Time to Define What a “Hub” Really Is (SSIR) (2023)

Innovation hubs have been widely celebrated by practitioners and policymakers for their ability to boost creativity and collaboration. But the precise features that define hub organizations have proven hard to pin down. This presents a problem: If we can’t concisely define what a hub is—and thereby easily grasp its primary functions—then we can’t gauge performance. Without clarity, proponents can’t defend hubs that (they feel) are adding real value within an entrepreneurial scene, while funders might inadvertently focus investment on hubs that do not live up to their potential. It is difficult to say, for certain, whether an entrepreneurship intermediary “actually works.”

To be fair, this lack of clarity is partly an outcome of success. Early hubs—such as the Impact HUBs and the Toronto-based Centre for Social Innovation—inspired others to follow suit. More recent entries have continued the trend; the iHub in Nairobi, for example, galvanized the founders of the Co-Creation Hub Nigeria in Lagos to set up shop. Hubs (along with “labs”) are now appearing and proliferating in virtually every major city around the world, and it seems as if there are as many sub-types as there are different types of entrepreneurship (including “fintech” hubs such as London’s swanky Level39). Few would deny that something noteworthy has begun to evolve; nonetheless, it’s time to consider what makes certain hubs more effective than others. To help hubs launch successfully, improve performance, and/or replicate success, their leaders and funders need to understand what it is that’s creating value.

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At the 2014 inception of a research group called Entrepreneurial Spaces and Collectivities (launched with support from SOAS, University of London), we explored the question, “What are the usual elements one would expect to find at existing hubs or in a serious hub blueprint?” Our goal was to reflect critically on “what we’re really talking about when we talk about hubs” without the pressure of having to produce definitive answers (yet). Our thinking was that by making expectations explicit, we could start measuring actual performance empirically.

As our research group members had collectively carried out several years’ worth of front-line field research already (for example, the authors of this article studied hubs in Japan, the UK, and Rwanda), we decided to proceed by tapping our accumulated insights as social scientists first. Drawing on our inductive observations of hubs and related collaborative organizations in Europe, East Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa, we identified four core features that, in virtually all related discussions, appear to characterize innovation hubs. Taken together, these features offer much-needed clarity on how we should conceptualize and eventually measure hubs. They include:

1. Hubs build collaborative communities with entrepreneurial individuals at the center. Most new entrants to a hub expect, first off, to find a genuine sense of community—a cozy social milieu. These new entrants assume, somewhat romantically, that within the hub community the spontaneous sharing of ideas and resources will flourish. A related expectation is that collaboration at hubs should take place on a fundamentally egalitarian basis between autonomous individuals. Collaborators should thus have equal say in the formulation of shared goals and in subsequent decision-making processes.

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Still, hub organizers expect each member to display strong individual agency: They assume that voluntary, self-directed action drives the social dynamic (and energy) of the community as a whole. Yet some authority figures will feature within these presumably egalitarian collaborative communities. Those individuals’ power and influence often derives from their status as hub founders, charisma, recognized expertise, and/or strong network position, rather than from any formal leadership role. Hubs thus view individuality, leadership, collaboration, and community participation as complementary rather than opposing characteristics.

2. Hubs attract diverse members with heterogeneous knowledge. The second feature we identified as expected in a hub is the belief that, among members, “good things happen when diverse people come together to collaborate.” Hub members welcome diversity in a broad sense (gender, class, and ethnicity), as well as with regard to the knowledge and ideas that different community members bring in.

Whether implicitly or explicitly, hubs subscribe to a theory of innovation that prioritizes creative clashes between people from different networks and domains. Examples include software developers, designers, activists, civil servants, and students—groups that embody diverse perspectives and complementary knowledge sets. Such heterogeneous cognitive resources are thought to make the emergence of novel combinations of ideas and practices more likely, resulting in unique and viable innovations.

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3. Hubs facilitate creativity and collaboration in physical and digital space. Hubs are typically set up in metropolitan areas, within facilities that share striking stylistic similarities. A typical hub space might feature wooden furniture, large desks, brick walls, whiteboards, a foosball table, at least some artwork, shared kitchen spaces, a coffee bar, meeting rooms, and bean bags.

For hubs, these locational, architectural, and interior design choices are about more than convenience, style, or the cost-effectiveness per se. Within the context of urban geography, hubs serve as vital, physical centers that lend a sense of permanence to members. And architectural and interior design dimensions help foster a collaborative, urban and “buzzy” atmosphere that supports face-to-face interactions. Members see this sort of environment is as integral to creative, collaborative work.

Events such as hackathons and “pitch nights” further enhance the value of physical space by promoting contact between individuals and groups that would not normally meet during their daily routines. Digital spaces extend the scope of the hub; for example, websites function as an important digital representation, revealing a hub’s existence to a broader audience and strengthening its identity. Blogs, Twitter feeds, and hub-specific platforms allow participants’ interactions to unfold in various forms online.

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4. Hubs localize global entrepreneurial culture. Hubs view themselves as members of a decidedly global culture. Their core values are shaped by what some refer to as the “global social entrepreneurship movement” or the “startup revolution.” This sense of shared values and purpose seems to serve as a vital motivating factor for new and existing members that desire to belong to “a global community.” Maintaining a relatively homogeneous entrepreneurial culture also has functional significance; common understandings, concepts, and instruments can facilitate collaboration among members who are meeting one another for the first time, whether at the same hub or across considerable geographic distances.

Yet the global entrepreneurial culture that hubs represent inverts into a type of sub-culture in the context of many local host societies. In fact, the values and norms upheld within the hub community, which encourage members to behave in socially entrepreneurial and innovative ways, tend to seem new or even alien from the viewpoint of the surrounding (dominant) culture. In Japan for instance, the majority of middle-class parents, schools, government institutions, and corporations remain wary about promoting entrepreneurship among the young, and they know relatively little about alternative organizational designs or strategies. Hubs in cities such as Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo must thus enact a “safe space” that recognizes (and even celebrates) different sets of beliefs and behaviors, which non-members may consider a radical counter-culture.

Next Steps

Entrepreneurial spaces and collectives continue to proliferate rapidly, diversifying into various sub-types and configurations in the process. This article has clarified four dimensions of the innovation hub concept to allow us to better grasp and eventually evaluate the strengths—and inevitable limitations—of real hubs.

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Future inquiries into hubs should arguably focus on just one or two hub elements, with an awareness of their other integral characteristics. For instance, architects who utilize the Space Syntax methodology (to understand how the design and layout of physical spaces influences human movement and interaction) can test core assumptions on how different hub spaces shape collaboration. Sociologists will be able to examine the practices through which hubs enact their collaborative communities—for example through discursive strategies that foster a sense of shared purpose. Discussed publically, such focused projects will add up to an improved understanding of how new innovation intermediaries work in general.

Last but not least, as we continue our empirical research and launch new surveys, we are making efforts to translate several popular but inconsistently applied labels such as “hubs,” “labs,” and “networked incubators” into meaningful analytical types. We would argue that this is vital for academic research, and necessary for policymakers, investors, and founders to make genuinely informed decisions within this domain. It is surely crucial that these groups pick the right organizational instrument as they seek to advance entrepreneurship and innovation for public good.

Read more stories by Tuukka Toivonen & Nicolas Friederici.

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