The Hub provides new business model

At just 30 years old, Jonathan Robinson has inspired businesses around the world with his concept: The Hub. Erik Jaques met the man at the centre of the rapidly evolving nexus for 21st-century entrepreneurialism

The Hub is here to make the world a better place. It’s an ingenious amalgam of members club, innovation agency, public space and think tank. Its purpose is to bring people together in an environment where ideas, innovation and collaboration can flourish and where existing business models are redefined. Members must be committed to social good; torpid mainstream corporatism is left squarely at the door.

Just three years into its lifespan, it is being hailed as a nexus for 21st century social and corporate entrepreneurialism.

Twelve Hubs have sprung up across four continents and 3,000 members – ranging from venture capitalists and big business suits, to community activists, policy makers and maverick technologists – have signed up. To date, it is the progenitor of 1,534 unique ventures, including highly profitable businesses such as Onzo Smart Meters, urban wind turbine company Quiet Revolution and recycled footwear gurus Worn Again.

There is a stated ambition to open 50 Hubs across the world in the coming years, including two more in London (one in King’s Cross that opens next month and one in the South Bank, due in 2009).

Visiting the original Hub, located within a converted Victorian warehouse in Islington, is a compelling experience. The open-planned office space is vividly awash in natural light and upholstered to the absolute environmental cutting edge.

There’s wood-pellet-burning stoves, desks made from reconstituted cardboard, artfully arranged potted plants. The walls are adorned with spider diagrams jam-packed with thought and intent. There’s even a bed for recuperative or reflective purposes.

Hubbites are sharply attired, mostly youthful urbanites, all buzzing with unfeigned purpose. Variously they are stooped over the latest laptops in focused solitude or huddled in assiduous groups animated by chatter and gesticulation.

“A very simple idea like the hub has grown so much because the tide is turning so dramatically,” says The Hub’s founder, Jonathan Robinson. “So we’re seeing a movement of executives, a movement of entrepreneurs, a movement of innovators, from all walks of life that are recognising the opportunity out of the crisis.”

Anyone can join and, thanks to a flexible system of membership, you can take advantage of a pay-as-you-go tariff or immerse yourself wholesale.

We move to the hallway just out of earshot of the hum of activity in the main workspace.

At just 30 years old, Jonathan cuts an impressive presence. His conversational tone is relaxed, yet extremely precise – he’s keen to get his story across, anxious not to dwell on the past, most at ease when talking about what has yet to come. “I have a fascination with the journey path of taking ideas from a scribble on the back of a beer mat to something that’s really achieving significant change in the world,” he explains. “I think there are too many ideas that just get scribbled on a beer mat and get forgotten about. I’m the person that wants to grab on to the people and the beer mat doodles they’ve made in the hope that there’s ways of making them happen.”

It is clear The Hub is constantly evolving. As its size and influence grows it has enlisted a band of thought leaders – among them Peter Head, director of Arup, Eden project founder Tim Smit and philosopher Alain de Botton – to host discussions and lectures. It has curated educational and social events and even been directly engaged with projects for UNICEF and The Cabinet Office.

The Hub is an extremely apposite phenomenon. At a time of widespread economic crisis, it and the ventures and ideas it spawns are thriving, suggesting a vital model for business where strategic collaboration wins the day, and where the bottom line is underpinned by ethical concerns. “If we’re to achieve fundamental change, then in a way it’s the age of collaboration or the age of unlikely allies coming together,” he ventures.

The son of two bookshop owners, Jonathan grew up in idyllic isolation in the Lake District engaging in normal childhood pursuits such as mild rebellion and occasional ennui. One fateful day, he chanced upon an article in Country Living magazine, his eye drawn to the image of children working on a farm. It turned out to be a story about Atlantic College, a progressive educational institution established during the Cold War with the hope that bringing together children from across the world to learn side by side would reduce the chances of war and other iniquities.

Intense environment

Before he knew it, he’d sent in his application, gained a scholarship and was plunged into an intense worldly learning environment where his roommate was a machete-scarred Rwandan refugee, and student conversation frequently cast a spotlight on major global issues and the torrid state of the world.

He graduated with a “burning, almost an anger, at the state of the world”.

An immediate target of his disaffection was the looming Millennial celebrations which, quite apart from being a symbolic opportunity for change, was most prominently manifested in the UK by the feckless profligacy of the Dome.

A year before the big day, Jonathan and some like-minded Atlantic graduates strode into the Royal Festival, blustering with an idea to annex the venue for a provocative three-day ideas festival where values could be interrogated and solutions to fundamental problems mulled over. It would have a glittering celebrity roster of inspirational lecturers such as Jon Snow, Anita Roddick, the Dalai Lama and umpteen Nobel Peace Prize Laureates. It would give dues to business entrepreneurs beneath the mainstream radar. There would be song, dance, debate and minds would be duly blown. It would be called Awakening. Remarkably, a £30,000 contract was drawn up and they made it happen.

Though pleased to have pulled off such an audacious event, Jonathan soon sought to develop the insight he’d gained. His next opportunity to do just that came during his last year of studying social anthropology and economics at Edinburgh University, when he received a call from the organisers of the 2002 Johannesburg-hosted United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development, asking if he wanted to replicate the Awakening event to stimulate debate at the summit. “We met with the UN and began to suss out this opportunity but they just wanted us to inhabit some concrete building with barbed-wire fences protected from the real world, so we turned down the invitation to put on an event there,” he recalls.

“Instead, on our last day in Johannesburg we travelled down to Soweto, got a rent-a-wreck car against all the white people’s advice who said we’d never come out alive and went to meet people in the townships.”

The locals knew nothing of the impending summit. Instead, through learning of their plight and post-apartheid struggles to regenerate their surroundings, the idea emerged to transform a mountaintop in Soweto that had been tarnished by a history of rape and murder into a hub of social enterprise. The hope was that it would inspire World Summit delegates to wrench themselves away from their hermetic political schedules to face the reality that was on their doorstep.

In 18 months, largely thanks to the diligent work of architecture student Katy Marks (who Jonathan met at Atlantic College), the mountain was transformed into the Soweto Mountain of Hope, accommodating a series of buildings made out of waste, all of which housed social enterprises and other community services.

More than 3,000 delegates visited, including former UK Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The latter called it the “real summit” and broke from a pre-prepared speech to make an impassioned call for people not to await the efforts of the UN but instead to draw inspiration from what had been achieved by the locals on the once derelict mountaintop.

Back in the UK, an exhausted Jonathan came crashing back to reality. University life was winding down and the prospect of finding a career loomed. Unsuited to a traditional nine-to-five existence, he used a university vacation to travel around the UK interviewing inspirational business figures like the founders of innocent Smoothies and Planet Organic, discovering how they’d gone about asserting their individuality and following their dreams.

The experience was collated into a book co-written with Carmel McConnell called Careers Un-Ltd (which was picked up for publication after Jonathan sent a cheeky two-line letter to the publisher, enough to secure a face-to-face meeting). “It was really just a little collection of stories of people that inspired us, role models, a new set of heroes that weren’t necessarily well known but had somehow found the courage to start their own enterprise,” he says.

Appropriate investment

“However, there was one recurring theme that emerged from all these extraordinary people and that was just how difficult it was to get access to the appropriate level of investment, to scale a new idea to get started.

“So we wanted to create a home for these people with ideas and we decided we’d turn on its head the conventional idea of a workplace.” Which, naturally, brings us back to The Hub, a quiet, unassuming revolution that’s getting louder with each passing day.

“It soon became obvious that when the right people meet the right people they can do a hell of a lot more together than they can alone.”

Though membership of The Hub requires a commitment to doing the right thing, it is far from being a nebulous network of mere good intentions. “There’s obviously a significant degree of rigour and business acumen,” Jonathan asserts. “It’s that extraordinary combination of the imagination and the vision to see that the world could be a radically better place. It’s about ‘let’s get started and how do we get started?’

“It almost goes without saying now that the world is in trouble. We don’t need to keep bashing on about it, we need to get started with a whole set of new models, new ideas, new relationships that transform and see the opportunity in the crisis.”

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