In May 2016, Beathe Due arrived to manage Tøyen StartUp Village. “I don’t think that TSV would have been realised without the Trampery’s help – they are a great source of knowledge on how to do this,” she says. “Our aim is to help people in the local area, so there were a lot of public meetings; at every stage we have tried to involve locals in what this could be. We have a very clear mission that we want to be part of the environment that we are located in.”

All TSV tenants are expected to participate on a voluntary basis on activities in the area. Due was involved in establishing Oslo’s Girl Geeks network back in 2010, and a Code Club is one of the activities TSV will start for local residents. “Kids between 10 and 15 can learn how to code,” she says. “It’s not mandatory in school – yet – so we need to prepare kids for a digital future.” She also points to the stunning Biblo Tøyen – or youth library – as an example of new opportunities being created in the area. “It is a magnificent library for 10 to 15 year olds, breaking and changing all the library rules… A unique and innovative space.”

TSV focuses specifically on startup growth. “We are not an incubator,” says Due. “The main umbrella we have here is city development – there are lots of social entrepreneurship ideas. One company is delivering platform for preparing society for the wave of elders. While the state doesn’t have enough warm hands to take care of them, they can actually be a useful resource – grandparents can help kids with homework, or volunteers can help each other out in the neighbourhoods. Tøyen is a very rich local area – there are so many different people here. If we can succeed with something at Tøyen, we can transfer it to other places.”

The job is a “fun challenge,” Due says. Her varied professional background includes a Masters in the history of ideas – on the relationship between human society and technology. Working for Norwegian communications behemoth Telenor, she became involved in Oslo’s hackathons and jam movement. “I fell in love with the methods,” she smiles. “Of collecting people of all ages, backgrounds and competencies, and putting them together for 48 hours. The projects and ideas that come out of them are amazing – they’re far more than you get in one year of processes and democracy.”

Though her background is in tech, it is simply a means to an end, she says. “Tech is everywhere. Our focus here is not on tech in itself, but on city development – communication, transport, social welfare, finance. Technology is part of everything – it’s so fundamental that we have a fashion designer, someone building in wood, app developers, big data analytics, people looking to change or make the welfare system. It’s important that these people meet in a physical space – when you’re a startup you can’t afford to hire people who have different skills to you. Spaces like this encourage other kinds of skills that you can merge.”

Armstrong agrees: “I never believed in the classical incubator model where fledgling businesses are brought together with a handful of expert advisors. It’s not scaleable and it doesn’t offer sufficient diversity of expertise to really be useful. For an entrepreneur the most useful person to speak to is someone who confronted the same challenges a couple of years ago and found a way through. In a similar way locating corporate innovation teams in entrepreneurial environments can offer benefits for both sides but it needs to be structured correctly.”

TSV will work hard to create opportunities for more than just its tenants. It has signed an agreement with Oslo and Akershus University College to bring students into Tøyen, and Tøyen Academy will bring together young people in the area. “We’re planning now to have a course together with the library and kids from the academy to help people who’re not used to tech. We can help them make email accounts, or pay for things through the internet… Elementary services for people who don’t know how to do them; for elderly people.” A pilot ran at the end of January. “We try to participate in the local society,” says Due. “We have some of them as trainees, helping out here. And if they have a good idea, they can work on it themselves – there is space to sit here and try and get going.”

And coffee will continue to be one of the area’s great connectors. Next to open will be TSV’s work bar, next to the square’s grocery store. Fuglen owner Einar Kleppe Holthe was one of the team that pushed the idea, brokering a deal with the building’s owners, Entra, and suggesting the idea of a coffee-serving work bar as the project’s glue. Holthe, owner of the city’s lauded coffee shop cum vintage furniture store, believes that coffee’s universal accessibility will create interaction with residents, and give the village a local identity.

“It will be our front face,” says Due. “It’s at ground level – you can come in… for information, coffee, free seating; sit and work there. We can offer people a membership so they can use the meeting rooms and discounts on other facilities. It’s a very important space, where everyone can come in and ask questions. We’ll put the VR club in there – bars have Quiz Tuesdays – we’ll have VR Tuesdays, or Wednesday, or Thursdays. The technology is amazing. That’s what we want people to come in for. Fantasy is the limit.”

But what does the area’s smart city, tech approach mean for local residents at threat of gentrification? “The situation in Oslo is difficult because of the prices, whether we are here or not,” asserts Due. “It is expensive to live in the city centre – people are moving out. We can’t do anything about the price of houses; but what we can do – and part of this village thinking – is that there are so many square metres available of office space. We can encourage people to work here and create new jobs that will be good for everyone. We try to use the local businesses – we don’t serve food ourselves, for instance – we buy from local business and participate as much as we can.”

Armstrong says: “Part of my argument for fostering an innovation district in Tøyen was that it’s Oslo’s most ethnically diverse neighbourhood. This is a huge advantage. It’s no coincidence that successful innovation clusters often form in areas with a history of immigration and diversity. These places evolve a special kind of openness and respect towards different ideas and beliefs, which turns out to be the most fertile ground for innovation. Tøyen’s diverse population will be the engine that drives innovation for generations to come.”

Some of TSV’s tenants live locally; some have been working from home; some are very new, whilst some have moved from another city to gain a base in Oslo. Winther adds: “The diversity that Tøyen Startup Village brings to Tøyen, to a far greater extent than single small offices would do, should act as example for urban development everywhere.”

A taste of TSV

NYBY
NYBY turns today’s public service offering upside down. A peer-to-peer platform for public services, communities and neighbourhoods, NYBY is a social tech startup, currently piloting its service in collaboration with three Norwegian municipalities and multiple stakeholders. It launches in summer 2017 – stay tuned on www.nyby.com

Schibsted Growth
Norwegian media giant Schibsted Group’s ‘Growth’ offshoot was TSV’s first collaborator. The group operates numerous titles in 29 different countries, championing smart, digital innovation and using advanced technology and data analytics to change the world through journalism.

Sportyer
Like Nyby, Sportyer.no is another sharing economy-led business, describing itself as ‘like an Airbnb for sports halls and other training facilities’. The company lets consumers hire space that’s not in use, a market reckoned to be worth two billion kroner every year.

Too Good to Go
Founded in Denmark in late 2015, in less than a year food-waste social enterprise Too Good To Go was operating in six different countries, including Norway. Combatting the one third of all food previously thrown away globally, TGTG matches leftover food in cafés and restaurants with local consumers, via an app.