NEST is a temporary urban commons experiment in Ghent, Belgium, in the 8th floor building of the old public library, which was rented out by the city to a coalition of civic and commons organisations, such as Time Lab, starting in May 2017 for at least 8 months. NEST was a response to 'Call for Common', in which the project was given to the most complementary civic coalition, and uses a contributive accounting system to determine the relative rent payable by particpating projects.
The report of a visit by Brussels commoners:
Michel Renard and Alain Ruche (from EsCo Espaces et Coopération, Brussels):
An acupuncture point for urban commons: the Nest in Ghent, Belgium
Today we were privileged in being welcomed by Evi Swinnen, one of the leading figures of NEST, an experiment that started this month in Gent, a small Belgian city already outstanding from several ways. Evi is not a newcomer in dealing with the Commons and P2P practices, as she has been the TIMELAB coordinator in the same city since 2010.
More than a traditional 'interview', this was actually a nice promenade in this 'city in the city', which was several decades ago a huge showroom for displaying electric appliances. The municipality then decided to make it a public library, which was moved into a new building and opened in march 2017.
Then the genius came in, even if we do not know exactly who it was. As the old building is to be dismantled for a new purpose, the idea emerged of using it for public service purpose during the 8 months left before the refurbishment. In fact, some private competitor was interesting in organizing an exhibition, but the municipality decided to seize this opportunity to create a space for an experiment of urban commons. It could not be otherwise in such splendid and symbolic location in one of the busiest neighborhood in town. Gent municipality is at the forefront on the international stage of urban commons, as the recent release report by P2P founder Michel Bauwens shows after a three month stay to design a proposal for the transition of the city to the commons.
The access to the 8000 square meter and 6 store building was not given for free by the municipality. At the beginning, the local authorities asked for 13000 Euros a month, which was simply unaffordable for the cooperative created to manage the 9 month project. The bargaining ended at 7000 Euros, with May being free of charge, as many, many things had to be brought into the building for a minimum setting. The 30 partners selected through a call for proposals were both from the non-profit and some enlightened small private companies : such an interesting cohabitation indeed! Since the beginning, a 'flexistructure' was created, made of a small group of people who volunteered to be responsible for defining in a democratic way, and enforce, the 'rules of the game'. So, the three conditions for a commons are fulfilled : a resource, a self-organized community, and social practices.
While inviting us to a coffee in the nice coffee shop at the first floor, Evi introduced us to some of the activities generated in the building. A Vietnamese restaurant, where cooking books can be consulted on the spot, and cooking lessons are taught. A huge and comfortable 'silence room' designed by people diagnosed with autism where the visitor can relax, surrounded with plants and nice objects, and where the entry is free between 10am and 6pm. Steven, an industrial engineer by education who liked working the wood in his spare time, and is prototyping in his 150 square meters at NEST the huge project he plans to launch soon, where professional will have access to material and tools for metal and wood during the day, and amateurs at nighttime. 'Current makerspaces are too small, and are not profitable, he says'. An, who introduced us to their (she has 2 teammates) wellbeing module where professional therapists can rent the space for as little as 10 Euros per hour (!), with a splendid view on the city.The range of services covers coaching, mediation, and creative therapies. Access to a spacious and inspired yoga and meditation room is also offered. A good way to build up a patients base. At a lower floor, we come across a huge production space where designers make their real products in a co-working atmosphere, for example making textiles for furniture.
Keeping going downstairs, we discover a huge space for dancers to train, create and rehearse. A little further, a group of people wanting to play music are arranging their module where they will also rent musical instruments and organize musical rehearsal. A locked door does not allow us to visit a performance cultural place where one hundred people can fit to watch. There is also a huge exhibition space currently displaying original production of the local art school KASK And, at the ground floor, an even more spacious room made of donated old pieces of furniture where to relax, have a drink at an interesting bar, or contact a municipal representative of employment schemes.
In spite of the precarious economic conditions, a flow of passion is percolating everywhere. All entrepreneurs present on the spot say they feel comfortable with the unknown, trusting that this experiment will be useful for their further professional activities. The strong feeling of belonging to a community also plays a big role. When asked about security conditions and supervision on the spot, Evi answers that everyone is also caring for his/her neighbour's space. The distribution of the rent -8000 Euros to be collected every month- among the partners follows a very interesting pattern: each partner states in the group how much he/she is ready to pay, and the group commonly decides to whom the concerned module will be rented, putting the passion and openness towards new 'users' and the engagement towards the global project NEST as the first criterion.
Time is flying. NEST has hardly started that only a couple of months are left. Evi tells us that the immediate plan is ambitious though: to build games for sale inspired by the commons; an itinerary school where the toolbox discovered through experimentation will be shared and can nurture elsewhere local tools depending on the context. Evi speaks about sharing NEST experiment with other cities, nearby (Roeselare, Leuven), not far away (in Belgium or neighbouring Netherlands). To our question 'What about sharing with abroad?', Evi spontaneously answers : 'Whenever possible, even if the local population is hardly interested in what happens elsewhere'. The point is not bringing knowledge to other places and partners, rather to bring up some experience and expertise from the NEST ground.
The intention is also to further associate the TIMELAB model for artists (and researchers) in residence, currently covering ten people. Interesting prospects exist for working with artists. Everything is not perfect. While the municipality has expressed a strong commitment to the commons during the 3 month stay recently, one can feel the fear that the authorities, now aware of the real interest of NEST, can hijack some outcomes to their benefit via the classical mechanism of enclosure. The relations with the university have been somehow strained, in particular with researchers, who have difficulty in accepting the practice of open knowledge and sharing. The university has the knowledge and skill to measure the impact, so it could contribute to the auto-evaluation process of the NEST experiment, which requires a close monitoring of data and results as a process.
The NEST experiment in Gent confirms the relevance of digital commons for urban commons. It illustrates that the key sequence is from practice to theory, not the other way around. It shows how creative spaces can be found between actors with views often claimed contradictory (non-profit versus private sector, commons versus authorities). NEST shows how carefully identified and managed acupuncture points can yield systemic outcomes and supports the emerging collaborative paradigm." (Gent, 28 June 2017)