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Dublin: 13 °C Tuesday 29 July, 2014

Column: ‘I never forgot that feeling of being part of a team’

It’s not difficult giving small businesses a chance – and I’m helping them get started for €55 a week, writes George Boyle of the Fumbally Exchange.

George Boyle

FOR 15 YEARS until last April, I was a busy architect in one of Ireland’s best-known practices, doing a grown-up job, well-respected, well-rewarded. I enjoyed my work, earned my stripes, started a family, bought a house. Then everything collapsed.

When the company my husband and I worked for was liquidated in April 2010, we had two children, a complicated mortgage burden demanding a cool sum monthly and no hope of getting a job in the most devastated profession of the Irish recession. We had to act fast.

We had limited choices, as many people reading will well know. We could emigrate. We could change direction, try to find work in another sector. We could change skills, borrow money, re-educate ourselves while enduring the dragging pain of those monthly plunders. Oh, scratch that last one – we could certainly not borrow money.

When I was young, I played in an orchestra. It is something I would recommend every person should experience at least once in their lives – don a penguin suit, zip lip, empty your mind and sit. Just listen. To sit and listen to dozens of players, directed under that lightest of wands, capture the sound of a million souls soaring together. Each player is a wannabe virtuoso, capable of creating poetry with strings and tubes and metal and wood. But together, they have this capacity to set prickles rising, as hairs stand up, in the service of a common direction. This is a miraculous occurrence. I never forgot that feeling of being part of a team that had one voice, and could create such inspirational moments from nothing more than air, wood, strings and tin. Through the breath in their lungs and the sweep of their arms.

So when I founded the Fumbally Exchange off Dublin’s Clanbrassil Street in May 2010, it was that conviction – that something can be made of nothing – that inspired me.

More than just desks

At its simplest, the Exchange is an open, creative place where people can come to work, to share ideas, to test a new business or breathe life into a struggling one in a sympathetic, flexible and – critically – affordable environment. Anybody with the right ideas can rent a fully-serviced desk for just €55 a week, including utilities, security charges and rates. The space is professional in atmosphere -  an open-plan office, design-ready, sharing meeting, printing, layout, broadband and communication facilities among like-minded people in a state-of-the-art commercial building.

But FEx set out to reach beyond this simple concept of a desk in a space. To become a more inspiring vehicle for change, reinvention and revolution. To build on the evidence of tested theories, practice and precedent – and inject a real, reckonable stimulus into a flagging economy.

It was not difficult to find a community of people in similar circumstances to myself – prepared to take measured risks and make commitments to change. By clustering together, brainstorming, turning over the furrow in search of opportunity, we started a movement towards measurable, modest recovery.

A year on, more than 40 businesses participate or work from Fumbally Exchange, with many more contributing to the local so-called ‘Coombe Crucible’ area. It has registered a palpable lift on the bottom line of local business, and attracted a number of more established ventures to the area, ready to cite the Fumbally Exchange as part of the magnetism that drew them into the locality. It is driving a project to allocate this part of the city, in the heart of the Liberties, as Dublin’s Creative Quarter. It is humble, but for what we need – so far – it is enough.

From earliest times, be they Egyptian, Roman, Greek, the Renaissance or Silicon Valley, great shifts in social structure have been born in the presence of – many say because of – little hives of creative clusters, buzzing about on their own business, gathering dust and making honey. There is scientific proof of it. Urbanists, economists and social theorists – Charles Landry, Richard Florida and our own Paul Kearns – write eloquently about it. There are complex academic statistical charts to explain it.

Many optimistic opinions have been published in recent times. Some are rather low on the reality check, on suggestions, or on proven, recorded ideas for what can be done to loosen the noose that has a stranglehold on the flow of trade and ‘money momentum’. In the real cold light of day, even ‘Is Féidir Linn’ can feel hollow, a wisp, full of empty promise.

Dizzy indulgence

But in Ireland, we have been through an amazing educational period of growth and dizzy indulgence. This formed strong bonds, decanting a richness of experience and wisdom into – and these are world-acknowledged facts – our already smart, clued-in, media-savvy, socially sophisticated, opportunity-literate, innovative Irish brains. If every person took their dream, the bravest thing they ever wanted to do – start their own business, write that story, open a school, make computers from papier maché – and acted on it, we would make this country a quick and sure contender for respect, investment and potential debt forgiveness. Or debt abolition through economic growth.

It is, however, difficult to imagine doing something like this when you are on your own. So we say, come together. Together we are strong, we can support each other. Fumbally Exchange may be a humble, derivative idea, but it works. It needs only a suitable site and an enthusiastic group of positive, experienced or emerging entrepreneurs who are willing to get to work. It also requires the investment of an enlightened landlord, ready to recognise the many benefits and securities of a small outlay, a very minor effort to support the innovation.

In an environment like we have made, we can forge agreements and form lease vehicles. We can foster operations, events and programmes to underwrite even the most tentative venture with the requisite services, guidance and mentorship. We can offer flexible terms of occupancy to permit the test some space and time to grow.  If the ingredients are right, it can be a catalyst for resurgence – and be fully exportable across the nation.

As businesses here grow, it is planned that they will move forward into their own premises, giving up the easy-in/easy-out rental for more traditional lease arrangements. So far there is lots of growth – but the atmosphere is contagious, and few are ready to leave just yet. We have even had some returns. We are now commencing work on the ‘Fumbally Fledge’ to accommodate crews of up to five people, fitted out in similar fashion and ready to work on a similarly flexible principle.

Now is not the time for idle whining or for putrefying paralysis. We are not making music together right now – but there will be a time for that, and it will be soon. We are still trying to reach the shore, but we have it in our sights. Strike out! We are the future, remember that? We can do it, because we are doing it. We are making work. Together.

George Boyle founded Fumbally Exchange in 2010 along with georgeboyledesigns, an architectural practice with a penchant for strategic planning and vision building. She was associate director with Murray O’Laoire Architects for 15 years, and plays cello, piano and Irish and pedal harp. For more, see fumballyexchange.com and georgeboyledesigns.com.

Fumbally Exchange will be officially launched by Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore at 9am on Wednesday 29 June in Fumbally Square, Fumbally Lane, Dublin 8 with guest speakers Kieran Rose of Dublin City Council and Paul Rowley of Rockland GAA, New York.

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