Category Archives: Business

What is Coworking? It can be impactful

In recent years, coworking has come to be associated with a very corporate mind set, seen as part of “the hospitality industry” or the “Service Office Industry”.  The rapacious, debt-fueled expansion of WeWork has become the most visible face of Coworking.

But the truth is that coworking can be, has been, and still is organized in many different ways [2].  Coworking operations are organized as for profit, non-profits, not-entirely-for-profit.  Coworking spaces are organized as independent businesses, as franchises, and embedded in other organizations.  Coworking is even done in living rooms and other informal settings.  (For more on this, see perhaps Chapter 4 of “What is Coworking?” [2].)

In fact, the current highly corporate vibe belies the peer-to-peer, community development spirit of early coworking, clearly reflected in the Coworking Manifesto [1].  The “Coworking Movement”, loosely inspired by open source software, is about workers banding together to reinvent the future of work, improve cities, and bootstrap a new, sustainable economy.

“We are reshaping the economy and the society through social entrepreneurship and innovation. Our communities are coming together to rebuild more human scale, networked, and sustainable economies to build a better world.

“We are the world coworking movement!” (from [1])

This vision is hard to discern in something like WeWork, which “offers companies of all sizes the opportunity to reimagine employees’ days through refreshing design, engaging community, and benefits for all.” (quoted from WeWork website).

Regardless of conferences or corporartions, coworking still is whatever workers want to make it.

This summer Ruby Irene Pratka writes for Sharable about coworking spaces that “positively impact local communities” [3].  Not just low cost, on-demand workspace, these organizations connect with their local community “by launching scholarship programs, offering space for local groups, and hosting public lectures.”

Her list is:

  1. AllGoodWork — New York City, New York
  2. Co+hoots — Phoenix, Arizona
  3. The Coven — Minneapolis, Minnesota
  4. The Beahive— Beacon, New York
  5. Spacecubed— Perth, Western Australia
  6. 312 Main— Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

These examples are mostly, but not all, non-profits, and they have quite a variety of participants.  It is telling that in the write up most of them view their coworkers as a “typical” coworking community, though they are pretty diverse in many dimensions, reflecting their different locations.  (The major exception is The Coven in Minneapolis, which is self-described a community of women and non-binary identified workers—their work is probably “typical”, if not the demographics.)

The common thread is that all of these organizations have a major focus on having a positive impact on their local area. This means different things to each, but obviously goes far beyond “reimagining employees’ days”, to reimagining a better world outside the doors.

Besides the potential good for the world that these collaborations may do, there is also an important benefit from having these contemporary workers visible and engaged with their city, especially with local kids. Kids need to know about what working is like, and to be inspired by adult examples. If coworking is where the future of work is happening, then kids (and everyone) need to know people who are doing it.

This commitment to community impact is also an asset for the both the coworking organization, and for the workers. The workers are invited to participate in a narrative about work and life, and take up a larger purpose as part of a like-minded community.  Going to the office is much more than just showing up, it’s helping make the world better.  (I’ll also speculate that when you are worried about helping other people, you are a lot less likely to be depressed.)

(For more on these ideas, see perhaps Chapter 7 and 8 of “What is Coworking?”, the book.)

  1. coworking.org. Coworking Manifesto: The Future of Work. 2012, http://coworkingmanifesto.com/.
  2. Robert E. McGrath, What is Coworking” A look at the multifaceted places where the gig economy happens and workers are happy to find community. (in preparation), self, 2017. https://whatiscoworkingthebook.com/
  3. Ruby Irene Pratka (2018) These 6 groups are showing how coworking spaces can positively impact local communities. Sharable, https://www.shareable.net/blog/these-6-groups-are-showing-how-coworking-spaces-can-positively-impact-local-communities

 

What is Coworking?


Hey, hey!  My new book “What is Coworking?” is (finally) available at online stores.

Check it out

 

Tracking the Gig Economy

This month the US Bureau of Labor Statistics issued its first ever report on “Contingent and Alternative Employment”, AKA, “The Gig Economy” [2]. The BLS survey found a relatively small proportion (circa 10%) of US workers are “contingent”.  This number contrasts sharply with the most widely reported number to date from the Freelancers Union, which claimed over 30% of the US workforce, including more than 60% of “millennials”.

In an earlier posts, I criticized the FU survey for its overly broad definition of “worker”.  (For example, they count people who have a full time job and moonlight as “freelance workers”—which is at least double counting, if not conceptually wrong.)  My own reading of the FU survey gave numbers not that different from the BLS survey, when I excluded some of the categories I questioned.

The new official survey suffers from the same problem of definitions.  Who should count as a “contingent” worker? The relatively low numbers of contingent workers reported by the BLS in part stems from their restricted definition of who should be counted in this classification.  The BLS does not count moonlighters (which I think is correct).  They also appear to not count independent workers who are employed as “sub contractors”, e.g., of an employment service.  These workers really should be counted as freelancers, in my opinion.  And so on.

Caitlin Pearce of the Freelancers Union (which produced the earlier reports) raises these and other issues [1].  She also points out that the BLS survey specifically asked workers for how they worked in the last week, which might well will miss many workers with irregular schedules.

Pearce (and the FU survey) argue that “diversified” workers, i.e., people with multiple jobs, should be counted as independent workers.  The FU tends to count them as freelancers, no matter what their mix of work is.  (They project that more than half of all workers will be “freelancing” soon—though since this includes more than one part time job per worker, this number is hard to interpret.)  The BLS is probably biased to counting workers only once, generally for their “steadiest” job.   (This would seem to include at most one job per worker, which does not capture the real diversity of independent work.)

Clearly, there is a tricky counting problem here that deserves some thought.  In particular, there needs to be some concept of “an adequate income”, regardless of how many separate contracts or days of work a given worker puts in to achieve it.

Overall, it looks to me like the BLS and FU surveys are fairly consistent on the fundamentals.  The contracting headlines reflect different decisions about how to classify and count workers.  These differences stem from the reality that independent or contingent working is a complicated way of work.

And I completely agree with Pearce that getting a clear picture is important.

Building a better future for freelancers starts with learning as much as we can who freelancers are and what challenges they face.


  1. Caitlin Pearce, The government must do more to understand the freelance workforce, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2018. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2018/06/13/the-government-must-do-more-to-understand-the-freelance-workforce/
  2. US Departmen of Labor, Contingent and Alternative Employment Arrangements Summary. Economic News Release, 2018. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/conemp.nr0.htm

 

Blockchain Use Cases For A Real Sharing Economy

From the very beginning, Nakamotoan blockchains have inspired dreams of a better world.  In the ensuing decade, many use cases have been floated, though many of the most successful are hardly socially beneficial (e.g., supporting dark markets, extortion, and new flavors of financial scams).

Aaron Fernando writes in Sharable about “Blockchain as a force for good” [1], by which he means implementing a real sharing economy.

here’s a deep dive on blockchain applications in our niche: social impact.

He notes that the term “blockchain” is now used for a variety of systems, not just the original open, decentralized Nakamotoan design [2].  He also points out that use of a blockchain may or may not require a cryptocurrency, and for currencies, there are alternative mining protocols with radically different ecological implications.  In short, the meaning of the term “blockchain” isn’t simple.  it is vital to understand the precise technology in use to match the technology to the goals of the users,

But watch out—Nakamotoan developers are not oriented toward “social impact” in the way that Sharable readers want.

“If you can come up with something that is easy to bootstrap, that does have some incentives built in for the people operating the schemes, and also makes the world a better place — then we’re talking.” (quoting Emin Gün Sirer)


The article visits examples of this sort of “social positive” projects using blockchain technology, and links to a half dozen interviews with some example projects.

There are variations on the theme of crowd funding and peer-to-peer credit, generally aimed at investments at a local level, such as within a city.  This may be done with digital tokens or conventional currency. These systems compete with or replace conventional banks, and potentially provide financial services to the “unbanked” and credit starved.

Other variations involve managing assets and certificates, independent of a central repository.  This might manage human resources (a la a time bank), physical resources (e.g., locally generated solar power) or legal status (such as so-called “self-sovereign identity”).  In all cases, the blockchain serves as an unhackable, digitally programmable, global bulletin board for these exchanges.

Other services are variations on crowdsourcing, offering shared knowledge and decision making.  In these cases, the blockchain serves as a secure repository for digital artifacts (e.g., shared documents) and also supports distributed discussion, voting and decision making, which is the heart of both organizations and democracy.

The common thread among all these efforts is probably user and local ownership, “tools in the hands of the workers” in the twenty first century.  Blockchain technology offers a way for people to share data without relying on centralized servers, which are run by organizations that try to control the activity and rake-off profits—and which may be shut down.

It is also true that blockchain technology is pretty cheap, which is critical for many of these services. One reason conventional financial institutions do not serve small scale enterprises and poor people is that their overhead costs are too high to allow it.  Blockchain based systems that pare down costs can successful serve these cases.

Finally, I’ll point out, as I have many times before, these services are all about trust. While Nakamotoan blockchains are described as “trustless” (because the computers do not need to trust each other), these “socially positive” use cases all work by enabling individuals to work together and trust each other.

The clearest example has to be something like “self-sovereign identity”.  The idea here is to post cryptographically signed credentials on a public blockchain, where they can be accessed and cross-checked anywhere in the world (without government permission).  Even if conventional authorities can’t or won’t certify a person’s identity, they may still be able to get along.

It is clear that this scheme scarcely eliminates the need for authorities, it just makes it possible for people to utilize whatever certification they choose or can obtain in their given circumstances.

But the principle remains the same: whether it’s a printed ID card or a cryptographically signed entry on the blockchain, what matters is who signed it, i.e., who vouches for this information.  When I need an identification for someone, I’m not going to pay any attention to any record, blockchain or not, from a source I don’t trust.

Think about it:  there is nothing to stop anybody from creating their own identification service on the blockchain. I’ll be able to buy whatever credentials I want.  So it will matter even more that there are trusted issuers out there.

All these services depend on establishing trust between parties, one way or another.  The systems are designed to make this as easy and reliable as possible, and, importantly, without requiring only one overriding authority.

When I say these systems are not actually “trustless”, it is not an indictment of these systems or of blockchain technology.  In fact, it is really an explanation of what is hard and what is significant about these concepts.

First, I don’t think that blockchain technology itself is essential to any of these ideas, it could be replaced by other low cost digital technology. Some form of blockchain technology may or may not turn out to be a good way to do it, though, as the article says, there are a lot of permutations of the basic idea of blockchain and its related public key cryptography.

However, these concepts are extremely significant for blockchain, because they provide examples of how to build trusted networks of people using this “trustless” technology. That is the interesting part, in my view.

There are so many not very innovative blockchain “innovations” (think, Initial Coin Offerings, which are nothing more or less than unlicensed securities), it is good to see some truly innovative ideas being tested.


  1. Aaron Fernando (2018) Blockchain as a force for good: How this technology could transform the sharing economy. Sharable, https://www.shareable.net/blog/blockchain-as-a-force-for-good-how-this-technology-could-transform-the-sharing-economy
  2. Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System. 2009. http://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf

 

Cryptocurrency Thursday

Smart Toys: Threat or Menace?

The cover of the May IEEE Computer magazine teases, “Are Smart Toys Secure?”, but the article by Kshetri and Voas buries the lede, “Cyberthreats under the Bed [1].

The topic, of course, is the plethora of new toys built with Internet and IoT technology.  These devices are designed for children, and deploy adult technology including location tracking, internet services, and AI to entertain and, in many cases, sell products.

I have blogged many times about the problematic design and numerous, grievous security and  privacy problems with this technology. I’m sure we are all shocked to learn that these same flaws are found in many “smart toys”.

K&V are particularly concerned about the security weaknesses that have already led to massive breaches. This is particularly troubling because successful identity theft of a child is particularly damaging. A child’s SSN is easily reused because there is no real history to undo.  And the damage may well not be known until much later when the young person begins to establish a credit rating and other financial standing.

Besides identity theft, there are a raft of other dubious features. “Smart” toys may record and track the children.  Personal information may be sold on, and children targeted by advertisers. And, of course, the toys are hackable, so bad guys may be able to take over.

Part of the problem is that toy designers have not focused on security, cutting corners financially and relying on outdated and poor technology.  This is exacerbated by the “let the user beware” attitude inherited from Internet companies. Pushing responsibility onto the children is not only daft, it isn’t legally operative.  So parents are required to take responsibility for groking the security of these devices—not that there is much that they can do.

“The expectation of understanding smart toys’ security and privacy risks might be unrealistic for most parents.” (p. 96)

This attitude has raised hackles when the vendors impose, and sometimes unilaterally change, contractual terms and conditions that absolve them of responsibility. No need to build a safe product if you make people agree that you have no liability.

K&V report that there is little effective regulation, government or otherwise. So parents are pretty much on their own.  Good luck. “As a general rule, however, parents should be wary of toys with recording technology, connect to the Internet, or ask for personal data.

And, basically, don’t buy them.

Just say no.

“Returning “creepy” dolls and other suspect smart toys to vendors for refunds and exchanges, or refusing to purchase them, will likely motivate toymakers to improve their products’ security.”


  1. Nir Kshetri and Jeffrey Voas, Cyberthreats under the Bed. Computer, 51 (5):92-95, 2018.

Seldon on AI and the Future of Work

Sensei Tyra Seldon generally has her head screwed on right.   I hate to disagree with her, especially since she is usually right [here, here, here, here, here, here].

But this month she blogged about AI and the job market [3].  Don’t be afraid, “The future won’t be automated,” she says.

Uh, oh.

Actually, I’m afraid it will be.

Of course, Sensei Seldon is hardly naïve.  She knows that digital technology (AI or otherwise) has and will continue to change life and work.

One point she wants to make is that being afraid of these changes isn’t the right approach.

“There is no need to panic, but there is a need to be prepared.“

She draws lessons from industrial automation.  Panic, denial or resistance isn’t effective.  Embrace and make the best of new technology.

“Many of my friends in the automotive industry have shared with me that the key to their job security isn’t competing with technology, but it is learning how to leverage technology more effectively to accomplish an end goal.”

Seldon herself works with words, and hopes to continue to get paid to work with words. Taking this model of auto workers, the question is, what will AI be able to do, and what will humans be able to do better than–and alongside–AI?

Seldon argues that “there are certain things that AI cannot do and that revolves around uniquely human traits that make us, well, human.”  In short, we puny Carbon-based entities should understand their own strengths, and let our Silicon-based masters do the rest.

What are humans uniquely good at?  Seldon quotes Frida Polli, to say “Creativity. Empathy. Compassion. These are uniquely human traits that no AI guru is claiming are going to be automatable anytime soon.”

Here I have to disagree, at least partly.  Our intuitions about what can and can’t be automated have proved to be wildly inaccurate over and over again. Personally, I still don’t believe that it is possible for computers to generate and understand speech.  But they do.

Depending on the definitions and context, there is no reason why digital systems might not provide adequate “empathy” and “compassion”.  They already are giving puny mortals a run for the money in “creativity”, at least in certain contexts.

Basically, I never bet against AI.


So let’s refine this thought.  I think the thing that AI can’t match is embodied intelligence, and face-to-face interaction.  On the internet, noone can tell if you are a dog, a human, or an AI.  In the flesh, everyone can tell, and everyone cares about the differences.

The implication is, whatever you do, make it personal and, to the degree possible, in person.  Match that, Siri!

So: don’t try to compete with computers for speed or price or even language skills; but do try to challenge them on being there, right now, in person.

Unfortunately, there is another aspect of this issue, and that is the “making a living” part of it. Whatever the competencies of humans, can they be monetized or otherwise turned into food and shelter?  It’s not just what can humans do that computers can’t, it’s what can humans do and get paid for in a decent way?

Here, the challenge is capitalism, not technology.  And here, you should be afraid.  Siri isn’t after your job, but Apple sure is. It’s nothing personal, they’re just interested in the money. All the money.

This is why there needs to be a Freelancers Union and other efforts (such as Platform Cooperativism [1, 2].)


The future will be automated.  The question is, how will we run the future.


  1. Trebor Scholz, Platform Cooperativism: Challenging the Corporate Sharing Economy. Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung: New York Office, New York, 2016. http://www.rosalux-nyc.org/platform-cooperativism-2/
  2. Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider, eds. Ours to Hack and Own: The Rise of Platform Cooperativism, A new Vision for the Future of Work and a Fairer Internet. OR Books: New York, 2017.
  3. Tyra Seldon, AI and the job market: Why we shouldn’t be afraid, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2018. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2018/05/16/ai-and-the-job-market-why-we-shouldnt-be-afraid/

 

Disclosure:  I have been a client with Seldon Writing Group in the past year.  Opinions expressed here are my own.

What is Coworking? It Can Be On A Co-op Plan

There are many ways to organize and operate a coworking space.  (See my new book, “What is Coworking?” [2])

These days, things have become awfully corporate feeling, and it is hard to remember the early days of coworking, which was much more of a worker owned enterprise.

The fact is, coworking spaces have been successfully run not just as for-profit companies, but also as not-just-for-profit, non-profit, embedded in other enterprises (e.g., libraries), and around kitchen tables.

And a coworking space can also be operated as a worker owned cooperative.

This month Cat Johnson reports on Coworking Niagara, “the only English-speaking coworking co-op in Canada” [1].   The workers who use the space are coowners of the space. Actually, paying members own the space, however much they use it.

Founder Trevor Twining indicates that the choice of a coop reflected the desire for mutual commitment. However, “cooperative” does not have to mean “non-profit.”

In the interest of financial sustainability, CN is organized as a for profit cooperative. This requires seeking income to sustain the space, which has led them to offer revenue generating services.

For profit status has both benefits and limitations.  Non-profits can have some kinds of relationships that for profit cannot (e.g., with public and other non-profits).

The main point, of course, was to align the formal governance of the space with the egalitarian spirit of the coworking community. “[W]e wanted members to not only feel like they were involved and had a say, but to actually have a say.

Twining says that a big benefit is that the members’, AKA customers’, interests are aligned with the space, and with each other.  This mutual interest strengthens this aspect of the community.

“We wanted to commit ourselves to them and we wanted them to be committed to us.”

Of course, cooperatives can be difficult to set up and operate. The legal framework is not trivial, and a patchwork across different jurisdictions.  And democratic decision making can be difficult.  On the other hand, Twining says there are generally other cooperatives in the area which are eager to cooperate.  So there is an existing ecosystem of mutual help among coops.


Is a coop a good model for running a coworking space?  Yes, for some, but not necessarily for all.

The plusses include the close alignment between the community and it’s spirit; and the operation of the facility. In particular, there won’t be a question of a corporate rake-off or other potential conflicts of interests between the management and the members.

This alignment is also a potential weakness. A coop is a commitment, and this may not suit every worker.  (A coop is all pigs, no chickens.) There are plenty of independent workers who desire a place to work, but not the hassle of helping run a workplace. It also may be harder to leave, or to split time with other coworking facilities. If you are part owner, you can’t walk away as easily.

A cooperative organization is not a guarantee against conflict. Indeed, a serious conflict among members will automatically be a conflict within the management, with potentially serious consequences.  We’ve all seen organizations disintegrate in factional fighting, and a coop is just as vulnerable to this, if not more so.

In the end, everything depends on the members and the leadership. In particular, with the right leadership, pretty much any formal organization will work.  And a good community will work well no matter what the paperwork says.

From what I have read, all things equal, booting up a coop is probably more work than a corporation.  But, as Twining says, “there are long-term rewards”.


  1. Cat Johnson, Bringing The Cooperative Business Model To Coworking: A Q&A With Cowork Niagara’s Trevor Twining, in allWork. 2018. https://allwork.space/2018/05/bringing-the-cooperative-business-model-to-coworking-a-qa-with-cowork-niagaras-trevor-twining/
  2. Robert E. McGrath, What is Coworking? A look at the multifaceted places where the gig economy happens and workers are happy to find community, Urbana, Robert E. McGrath, 2018.

Hey, hey!  My new book “What is Coworking?” is (finally) available at online stores.

Check it out

And if you are in the area, come on out to the Book Launch, June 1.


 

What is Coworking?

What is Coworking? It’s A Book!

I’ve been blogging about coworking since at least January 2015,  and for more than a year, I’ve promised a forthcoming book, “What is Coworking?”

The wait is over!

Just in time for this year’s Global Coworking UnConference (GCUC 2018), the long awaited book is rolling out.

What is Coworking? is a new book is a look at the multifaceted places where the gig economy happens and workers are happy to find community.

Find out more here.

It’s a gradual launch.

The paperback and ebook are available via Lulu today, and will be available through more channels in the coming weeks.

Stay tuned for local events and other updates.

 

 

What is Coworking?