A Creative Revolution in Former Yugoslavia
Poligon, Ljubljana. Photograph via.
by Amanda Gray
Coworking; or, individuals working on independent projects in the same space characterised by big, bright open spaces, cafes with artisanal coffee and DIY-style decorations, is in many ways a result of increasing dissatisfaction with the traditional work day concept so familiar to the Western construct of success. As the foundation of traditional employment has started to crumble in recent years, directly affected by major advancements in technology and an unstable global economy, coworking has become home to some of the most successful startups, accelerators and incubators. But beyond the gilded language that describes the trend, there are some very human needs that drive the coworking movement, such as the desire to feel valued, and supported, which is something that goes beyond startups and fashionable coffee.
Former Yugoslavia — an area of the world that once withstood longstanding conflict, interethnic tensions, and economic hardship — is now taking the lead in the future of work. In countries like Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia and Macedonia, the coworking spaces aren’t simply jumping on a trend, but are rather looking at public space and sharing economies as a tool to administer community and social change.
In Ljubljana, Slovenia, a small but picturesque capital nestled amongst the Julian Alps; one of the most forward thinking community spaces has formed in an abandoned tobacco factory. Open for barely a year, Poligon is Slovenia’s first creative coworking space. Founders Luka Piškorič, Eva Perčič and Marko Orel see Poligon as a labor of love rather than just a business opportunity. They all work their own jobs as a means to support themselves, and the space is completely not for profit. For two years before they opened in 2014, they teamed up with an urban cultural center, Kino Šiška, where they developed the concept for the country’s first ever-coworking community.
The Poligon team offered the public pop-up coworking, as well as various other events. One of these events, “Sit Down, you have an A”, proved to be popular. The idea was to allow people to present their ideas and potential project for 15 minutes, followed by a half an hour of feedback. Initially the event was designed to improve projects, but as it attracted more and more people, it became an open forum that led to various organic collaborations.
These collaborations were of great interest to Eva Perčič, who is dedicated to exploring the sharing economy and coworking through a sociological lens. As Slovenia’s sole researcher in the fields of the sharing economy, she has taken a deeper look at the coworking movement, explaining that their collaboration with Kino Šiška not only introduced people to the concept of coworking, but also led to the discovery of creative communities throughout Slovenia that were once insular. By the time Poligon was ready to open, 40 people were lined up and ready to join.
The sheer enthusiasm generated by this movement seemed to bring something out in the Slovenian people. A desire to be creative temporarily lost between the hours of 9 to 5. Creativity can be impulsive, wild, colorful and unpredictable, and while we celebrate creative minds that have made an impact on our collective history, we don’t exactly want to employ them. Perčič and her counterparts are showing that the members of Poligon and the greater community are willing to forgo a contract and security for more personal freedom to produce innovative work. Yet a thriving creative sector cannot exist if policy makers do not understand the changes taking place. Unfortunately, the Slovenian government has so far been reluctant to fund projects like Poliogn and similar spaces in the country, even when members of the creative sector are continually showing the great potential and innovation found in these communities.
In Sarajevo, the newly built NEST71 coworking space has also opened up a discourse which looks beyond the country’s not so distant painful past. Kenan Salihbegovic, community manager at NEST71, discusses the various hurdles they had to overcome when investing in the Bosnian freelancer community. “In the beginning it was really hard. People felt nervous about sharing information, as someone might steal their ideas, or something like that,” he explains. “In the early stages we had to focus on building trust.” To push things forward, the space offered various incentives, such as month of coworking for free, with no strings attached. They started seeing a strong community form after about just four months.
While Salihbegovic does indeed see the obstacles individuals in the creative sector must navigate, he is entering the situation with unwavering optimism. Already NEST71 has seen several of their community members find employment via their accelerator program. Like Poligon, the creative sector in Sarajevo is also reinventing public space, setting up shop in a forgotten shopping center. Salihbegovic stresses the importance of addressing the Bosnian community first. He sees the potential for his country to become a center for innovation, but is acutely aware that it is not seen as a business transaction for foreign investors.
For Perčič, building a strong community is also essential to building trust, and relies heavily on individuals having a sense of security and their own voice. Spaces like Poligon and NEST71 have proven to be instrumental roles in their communities as they are actually listening to what the people have to say. Getting the attention of the relevant policymakers has long since been a struggle for independent contractors and emerging creatives. But there is strength in numbers, and as more people join the coworking movement, those in power have begun to listen.
“When we were developing NEST, we took a look at some older concepts that formed communities in Sarajevo,” explains Salihbegovic. He continues to lovingly describe a district of Sarajevo that has been an inspiration to NEST71 while they were developing the concept for their space. “For close 200 years, jewelers and goldsmiths have inhabited a single street in this area of Sarajevo, and instead becoming a fiercely competitive environment, the cluster of businesses have formed organic collaborations and a natural exchange of resources and skills.”
The concepts which define the sharing economy are the pulse of Poligon. “We are totally bottom up, and were built with the help of the community. I think few coworking spaces are actually created this way. When I describe the way we started, I am not talking about an initial investment or the idea of a “lean startup”… just completely low budget,” explains Perčič. So while Poligon’s design is inevitably cool, lined with Christmas lights, a fluffy cloud shaped light hanging from the center of the ceiling, and great coffee, it was the collaborative environment that got people interested. Poligon was a response to a serious unemployment crisis, creating a divide in an area of the world that has experienced too much division. “Poligon thrives off of content-events, projects, community initiatives,” says Perčič. “Our goal is to empower the self employed who need opportunities, thus leading to new projects, and a more creative and stable future.”
Slovenia and its Balkan neighbors are looking at public space as being more than just a trend, but rather a vision for the future. “The creation of the Poligon community had a real hand in opening up the creative scene in Slovenia. The content and events we provide has started a dialogue that addresses everything from unemployment, to lingering social problems,” says Perčič. Policymakers and government officials now often turn to Perčič and her cofounders to ask their advice on what can be done to improve the creative sector in Slovenia. “We are not just a coworking space, but also strong opinions makers in regards to what positive changes can be made in our country.”
Salihbegovic shares this sentiment, and also discussed that as a result of longstanding war and economic hardship there is still a lingering attitude of fatalism when it comes to the future. “Certain areas of the Balkans are still lacking in basic infrastructure, education, and the understanding sharing knowledge,” he explains. “Our coworking community is not only adamant in helping people gain necessary skills for employment, but for also educating them on what it means to be successful. In a once formally rigid political system where there was very little room for progress, came a lot of self-taught people, and we want to help these individuals to become the next success stories, so that others can see what a good future will look like. We are much more than a cheap workforce, we are worth it.”
About the Author:
Amanda Gray is a Slovenian-American writer currently exploring the use of cultural and creative platforms as a tool to empower self-employed individuals working in the creative industries across the Balkan region. Amanda received her M.A in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of New Mexico in 2012 and spent over two years in Berlin working as a freelance writer and editor.