What is Coworking? It Might Be 21st Century Sharecropping

Coworking is a lynchpin of the “new way of work” [6]. Bringing together communities of independent workers in physical proximity, a coworking space is a “Serendipity Machine” [7], fostering spontaneous conversation, collaboration, and networking. What do the workers bring? Above all, they bring “social capital”, skills, experience, and friendly collegiality. This is “Society 3.0” [7].

This anthropological description of coworking has been taken very seriously by some organizers, who seek to apply digital technology to foster and channel this natural .process.

The WeWork chain is either a digitally augmented work space, or a physical manifestation of a digital network, or both [6]. The organization exerts considerable effort developing digital tools matchmaking among members and for “optimizing” workers’ activities (e. g. [1-3]). One way to see these tools is that they measure and manipulate the “social capital” provided by the member workers.

Seats2Meet takes a similar approach to its logical limit [5]. They charge no monetary fee for access to the shared work space, but do require the workers to (1) register their skills (i.e., describe their social capital) and (2) agree to talk to other workers while in the space (i.e., to put their social capital in circulation). This transaction is realized and visualized through a public “dashboard” [5, 7]. This, they believe, is a “Serendipity Machine” [7].

Blogfabrik: Digital Share Cropping?

Blogfabrik in Berlin takes an interesting variation on this idea: “content creators” (e.g, bloggers) “pay for their workspace with content”  Specifically, Blogfabrik publishes its own digital magazine, “Daily Bread”, produced by the coworkers.

A desk and a network of peers in exchange for text, images and film. This is the wonderfully simple deal behind Kreuzberg’s BLOGFABRIK, Germany’s first coworking space where bloggers, instagrammers, photographers and videographers pay for their workspace with content; uniting various digital skills and disciplines in an innovative centre of expertise which develops, publishes and promotes digital content.” From http://blogfabrik.de/en/

The workers have their own careers and projects, but they provide in-kind services to the work space’s publication in exchange for coworking privileges. The magazine gains a flexible pool of talent at minimal expense. The coworkers are not employees of the magazine, permanent or otherwise.

Actually, the picture is more nuanced that my bald statement above, it’s not simply digital sharecropping because all parties benefit in multiple ways. The magazine is a potentially valuable portfolio for the workers, and the project is an opportunity to collaborate with a talented team. The coworking space also offers opportunities for professional development, finding gigs, and networking. The coworking space and the community of workers helps the publisher attract and maintain a “stable” of creators.

Blogfabrik is an interesting hybrid “social workspace” (a work space plus publisher plus talent agency plus social club plus…). The joint project matches the skills and careers of a large population that desires coworking space but cannot easily afford to pay cash.

Considering this a bit, I think one of the innovations is to let the workers have their own career in the space. Once the “in kind” service is rendered, the coworking space allows the worker to do anything they want to in the space with the rest of their time and talent. Assuming the “in kind” payment is reasonable, this is a remarkably favorable model for the workers.

But, as Maria Ebbinghaus of Blogfabrik concedes, the model may not apply easily to other types of work and groups of workers. The key “would be to create a common project that everyone benefits from”, and one that matches the skills of enough workers in the area.

This makes me think a little about cases that might work well this way.

Some software projects might work in this way, especially something with an open source version, and a significant public or social purpose (i.e., a broad group of stakeholders and beneficiaries). For that matter, I could imagine certain kinds of non-digital projects, such as community development, or adult education, that might work, too. The trick would be to have the right kind of funding for the joint project and the space, and noone trying to own or profit off the joint effort.

On the other hand, the Blogfabrik model may only work at the low-paid edges of the gig economy.  Ebbinghaus notes that “low pay is still an issue and having enough projects available in order to make a living is also a constant struggle“, for workers and for publishers.

Almost any decently paid freelancer may well prefer to pay cash for workspace, if only because their hourly billing rate makes in-kind services untenable.  I can also imagine some gigs that preclude such in-kind work, which might constitute a conflict of commitment or damage a brand.

But enough nit-picking! Blogfabrik is an interesting idea, and seems to work in its niche.

  1. Chieng, Sam, Design Research for Digital Tools Within WeWork, in wework blog. 2016. https://www.wework.com/blog/posts/design-research-digital-tools
  2. Davis, Daniel, How Beacons Will Change Architecture, in wework blog. 2016. https://www.wework.com/blog/posts/how-beacons-will-change-architecture
  3. Emig, Josh, Buildings are Giant Computers – Product Research at WeWork, in wework blog. 2016. https://www.wework.com/blog/posts/product-research-at-wework
  4. Gray, Amanda (2016) Content creators get a free place to work at Berlin’s Blogfabrik. The New Worker, http://newworker.co/mag/blogfabrik-writer-coworking-berlin/
  5. Grusauskas, Maria (2013) The Future of Coworking is Free and Augmented. http://www.shareable.net/blog/the-future-of-coworking-is-free-and-augmented
  6. Liquid Talent, Dude, Where’s My Drone: The future of work and what you can do to prepare for it. 2015. https://www.dropbox.com/s/405kr9keucv97gw/LiquidTalentFoWEbook.pdf?dl=0
  7. Olma, Sebastian, The Serendipity Machine: A Disruptive Business Model for Society 3.0, 2012. https://www.seats2meet.com/downloads/The_Serendipity_Machine.pdf


What is Coworking?

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