Can you tell me about Eccleston George, its members, and how it came to be?
Eccleston George is a good old fashioned arts collective. It started in 1999 when myself and Chris Eccleston joined forces to tackle a commission too big for either one of us to take on on our own. Over the years our duo grew into a collective of creative practitioners and by 2005 we found ourselves working in realms that none would have dreamed possible. In our group we now have artists, musicians, authors, inventors, engineers… the list goes on.
Can you tell me more about the Imagination Refinery, and the problem it solves?
The Imagination Refinery is a follow on from a project we’ve been running for the last four years called ‘Mind the Gap’. The premise for both Mind the Gap and the Imagination Refinery is about surviving and then prospering when times are hard. Mind the Gap achieved far more than any of us at Eccleston George considered possible; what started out as a project to create some financial security for ourselves, quite quickly became something that had an impact on the community in which we live. A boosted economy and the building of social capital seemed to go hand in hand with our methods and ethos. That’s what caught the attention of our local authority, who offered us a bigger space to tinker with. All this stuff happened with no money changing hands, we simply shared an idle asset for our skills, everything else, the land regeneration, the creation of new companies and new jobs, the renewed interest in the place we were working out of, all happened by accident… as a kind of residue from our initial idea.
Does the Imagination Refinery target a certain sector with regards to the type of startup companies and SMEs it shares its space with?
No, definitely not. Whilst it is starting with the creative cultural sector, we’ve no intention to make it an exclusive club for creatives. If Mind the Gap is anything to go by, creativity will naturally ‘flavour’ everything that happens at the Imagination Refinery. Our hope is that across all sectors at the Imagination Refinery there will be lots of cross pollination, tons of mixed discipline stuff happening, creating brilliantly novel approaches to what they do and giving them an edge in their own particular markets.
How important is creativity to uniting a community?
For us, creativity is the product of a state of mind that starts with imagination. We’re not experts in any of this stuff but we’ve worked on enough community projects over the last decade to see with our own eyes how imagination and creativity unite communities. We’ve worked with lots of different communities, some more dysfunctional than others, from prisons to Price Water House Coopers, to social housing estates and universities – the astonishing unitary effects of a collective creative endeavour never ceases to amaze me!
How important is the correlation between strong social capital, and a strong economy?
I think it’s all a question of sustainability; if I choose to, I can make a profit at the expense of the people who live and work around me, but that’s not going to be long term win for me. I can choose to do stuff ‘to’ people that makes me money and I can choose to do stuff ‘for’ people that makes money too, but at Eccleston George we really feel that doing stuff ‘with’ people is where the sustainability is. A strong economy in tune with our environment and a happy and healthy community ought to be the goal of every business on the planet… if you want to last that is.
How can the sharing of imagination and knowledge between different creative organisations, impact the economy?
Collaborations are extraordinarily powerful as we ourselves have discovered. At Eccleston George, when we are together we’re capable of far more than any one of us could possibly be on our own. I think that the cross pollination of ideas I referred to earlier is wonderfully empowering. We’re currently working with ecologists and scientists on a brilliantly successful climate change project that simply would not have happened if we hadn’t got together and exchanged ideas, pondered the possibilities and exploited each other’s expertise. Take a look at ‘Shelving the Coast’ – it’s art, it’s science, it’s ecology and more to the point it’s working!
Critics of the ‘sharing economy’ argue that it is simply a new form of capitalism; how do you contest this through your work at Eccleston George?
I don’t contest it at all! From what a can tell, a lot of so called ‘sharing economy’ projects are not really sharing at all… I’m not sure that sharing a thing for money is sharing at all, is it? Surely that would just be hiring or renting I’d have thought. Once again, I’m not an expert on this stuff, but for us it’s just that ‘sharing’ provided us with an answer to a problem we once had; that is, we wanted a place to call home, but we couldn’t afford a studio, so we traded our skills for an idle building. Out of that original deal, because of the way we work and the ethos we have, social capital was created. As part of our ‘rent’ deal we promised to engage with local schools for free and those young people worked with us to design new exhibits for our landlord, who happens to be a zoo. As a result, the almost derelict site where our studio is situated has become renewed and is now thriving. Companies have been born here, jobs created, land managed, rent is being paid by everyone… except us. This is real regeneration that started with real sharing.
Where it might go and end I’ve no idea! Our local authority, have looked at what we’re doing and asked us how we’re doing it, as if it’s some kind of magic trick. It’s not magic, it’s just common sense we’re using here. In answer to your question… I think that as is often the case when something seems to work for some people, a bandwagon is created and that might be a powerful PR tool for some companies to jump onto. I don’t see sharing as a new way to do business, for us it was a catalyst to make things happen for ourselves, and because of who we are and what we do, our ‘sharing’ created opportunities for others – I guess you’d call these opportunities multipliers in business lingo.
The fact is, sharing has worked for us and it has created economic growth around us that’s not about sharing just business as usual. Can sharing create an incubator for startups and SMEs? From our experience so far I’d say yes it can!
What’s next for Eccleston George?
Honestly? Who knows! Really I don’t mean to sound trite or flippant, but I haven’t got a clue. I’ve learned to embrace uncertainty as one wonderful aspect of creativity. Dear old Sir Ken Robinson says that creativity is the process of having new ideas that have value. I’d add to that by saying that being creative also allows yourself to let go of the initial idea you started with when yours, or someone else’s, imagination takes you off on a tangent!
Since speaking to Nigel George, Eccleston George has been nominated for a CIRIA Big Biodiversity Award in the ‘most innovative’ category for its Shelving the Coast project.
Photo credit: Julian Winslow