What is Coworking? It Reproduces an Artists Coop

When considering the question “What is Coworking?”, it is clear that there are many precedents that contribute to the concept of coworking spaces and coworking communities. In my forthcoming book, I show that these influences include telecommuting, digital nomadism, high tech office spaces, business incubators, design studios, maker spaces, and so on.

Maira Sutton writes this week about another partial inspiration for coworking, “artists cooperatives”. This piece made me think about these worker owned enterprises, and how they relate to coworking spaces an coworking communities.

Art Co-ops and the Power of Mobilizing Collaboration for Creativity

The age old idea of artists banding together to share studio space and resources, and to collaborate and stimulate creativity has moved into the digital age.

Creative artists live in a highly digital world, and live or die by the vagarities of digital commerce. Artists are also “first adopters” for digitally augmented cooperatives, which match the collaborative ethos of working artists.

Sutton notes Stocksy United, which is a well known digital artists cooperative. The technology is standard stuff used by corporate and other enterprises, but the business model is organized as an artists cooperative, which is cost effective, fair, and gives the site artistic “integrity”.

In other words, the cooperative model is a good match for this business (commercial versions of which are known for cut throat and blood sucking practices).

Sutton reports on another coop, CoLab (in Ithaca, NY) (not to be confused with this or this or the dozens of other organizations with the same name that pop up in Google), which is a digital design studio serving mission oriented enterprises. Again, the technology and design are identical to commercial operations, but the business is organized as a coop, which, again, offers both cost and “integrity” advantages.

In this case, the cooperative is actually a distributed group, including remote workers. Not surprisingly, they use Loomio and other digital communications to cooperate and collaborate.

Sutton describes an interesting variant on the “kickstarter” idea, exemplified by Meerkat Media, which is a digital production company that operates as a worker owned cooperative. The collective ownership gives the artists more creative opportunities as well as a better deal financially.

Sutton extols these examples of Restoring the Cooperative Tradition”, and her story makes it is clear that properly designed digital technology is a good match for these types of organizations.

I have pointed out that these worker owned cooperatives are a good match for their goals and values, especially when their customers and stakeholders are mission oriented or creative artists.

What does this have to do with coworking?

Clearly, the notion of independent workers banding together to share resources and collaborate is one of the inspirations for coworking spaces. If it works for artists, let’s do the same thing for programmers and other professionals.

Indeed, the descriptions of the artistic groups echo many of the reports from coworkers. Sutton’s title refers to “the Power of Mobilizing Collaboration for Creativity”, which could be the motto of many coworking spaces.

However, many, and probably most coworking spaces are not organized as coops (though many are not-exactly-for-profit enterprises). There are many reasons for this. Coops are hard, legally and sociologically. Coworkers are highly transient, and their commitment is short term and contingent. Many coworkers are not “mission oriented”, and many are technically one person corporations.

Nevertheless, I observe that coworking communities often act extremely similar to formal coops, inviting participatory decision making, and sharing resources. For that matter, communities of coworkers operate very similarly to the communities in artists communities. Ideas are freely shared, people help each other, collaborative projects are born and executed, and so on. And coworkers are happy to belong to their community.

Honestly, I suspect that most coworkers don’t care about the details of the legal structure of the coworking operation. They care about their fellow workers and how they interact with them.

The main point is that coworking seems to capture the essence of an artist coop, without the formal organization or ideological commitment to worker ownership. One could conclude that, one way or another, independent workers should band together in communities of peers. The diversity of ways that coworking spaces operate shows that you don’t necessarily need to organize as a cooperative to achieve many of the benefits.

Organizing as a cooperative is important for other reasons. Obviously, workers get a much better deal from worker owned enterprises (which is why many coworkers are happy to be independent contractors). Furthermore, a worker owned cooperative is a very close match to the kind of work community that coworking seeks to foster. Not only a room full of workers like me, but a room we own and operate together. In fact, participating in a coop requires more commitment, and therefore creates greater identity with the community.

One final consideration is that joining a cooperative is a much longer term commitment. Coworking is, by definition, a short term commitment, sometimes as little as a few hours. The challenge for coworking communities is to sustain a group of highly transient workers. Organizing as a cooperative makes workers commit to each other in a more permanent way.

For this reason, I think cooperatives may be more “sustainable” than coworking communities. The prospect of a relatively stable career over many years is good for many workers, especially workers with families. This is one of the biggest unanswered question marks in coworking and the gig economy in general: how well can workers sustain a full lifetime career?


What is Coworking?

(Stay toned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking?”, out ins early 2017)

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