Part 1 of a three part interview series with Julian Waters-Lynch, who researches and explores the rise of the newest way of sharing office space and the future of work in the new economy. In this segment creator of PatternDynamics, Tim Winton, discusses a range of topics with Julian, ranging from what Coworking actually is, to is distinct aesthetic approach, core principles, origin stories, and the tension that started it all in the first place.
Podcast: Download (Duration: 19:55 — 18.3MB)
1:30 CoWorking: What is it?
2:20 The Long History of Shared Office Arrangements
3:45 2005 and the Emergence of the CoWorking Difference
5:07 Aesthetic Differences in CoWorking Spaces
6:15 Celebration of the Non-Standard Work Environment
7:50 Principles of CoWorking
9:00 The Boundary Pattern in CoWorking
12:00 The CoWorking Business Model
12:30 Concentration/Diffusion Pattern
13:00 Hybridisation of Digital and Physical Workspaces
13:30 CoWorking Origin Stories
15:20 Open Software Frameworks
16:21 Accelerator Serendipity
17:00 The Generative Tension that Started It All
18:45 A Response to Corporate Globalisation
Tim : Welcome to PatternDynamics Create Systems that Thrive blog podcast series. In today’s episode we’re going to talk to Julian Waters Lynch and we are going to talk about co-working and the future of work. I would like to introduce you to Jules. Jules is a PHD candidate in the School of management at RMIT University in Northern Australia. He researches co-working, the practice of non-standard work sharing space, interacting and sometimes collaborating on shared projects. His research examines the social construction of the role co-worker and where it comes, collaborative practices that co-working entails to ethnographic case study. Co-working has often being held up as an example of one of the growing trend in work practices and certainly it’s something that contributes to creating systems that thrive in the workplace environment and new and all the ways of doing that.
Tim : Welcome Jules, I’m really looking forward to what you have to tell us today from your research and from your experience with co-working in the future work.
Julian : Wonderful, great to be here.
Tim : Jules, can you tell us how you view co-working? What is it for you?
Julian : It’s an interesting one. The more I’ve looked at it and more I’ve looked at the history of these practices, the more subtle it becomes. It’s like on the surface you could say that coworking is a practice of largely freelances or solely self-employed co-workers or sharing office space, working on their individual projects and sometimes interacting. And that’s new to some people. They may come in and say it’s is a sort of new phenomenon — independent workers credit knowledge workers, plunge in their laptops, working on their own things but sharing a coffee machine, sharing a conversation, and sharing knowledge. It’s actually the history of shared office arrangements goes back decades; it goes back to the 60s. We’ve had business centers, executive suites, serviced office arrangements, literally for decades particularly during the 80s and the 90s. What’s interesting to me is from about 2005, this term co-working really came out at San Francisco (around that particular frame) but we had similar emergences from major global cities like Berlin, London, New York, etc. where groups of predominantly young people started saying we’re going to do something together that different from our past experiences of organization.
Tim : Right. So on the surface the structures were the same; shared office environment but something different happened. Is that what you’re research is showing?
Julian : Yes, very much indeed; shared office environment. If we look at something as simple as the distinction between serviced offices; these has been around and delivered most notably by companies like Regus and Surf Bot. I think Regus have thousand of spaces around the world. And if we look at what’s different about a co-working space in general, you get at least three answers. One is the kinds of people that inhabit these spaces. These are often in an
urban creative knowledge space. They don’t do things like dress formally. They normally work on technology or credive design industries. The second point is that the people themselves are different; whereas service office is really catered to conventional twentieth century business. The second level down is related in a way; it’s a level of social participation. So almost every coworking space says something about community; something about the way this word ‘community’ used. It’s almost not a co-working space if it doesn’t use the word community.
Tim : Right. Now we’re getting in to some of what might be the central features that make coworking, co-working as opposed to things that look similar on the surface. But, don’t feel the same at all.
Julian : Similar sharing space. Yes, absolutely. We’ll probably talk more about the nature of social participation and collaborative activities and co-working spaces. That’s really the key focus of my own research. But I think the third one worth noting is the ascetic differences. Most service offices (at least the ones that I’ve seen) somehow look like you’re plastic twentieth century fortes offices, standardized amenities, a professional veneer, it’s hard to find precise language for this but I think we know impressionistically what we mean right?
Tim : We know it when we see it. I understand this one.
Julian : And if you look at most co-working spaces and particularly the early years, from sort of 2005 to 2008 or 2009, they looked like almost the complete opposite; neo-syncretic, spoke non standard IELTS, they looked like in an urban café or bars or mini contexts. Many of them grew out of a post-industrial infrastructure so these were factories, warehouses, re-purposed for young digital work. And there was a celebration of that post formal ascetic right? There was a celebration of the non-standard often at times the fact that they used themselves at a hand creating the designed or even fabricating the materials at times. So there’s a prog-user of dynamic that you get in the web, the literature on digital networks and web use.
Tim : A producer-user is some sort of a combined role.
Julian : Yes. It’s a combination. The users are the producers. You really got that dynamic twirl upon and that I think is part of the current cultural cohesion of the movement in the early days.
Tim : Yes. You and I have been to a numbers of hubs. You’ve been to a lot of them in your research and in your career. Impact Hub Oakland is what comes to mind for me as the classic of the form. It’s the re-purposed commercial site in an urban renewal setting that has all the characteristics that you’ve talked about. If I went in a service office facility and then I went into Impact Hub Oakland; it’s like chalk and cheese. It’s like night and day. They’re so different. And that’s not magic. What is the difference? Aside from the ascetics and the natural structure of the office layout, they’re ostensibly offering the same thing — shared work space environments. Now that we’ve somehow identified what co-working is, as distinct from what shared office spaces are, I’m really interested on what you think the principles are. What are the main distinctions that allow these things called co-working space to emerge as opposed to them just being serviced office environments. Also, sometimes, do co-working spaces fall back? Or transition to becoming more like service office environments if these principles are not in place? What’s your feeling on that? What are these principles that you’ve identified.
Julian : It’s a fascinating question, and one that I am prone to go on at length about. Because I think there’s are really compelling factorss here. So, one level you write and you zoom out and you take away who’s inhabiting these or the ascetic dimensions or the kind of activities, you look purely at the business model itself. A lot of the time it looks almost identical to the service office arrangements; participants would usually pay a monthly fee, so it’s essentially a club in economics that means it’s a shared good with a boundary around it.
Tim : We’ll come back to that. I think this boundary principle is something that we’ve discussed before and it’s really interesting. So maybe we’ll park that one and come back to it but I just wanted to flag it. I think we both agreed it’s important.
Julian : And with that being raised, the reason I think its important is because when you get into the actual good being shared. It’s the first of principle distinction. If the good being shared is office facilities and physical space maybe enabling access to a strategic location, fostering credibility for an individual business because they can use a CBD address or its access to physical infrastructure; the printers, the wifi, that’s actually quite an easy thing to put an economic boundary around. You can exclude non payers by not letting them in the building, not giving them access to the wifi and etc. If the good being shared is the community itself, that field of social relations through which knowledge and networks or access to resources is contained. Well, that’s quite a difficult thing for our entrepreneurs to build exclusion rights around. It is communities by their very nature, they’re not owned by anyone. Most by definition, they are owned an amorphous collective field. And so when you look at the digital space like Facebook and they have a particular answer to owning the field in which social relations play at. Like Facebook owns a sort of platform and people interact in a fairly free manner and Facebook harvests some of that value and sells it to advertisers and etc. and the cost of leaving is difficult. So you can see where that sort of works. That netarchical capitalist model, according to balance, is where you build a platform; actors come and interact on that platform and the owner of that platform derives value from that. But, in a co-working context where a lot of that interaction is actually happening face to face in the context of an urban environment where the costs of leaving and taking those relations outside the boundary of the space is not very high. You make friends or you make connections in a co-working space and stay friends with them outside of it. It’s a little bit less clear to me how you monetize that in a sense; how an entrepreneur can control the who’s in and who’s outside that, right? And where is that very much in the service office environment. So, I might be a bit angry now but at one it’s a crucial one in terms of thinking about the value creation mechanism of these spaces and then also where they should properly sit in terms of the private-public sector and the non-profit sector. What they’re really trying to achieve? What’s the best business model to achieve that? I think I answered one aspect of your question, but there’s a lot more.
Tim : Okay. There are a couple of things that came up for me; a couple of points that I want to switch back on. One is the idea that there are concentrations. You mentioned in London, Berlin, New York, San Francisco where co-working or things like it emerge pretty much independently at the same time. And they were concentrated in inter-city course or within 10 kilometers I think you said in our previous conversation. So where these things arose is very concentrated.
Also there’s this idea of physical space and digital space and the somehow the hybridization of this two things that played a role in the emergence of co-working. Can you talk a little bit on the concentration factor and also the hybrid digital, physical space? I think that somehow leads on to this idea that there is a boundary that this places rely on. And I think we need to flesh out what boundary it is that leads to that concentrated focus and what the hybernization of the digital and physical workspace has to do with it.
Julian : Sure. There are quite a few things in there. I’ll start with the origin stories perhaps. I know three in detail, and make fourth in Berlin but I suspect that there is actually lots of these independent origin stories that will increasingly come out over the years. They all happened (well the ones I’m familiar with) in around 2005. One of them is where the term co-working came from which is Dekelbrag Nelburg in San Francisco and he put out a call which has really captured the imagination of a group of people at that time; but has been drawn on subsequently as a sort of co-working early manifesto. He basically said that if you work in a large organization, it sucks because there’s politics, and power, and you’re not in control of your work. And if you work by yourself at home, it sucks because you’re isolated and you fall into bad social patterns and you don’t have a supportive community of people around you — a particular kind of community; a work community. Third is co-working. He said: “come and hang out at this place in San Francisco.” and the first one I think it was called Spiral Muse. It was sort of in the mission district. In the first experiment, he would probably say it didn’t really work; it was an old feminist collective house that looks totally hippie. I think he had five or six people that turned out didn’t have a lot of space and he said it took him a lot of time – much more than he has anticipated. But it captured enough information that him and a few other people like Chris, Mesina and Tara Hunt opened another space and another space and it sort of became infectious at that point. Now, these people were big fans of the open software movement. They had a framework in open culture, around re-mixing, packing taken up. First of all they were highly digitally literate people. They understood the nature of web 2.0
Tim : So they had digital space in their life. They were capable of doing that but the downside was they didn’t have any of the physical space that allows people to interact face to face. Is that you think is kind of the drivers behind this?
Julian : Yes, I think there was craving for or a yearning for a face to face re-localization. These are people that could easily get online and make people highly socially mobile in many ways. There’s a particular term that emerge down of that; those experiments called accelerator serendipity and now it’s a bit of a catchy phrase that I think was Tara Hunt that came up with it. But there were points to this sort of the unplanned; serendipity is like a happy accident; the unplanned nature of local buzz and bouncing to each other that. Creative collisions between people that share enough in terms of creativity or values and they’re happy to interact with each other but are different enough that they could have some sort of useful novelty to each connections.
Tim : Yea I think I’m interested in this because I’m trying to identify the tension that signaled the need for this new emergent form. The tension being that in a physical space you do get these serendipitous connections and that that was missing. There was some sort of an absence; that there’s some new form that was trying to address. And the reason why I mentioned that is because the theme of this podcast is “Creating systems that thrive.” First, we’ve got to sense that there is an opportunity or a pain point that needs to be addressed. And that’s the first step in actually creating a more flourishing environment. I’m imagining that was the driver here and we can identify that as a generative tension.
Julian : Yes I think it was. The reason I told you the three stories is that’s one. Each of them was a little bit different so there was another movement about the same time in New York, it’s where Jellies came out of. And that was just a lot more than being on your own. These two guys that are inviting people to heir New York apartment and said: “Hey just come hang out. We’re all working individually together.” It was a nonmonetarize form. It never really was attempted to be turned into an enterprise itself. The Jelly movement still happens around the world. There are lots of cities around the world where you can jump on a computer and find a Jelly where creative independent workers do their own thing on their laptops but in the presence of others. So there’s a light hearted social element there but the reason why I think the third case is interesting is really the genealogy of the hubs. The impact hubs which is in London and that was very much a response to corporate globalization. These were people that were engaged in the alter globalization movement, the social forums; these movements that were critical of what capitalism is doing in a large scale and looking for more than just alternatives but not simply as a protest movement as a way of structuring their own work lives into things like social enterprise. So that was really community of people trying to work out how to do this thing. Again, predominantly in the 20s so I guess I didn’t feel they had mentors, established pathway that they could follow. They were trying to forge their own create their own.