Melbourne’s Micro-Lab: Borrow Shop Gather Connect Drink Flush Welcome!

Six months after its launch in the Melbourne CBD, a new kind of third space feels like home for a "ridiculously diverse" mix of people.

How to lure people back into the city? And what to do with empty shopfronts? Before Christmas last year Melbourne’s Swanston Street was full of frantic shouty pop-ups. But heading east up Bourke Street I found a prototype for a new kind of public space in the light and airy shell of a former dumpling restaurant.

The idea came from AECOM’s Smart Cities team as part of the City of Melbourne’s emerging technologies pitch fest. It was one of three finalists in 2021’s Reimagining the City Challenge. The original proposition was for an ambitious digital hub – difficult to achieve when a key principle in the placemaking playbook is “smaller, faster, cheaper”.  It’s good to see that the absence of the original tech aspirations didn’t derail the experiment.

So, while christened a “Micro-Lab”, the space is more of a micro library with co-working, and space for a juicy mix of events and creative people. A fringe third space.

There’s a perfectly curated bookshelf, library reserves to collect, sewing machines on offer and space to read.

There’s also a pop-up retail shopfront. In December it was hosting a comic shop and exhibition. Since the space opened in May 2022 the line-up of events has featured sex clinics, an Arabic teahouse, maker Mondays, Turkish shoemakers, late night study sessions, school holiday crafting and queer salsa for beginners.

And because its temporary, the fit out by Moth Design is minimal, almost stage-like, so settings can adapt to people and events.  Curtains swoosh on tracks. Tables and shelves are all on wheels. Signage is everywhere: messages and nudges from the onsite team, flyers from the residents and event hosts.

Desks line the wall for people looking for somewhere to work – complete with laptop stands to ward off turtleneck. When I visited the heart of the space under the skylight was setup as a mini expo for gig workers offering snacks and solidarity and exploring the idea of a permanent communal tearoom.

Micro-lab provides kitchen and bathroom facilities, and a rear courtyard for anyone looking to eat or work outside.

Apart from Wi-Fi the only remnant of the concept’s tech overlay is in the digital tracking which looks solid but risks missing the heart and soul of this little miracle – the people.

Why does it work so well?

Firstly, the process leaned into the community to flesh out the design vision and operating principles for the space. AECOM invited reps from 20+ groups who’d responded to an EOI for primary partners to be the sounding board for the prototype. This slice of Melbourne has opened access for an even broader line-up of micro-entrepreneurs that Zac Cvitovic from AECOM recalls led to a “ridiculously diverse” mix of groups at the launch party.

Secondly, it’s a sandbox for experimentation. Importantly for both the City of Melbourne and the primary partners, it exists with its own identity and social media presence.  And it bears out Jane Jacobs’ rule from “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” that while old ideas can sometime use new buildings, new ideas must use old buildings:

“…the unformalized feeders of the arts–studios, galleries, stores for musical instruments and art supplies, backrooms where the low earning power of a seat and a table can absorb uneconomic discussions–these go into old buildings. Perhaps more significant, hundreds of ordinary enterprises, necessary to the safety and public life of streets and neighborhoods, and appreciated for their convenience and personal quality, can make out successfully in old buildings, but are inexorably slain by the high overhead of new construction.

As for really new ideas of any kind–no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be–there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction.” 

We need to re-use and recycle every bit of the built environment – especially top-lit dumpling restaurants.

And the DNA of hospitality leads to my final observation about Microlab’s secret sauce – the people hosting this ecosystem of strangers. They come from the City of Melbourne Libraries’ Creative Technologies team. To hold all this together you need to be a community manager on steroids – a tummler and a social worker.  You’ll be dealing with random visitors like me, grumpy people wanting to buy a comic when the stall holder hasn’t shown up, regulars, promoters, traders settling in for the duration. All of us trying something new and different. Everyone welcomed warmly and generously. Applause to the people on the floor!

Don’t even think about scaling it up in size. But now this clever team has built the social capital that’s brought a thought bubble to life – could it just stay? Or could you roll out multiple Micro-Labs? AECOM’s original concept shows a string of street-facing venues – which could turn a pop-up into a fringe festival. With the end of the experiment already extended you’ve only got till end of February to see it for yourself.

The Soft Build is a strategy consultancy that helps people use buildings as a scaffold for organisational change.

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