Words by Smiley Team
Mahmud Shahnawaz is passionate about social impact. So much so, he was inspired to bring the community together by an empty parade of shops.
During his MBA at Cambridge, he learned about how important it is to have impact through businesses, so this was strongly on his mind back in 2019 when he came up with the idea of The Utilize Project.
In Canary Wharf, on a particular week pre-pandemic, there was a lovely road that straddled two sides of the river. “But despite that,” says Mahmud, “this parade of shops had be closed for nine years.”
He called the council and ask why, and they explained it was like this due to planning permissions – and would likely stay like that for the foreseeable future. It gave him an idea: he contacted the developer of one of the shops and asked if he could do a pop-up shop in there.
They gave him the go ahead, so he turned the unused, empty shop into a cupcake store. It was a huge success – and he soon had a waiting list of people wanting to do their own pop-ups. He asked the developer if they could do it for the whole parade. They said yes.
All the shops were oversubscribed, and it was at this point that he brought Gemma Simmons on board, who has a professional background in space revitalisation, having worked on successful commercial projects involving shared workspaces.
The pair took over the entire parade and created The Utilize Project, a nonprofit that saves empty spaces from going to waste. Working closely with progressive developers who want to positively impact the communities they neighbour, they ’utilize’ empty properties for the benefit of the people surrounding them.
“We found empty office blocks too and asked if we could take over buildings,” adds Mahmud, “and they said yes. We took over some derelict businesses offices and brought over people from the arts community, transforming it into an art and recording studio.”
They took over their 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th building – and it’s been expanding from there. During Covid, they even cleared out two of their floors from spaces they had taken over and made it available to students for three hours at a time, so they had space and privacy – and could then go back to their own homes to live in.
So, how are they able to get all this space, we hear you asking. Mahmud explains that the landlords are going through a planning process – usually when this happens, they give notice to existing residents, and most will end up leaving.
But Mahmud came in and said they didn’t need long leases – they just needed space. They use the spaces on a “meanwhile basis”, being nimble and quick on their feet. This means they’ve gone in and come out of multiple buildings since it began.
“It’s a win, win, win, win, on four fronts,” he explains. “The landlord wins because they don’t have to pay for security costs – we take those on; the community benefits because people in the local area from a low socioeconomic background can use this space for their startups; the council benefits because they get receipts of taxes where they otherwise wouldn’t; and we benefit for bringing these empty spaces to life, which is our purpose.”
The Utilize Project currently has more than 80 SMEs working from their spaces – “a great one is an arts collective called Metre Squared CIC, who make space available to young artists who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it,” says Mahmud.
“There are 6,000 empty properties in London, and we want to use these case studies to show that shouldn’t be the case,” he says.
“We’ve seen our plan works – so we’re expanding in London and in talks with councils. We know the will is there – we want to upskill and help people.”
The Utilize Project has helped 20 charities by providing them with space, and creating a hub to help them learn from one another. “We let no space go to waste,” says Mahmud, repeating their motto.
VOLUNTEER: If you’re interested in volunteering to help transform these spaces, get in touch with The Utilize Project.
TAKE ACTION: Know any empty spaces? Let the team know – and they'll see what they can do!