After a very long day of queues and flight delays in Schiphol Amsterdam Airport I finally reached the village of Óbidos late Tuesday night in my little rented Fiat mobile. The following morning while facing the deprivation of travelling without my daughter, I made my way through the medieval town surprised by the up hill chill. Despite the cold weather, the small narrow streets were crowded with tourists and school classes and I started to realise the iconic significance of Óbidos in the Portuguese cultural heritage. The village is geographically placed just one hours drive North of Lisbon, while the surf town of Peniche and the surrounding famous beaches are only 25 kilometres away. The history of Óbidos goes all the way back to the Romans, but the present ruins of a previous fortifications were builded by the Moors before the first king of Portugal, Afonso Henriques, conquered the town in the 12th century. Óbidos remains a well-preserved example of medieval architecture and its streets, squares, walls and its castle are a popular tourist destination.
Since I did not have an appointment with CoLab founder Pedro Reis before the next day, I spent my time pacing the town, admiring how the attempt to brand the place as a Literary Village (Vila Literária) had resulted in several alternative and stylishly appointed bookshops: an old barn-like cantina redecorated as a literature-lounge, the walls covered with wooden vegetable boxes filled with books in several languages. Beanbags on the floor next to organically shaped low coffee tables illuminated from beneath. At one gable end an organic vegetable stand materialized the associations with a farm-like ambience, at the other end tables and mics were set up for writers to debate and sign their books to the audience.
By the end of the main road a chapel was renovated and subsequently the designed interior shaped in different formations of book shelves. The quiet and respectful atmosphere of a church room gave way to the sentiment of being in a library, making me wanna stay and surrender myself to the works of Pessoa, Saramago and Jorge. Even though no information was to be found regarding the ongoing literature festival, I liked the idea of first and foremost displaying books in non-traditional locations, encouraging people to buy and to read literature.
Thursday morning I finally found myself in the place, I had been looking so much forward to experience: The CoLab Óbidos, located on the first floor of an old farmhouse just above the market street that leads the way into the main gate and the village of Óbidos. Designer, innovator, nomad and surfer Pedro Reis is managing the coworking space, but I will get back to Pedro and his ideas in another post, since on my arrival in the CoLab my Portuguese academic contact, Elisabete Tomaz, had already made an arrangement with the people from The Óbidos Technology Park (Parque Tecnológico de Óbidos) to come and pick me up.
In the light common room of the CoLab, I was introduced to the cultural policy of Óbidos by Miguel, the director of the commercial foundation Obitec. Afterwards the Obitec Communication Manager Ana Lima took me for a ride to the Technology Park building site just a little north of the village of Óbidos. The park is actually still under construction so what I came to see were two buildings housing some medium sized enterprises and a big construction site supposed to be an energy efficient frame and base for 50 enterprises within the creative industry by January 2014.
The initiative to the Tech Park was made by the current mayor of Óbidos. He really is the man with a plan and a lot of visions. To develop the economy of his Municipality he made two main focuses within the cultural policy, the one being creativity based development, the other being an extensive reformation of the public schools. As it is today the two things go hand in hand, since the creative class of the region moves to the district of Óbidos, so their children can join the public schools of the municipality.
The Technology Park is the first of its kind in Portugal, targeting primarily the creative industry. To fund the place the Municipality of Óbidos, the University of Lisbon and some private investors founded the commercial foundation Obitec. Obitec administrates and communicates the plans of the Technology Park to the world, demonstrating that the foresighted thing for a municipality to understand is, that helping create spaces for creative businesses is not a cost but an investment.
Whilst informing me of the organization of the Obitec, Ana Lima drove me a little further to the ABC Incubator (Incubadora ABC), which residents in an old medieval convent, Convento S. Miguel das Gaeiras. The Obitec offered to renovate the buildings in exchange for a rental contract and so it is, that small innovative enterprises and start up companies occupy the cloister cells, that events like TEDx has been incurred in the chapel, the rostrum being the ancient pulpit, and that matchmaking and coworking events have been conducted in the shady convent garden while operas and theatre plays have been performed in the surrounding park.
Overloaded with useful information regarding the cooperation between a progressive municipality, a commercial foundation and a team of enthusiastic people, Ana took me back to Pedro in the CoLab. Not alone was I by these officials received with approachability, kindness, interest and Portuguese kisses on the cheeks, I also encountered an open source attitude very similar to the one we try to demonstrate.
Last but not least, even before my visit to Óbidos, I compared the case of the Portuguese village to the place of Klitmøller: a small village where the traditional way of life is slowly becoming extinct and by some place specific qualities replaced by the culture of a creative dominated class. The crucial difference, though, must be the political attitude toward the development. As highlighted by Miguel, the path chosen by The Municipality of Óbidos is very untraditional in a local policy context: The municipality actually takes the initiative, pays the costs, believes in the projects conducted by the citizens, incubates the start ups and shares the knowledge, mistakes and inspiration it encounters along the way. Now here’s something to think about.