It is a whole 14 years since Charles Leadbeater and Kate Oakley wrote a visionary paper for Demos called ‘The Independents’. We describe it as visionary because it describes a vision for the future of work that we would still recognise today, although many of the trends and technologies have radically changed in that time.
‘These new independents are often producers, designers, retailers and promoters all at the same time. They do not fit into neat categories. The Independents thrive on informal networks through which they organise work, often employing friends and former classmates. Although some are ambitious entrepreneurs, many want their businesses to stay small because they want to retain their independence and their focus on their creativity. Yet that does not mean they see themselves as artists who deserve public subsidy. They want to make their own way in the market. They have few tangible assets other than a couple of computers. They usually work from home or from non-descript and often-rundown workshops.
Their main assets are their creativity, skill, ingenuity and imagination. Across Britain, there are thousands of young independents working from bedrooms and garages, workshops and run-down offices, hoping that they will come up with the next Hotmail or Netscape, the next Lara Croft or Diddy Kong, the next Wallace and Gromit or Notting Hill.’
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Apart from names at the end of the quote, which are from a different age, very little seems to have changed. Even back then, the authors explained how the Independents mattered not just because they would be a source of future jobs and growth, but because of the model that was evolving to accommodate this way of working. They gave 6 reasons why they thought Independents had the secret and why policies needed to change to support it. We look at these and investigate what, if anything, has changed.
1. Jobs and growth
Many freelancers/independents work within the UK’s creative industries which now contribute £36 billion a year UK economy. Freelancers/independents make up almost two thirds of the workforce in some of the high growth areas of the creative economy like web and games development, innovation etc. You can do the sums. At around 8% of the UK’s economy the creative industries are a key driver of the knowledge economy, on which we are pinning most of our future economic hopes.
This has accelerated since the Demos 1999 report, but it’s hard to see any real policy changes to encourage real growth, with the majority of incentives aimed at a technology start up businesses.
2. Local economic growth
Because Independents don’t need to travel for the sake of it, and can work from just about anywhere, there is a huge opportunity to play a part in growing your local community. That’s good for everyone, and has a knock on effect for local economies. That’s a major and welcome change in the last decade or so. There’s opportunity too in the revival of our high streets as hubs for independents who don’t want to work at home, but do want to stay local.
3. A new way to work
We are all becoming more used to the trade of between autonomy and insecurity. In fact, many young people are more comfortable with this than those who have climbed the corporate ladder. Since the report was written, we’ve seen unbelievable changes in technology and globalisation that reinforce the need for much more flexible working models.
4. A model of creative production
We freelancers and independents are used to collaboration over competition. It has proved to be a robust model. Unfortunately, that shift into the corporate world just hasn’t happened, creating an unnecessary divide between Independents, with their open source working model and those who enjoy the cult of the company.
5. The future of cities
Coworking hadn’t taken off in 1999, at least not in the way that it has now. We didn’t talk of ‘the sharing economy’, and wifi was a long way from being ubiquitous. Without a doubt, cities are melting pots of ideas and innovation, but what’s changed since the report was written is that the Independents have expanded out of the major cities to create new clusters. Take Dundee, in Scotland, for example which is now a successful cluster for games developers and companies.
6. Social cohesion
What’s interesting about the changes over the last decade and half are that many of Charles Leadbeater and Kate Oakley’s predictions about the value of the Independent workforce have come about, but that the infrastructure to support it, the ‘missing middle’ is still not there.
The question is, do Independents take matters into their own hands and create new structures to support this working model, or simply wait for government and business to wake up to it.