Thursday, 21 June 2012

Do shopping malls kill business creativity?

I've been thinking about shopping Malls and too-shiny reconversions, and why I don’t like them. It's not just that they can be a bit soulless, and are a commercial takeover of what could be public space, it is that they seem to me to be an active drag on innovation, and local business creation.

Think about it. Most new-build shopping centres, or revamped industrial spaces, contain large shops, with lots of glass frontage. Such spaces are expensive and simply too big for most new companies. At the same time the large frontage essentially lets itself to highly branded chains. These factors - large size, and large frontage, produce high prices and mean that it is very unlikely that these are places you would be able, or even willing, to set up a new hole in the wall shop or take your first steps into retail.

Compare this with the dynamic around Shoreditch or Columbia Road in London, Leith Walk in Edinburgh or many other local high streets. The diversity of shop sizes and aspects available, make it much more likely that a new business will find a niche to fit it, while the proliferation of space retail units puts off large chains which rely on standardised portfolios and familiar layouts and branding. The ability to sublet spaces (even if not officially) and arrange pop-ups aids this process, as does the ability to hold markets and set up stalls. I have often thought that if I lost my job, and could not quickly get another, I would set up a little shop or pop-up somewhere, and see how it went. I might even sell food at the weekends. Then I realised that this approach would not be applicable in whole swathes of the country, urban and suburban, that simply have no infrastructure to allow such small and fleet footed businesses to come and go.

I am often impressed with the entrepreneurial spirit in cities like London, and the citizens' willingness to take matters into their own hands and create opportunities, whether for money or fun. Unneeded spaces are co-opted, often without explicit permission, while others are used in ways that might not be expected. While this is undoubtedly due in part to critical mass, and also the types of people who move to big cities, it is also I think in part to the diversity of physical infrastructure, and architecture, available to be exploited. A uniform physical space breeds a uniform thinking and a uniform economy, and should be opposed for that reason alone.