Al Jeffrey on “A Vibrant Coliving Culture”

Following the success of coworking, many people are developing “coliving” spaces. As in the case of coworking, there are a variety of approaches that use this term, and some of them seem quite divergent.

Some coliving spaces are associated with coworking spaces, e.g., with a workspace on the street level and workers living upstairs.

Other sites are more like communes, college dormitories, or perhaps retirement villages; integrating social activities with the housing.

The common theme seems to be to offer a “community”, both for sharing resources, and for enriching everyday life. This, of course, is the conceptual connection to coworking, which is all about community.

This month Al Jeffrey discusses co-living (and “co-housing”). This is growing in popularity because “there’s a strong desire for people to work and live in connected communities.” To succeed, he believes that “it’s important to focus on community management.”

I note that the term “community management” originated in digital communities, and is one of the titles adopted by the leaders of coworking communities. In fact, this is now a professional position (for both digital and physical communities), utilizing a toolkit borrowed from corporate human resources, facilities management, the hospitality industry, organizational psychology, psychotherapy, and possibly vaudeville.

One community manager interviewed by Lizzie Widdicombe has a degree in Anthropology, which strikes me as an extremelyappropriate background.  Jeffrey himself is producing a book to be titled “Modern Tribe: Coliving and Personal Growth in the 21st Century”.

Writing in Sharable, he offers “Three Ways to Co-Create a Vibrant Co-living Culture”, which give an interesting perspective on what he thinks is a “vibrant” community, and how a “community manager” may foster it.

  1. Hold a Common Story

The principle is to co-create a common narrative, describing some shared principles. He ties this to tribal rituals, and argues that this improves communication. His suggested technique is something like “social fabric weaving” meetings.

Implicit in this approach is the idea that community doesn’t just happen (otherwise every apartment block would have a vibrant community). He also assumes that there is some sort of common story to uncover. To me, this implies that there must be some sort of selective recruitment, filtering, or “curation” (in the term used by some coworking spaces).

  1. Create Space for Regular Check-ins

Under the principle, “talk to each other”, he calls for regular meetings with the goal of honest communication.

“Create a very intentional and casual space weekly to be present and honest with each other, and share all that is working and not working.”

This is an opportunity to be heard, and to prevent the build up of troubles.

Obviously, much depends on the good will and maturity of the people, and skilled leadership can help make this work.

  1. Create Space for Regular Checkouts

Jeffrey thinks it is important to get away from the group from time to time. (I can imagine that regular sharing sessions could get old pretty fast.)

I was surprised with his idea for making this happen: “create the opportunity to support a local organization or give back in a way that can really energize people”. For example, partner with a farm, so that everyone spends time at farm work (away from the coliving space).


Jeffrey has some very definite notions of what a “vibrant community” is, and evidently has some experience building such communities.

I have to wonder how general his approach might be.

First of all, it seems like these “modern tribes” are pretty homogeneous, coming in with similar values and goals, and most likely, similar backgrounds. It is easy to imagine unbridgeable differences between cultures, religions, and generations.

For example, I’m having difficulty imagining a multigenerational group working this way, with babies, teenagers, parents, grandparents, all in a circle, ‘sharing’. Maybe, though you’ll have to take away everyone’s phones.

For that matter, how would this ever work for families with kids? There has to be a mighty strong narrative for someone to enjoy living with and raising other people’s kids. And it’s doubtful that parents will want all-nighters and dance parties in the space.  And twenty-somethings will have limited interest in baby sitting and kid’s playgrounds.

Other question marks include scale, longevity, and resilience of these communities.

History and anthropology suggests that these communities are effectively urban villages, and a village cannot grow too big. Of course, embedded in a city, the “village” is an open system, and likely connected to the world through a complex mesh of social relations. Still, mechanisms such as discussion circles clearly do not scale beyond tens of people at a time. So, I would expect coliving groups to be no larger than 100 or so, and, I predict, larger groups will fission into two or more smaller “daughter cells”.

This brings up the question of longevity and evolution. A coliving group will constantly change as people come and go, and their individual circumstances and preferences change. I think that part of the point of a coliving group is to create a relatively stable social organization in the face of these inevitable changes. And I think this is possible, but not inevitable. Some groups will last and others may disappear.

In addition to changes in the people, the external environment may change. I’m sure that coliving groups will face financial crises (e.g., large increase in rent), and changes in the neighborhood and local economy could be significant. Again, part of the point of the coliving group is to face these challenges more effectively as a group. But the group may or may not succeed.

Overall, these are questions about the resilience of a coliving group. It’s one thing to bring together an enthusiastic group, and set up a coliving space. It’s another thing to keep it going for decades—if that is even the intention.

Jeffrey’s comments about having a “shared story” are very relevant here. The story might be about “scrappy young entrepreneurs”, who band together to have a cooler urban lifestyle. Or the story might be about forming an urban village, to raise children and grow old together. And so on. Depending on the story, the group will approach sustainability and evolution in different ways.


This analysis made me think about ancient analogs for these communities, not just villages, but communes and religious communities (e.g., monasteries).

Why are there not many “religious-themed” coliving (and coworking) communities today? In a way, the communities described by Jeffrey are reinventing life in a religious commune, no?

People bond through shared faith, help each other raise families, and work together on projects inspired by their faith. This seems like a perfect kind of “story” for a coliving community, and one that is well established and has deep historical roots for many people. Furthermore, low cost cooperative work and living space, filled with “social entrepreneurs” could advance objectives to for both social and economic improvement.

So…

Why do we not see religious organizations creating and running these types of work and living places?

Am I missing something? Are there lot’s of examples that I don’t know about? Is there something essential or doctrinal that mitigates against this kind of living for faith-based groups?

Inquiring minds want to know.


  1. Al Jeffery, Al (2016) Three Ways to Co-Create a Vibrant Co-living Culture. sharable, http://www.shareable.net/blog/three-ways-to-co-create-a-vibrant-co-living-culture

 

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