Category Archives: “The Sharing Economy”

What is Coworking? The NYT “Style” Section Hasn’t A Clue

As I have noted before, in-home coworking is one of the low-cost variations of coworking.  It has been around for quite a while, documented by Lori Kane [3] and formalized by the likes of HOffice [2].

There is also an increasing trend to create a diverse array coworking communities to suit different workers, and to reflect the make up of cities.  Notably, there are many coworking spaces that aim to serve professional women in various formats.

In January, The New York Times apparently “discovered” this phenomena, and wrote a piece based on a few examples—from Los Angeles.   Sheila Marikar did a rather ill-informed piece in the Style section about home coworking targeting women, with the annoying title, “Come on Over to My Place, Sister Girlfriend, and We’ll Co-Work” [4].  Much of the piece is about the supposed ‘girls-hanging out’ conviviality of these work sessions.

The fluffy piece portrayed this as (a) sort of Californian craziness and (b) something that women do.

Sigh.

There are many ways to cowork, many different coworkers, and many different kinds of coworking communities.  There are many ways that women cowork, many different female workers, and many different kinds of female-oriented coworking communities—and many not-particulary-female-oriented coworking communities with many female workers.

As I noted, this home coworking approach has a considerable history, and the actual sessions vary, depending on the preferences of the participants.  That’s kind of the point, no?

It is true that home coworking is attractive to workers, male and female, who don’t enjoy a dry, soulless office environment. [5]  Again, that’s the point.

So, to sum up: from the NYT article, we learn that some women sometimes enjoy a female-oriented, informal chatty work environment.  Yup. So?  The whole idea of coworking is that workers get to choose and create their own working environment. For these workers, this is what they want.  (And, by the way, there have been times when I enjoyed a chatty, silly office environment–mostly male.)


While I found the article deeply and comprehensively ignorant, other were irritated by the Style-section fluffiness.  Very irritated.

Liz Elam of the Global Coworking Unconference reacted sharply, bristling “We’re Not Giggling and Braiding Each Other’s Hair, We’re Building an Industry” [1].  She found the article disrespectful, and points out that the coworking industry has had female leadership from the beginning.  (Elam herself is one of those founding leaders.)

[it] makes me cringe. It makes it sound like women in coworking spaces are going to braid each other’s hair, gossip about boys and giggle.

Now, Sensei Elam and I have our differences. She is dedicated to the idea of growing a global coworking industry, which I think is misguided. But I would never say Elam doesn’t know coworking inside and out.

In this case, she is absolutely right, and I don’t blame her for speaking up. The NYT article is insulting to working women, coworking or not.  But it is especially insulting to the many, many female leaders, entrepreneurs and workers who have created, operate, and participate in coworking.

Marikar knows almost nothing about real coworking. It’s that simple.


  1. Liz Elam, We’re Not Giggling and Braiding Each Other’s Hair, We’re Building an Industry, in GCUC Blog. 2017. http://gcuc.co/were-not-giggling/
  2. Hoffice. Hoffice: Come and work at someone’s home. 2017, http://hoffice.nu/en/.
  3. Lori Kane, Tabitha Borchardt, and Bas de Baar, Reimagination Stations: Creating a Game-Changing In-Home Coworking Space, Lori Kane, 2015.
  4. Sheila Marikar, Come on Over to My Place, Sister Girlfriend, and We’ll Co-Work, in New York Times. 2018: New York. p. Di. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/09/style/quilt-coworking-women.html
  5. Melissa Mesku (2016) Community: the key thing. New Worker Magazine, http://newworker.co/mag/what-your-key-says-about-your-coworking-space/

 

What is Coworking?

Note:  please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming Real Soon Now in 2018.

Manzanedo and Trepat on “Positive Platforms”

Many people see the gig economy to be the “new way of work”, enabled by a variety of software “platforms” implementing on-demand labor markets (think ‘Uber’) (e.g., this, this, this).

Whatever the merits of this platform technology might be, it is clear that they are often not particularly beneficial for the workers or local economies.  The prospect of a future of marginal, exploitative employment is certainly problematic, and more efficient peonage is scarcely the original promise of the internet.

It is important to note, though, that these labor platforms are enabled by contemporary internet technology, but are not determined by the technology. By that I mean that there are many ways that such markets can be organized, operated, and governed while using the exact same ubiquitous digital technology.

The door is open to experimentation.

For example, the Platform Cooperativism movement proposes to use the same technology with user/worker owned cooperative models. The disrupters are easily disrupted.  “Seize the means of production“. Etc.

Platform Cooperativism is scarcely the end of the story, though.  Just what should we build from this technology?

This fall, Ana Manzanedo and Alícia Trepat published a report for the Institute of the Future, “Designing positive platforms” [2].  Their focus is “governance”, i.e., how the operation is run, and how decisions are made. While they take internet technology as written, they believe that it can be used in “positive” ways, by which they mean positive from the point of view of the workers, i.e., those who create the value via the platform.

The gig economy runs entirely on online social platforms that connect people, knowledge, and opportunities for meaningful collaborative work.” ([2], p. 2)

What they want to do is come up with and promote concrete design principles, to transform the gig economy for the better.

By breaking down the designing of positive platform into concrete steps and actions, Manzanedo and Trepat hope to persuade more start-ups, cooperatives, nonprofits, and even corporations to integrate positive principles in their governance — and potentially transform the gig economy for the better.” [1]


They define “positive” to mean shared decision making and adequate benefits from the work.  Their approach focuses on governance, which is the design of decision making.  They break this down into three important facets ([2], p.3):

  • Ownership (property of capital and its entailed rights / accountability instead of ownership in the case of networks)
  • Value (value generation and value distribution processes within the organization)
  • Power (rights, processes and structures for decision-making)

The paper sketches five design principles (which are related and overlapping):

  1. Inclusion
  2. Participation
  3. Autonomy
  4. Recognition of the Generated Value
  5. Welfare

The report discusses examples from existing organizations, and points out known challenges.  They also highlight “positive practices”, i.e., good examples from the organizations examined.

One recurring challenge is scale. Some approaches work fine for a handful of people who can know and trust each other well.  But the approach may well break down at larger scales, where people cannot know each other.   Similarly, fully democratic decision making that works for a small group is difficult to maintain at large scale for many reasons.

Overall, I don’t think there is anything completely new here, but it is an interesting and pretty comprehensive survey of the challenges and prospects for democratic governance.

Personally, I’m not as sold on digital technology as these researchers are. There is really good reason to think that digital interactions are less personal and less pleasant than face to face.  This may or may not be an issue for governance and decision making.  I tend to think it is inherently depersonalizing and promotes many hidden biases (e.g., by privileging digital skills and amplifying some voices over others).

Nevertheless, digital technology is ubiquitous, so we need to learn how to use it well.  This report is a useful guide to start thinking about better ways to do things.


  1. Nithin Coca (2018) Institute for the Future report outlines a worker-centered design for gig economy platforms. Shareable, https://www.shareable.net/blog/report-outlines-how-gig-economy-platforms-that-takes-workers-rights-into-account
  2. Ana Manzanedo and Alícia Trepat, Designing positive platforms: a guide for a governance-based approach. Institute For The Future, Palo Alto, 2017. http://www.iftf.org/fileadmin/user_upload/downloads/ppj/DesigningPositivePlatforms_for_IFTF.pdf

 

Intergenerational Housing For Eldercare

As the population ages, the need for elder care is increasingly important.  Older adults need affordable and accessible housing, with different social settings. Those who do not have family close by may face social isolation, disconnection, and loneliness.

At the same time, young people need inexpensive housing.  And young students or workers also face loneliness and isolation.  Young parents also need assistance with child care. Furthermore, smaller and more mobile families have led to fewer opportunities for intergenerational interaction, for better or worse.

Sharon Ede calls attention to creative solution that attacks several problems in one move: inter generational co-living [1].

The basic idea is a dormitory with older adults and college students.  The residents commit to interacting and helping each other, with benefits to all. Ede reports on a particular project in the Netherlands (Humanitas), but the idea clearly can be replicated many places.

This idea fits into a spectrum of “co-living” concepts that are being explored.  (e.g., This, This, This, This, This)  Many of these concepts involve mixed living quarters for different ages and family arrangements, with shared common spaces and close social contacts. In some cases, this is closely associated with workspaces, so some of the residents work and live in the same space.

 

In short, this is recreating village life in a megacity.

The Humanitas project itself has an explicit contract for the young and old residents to interact, with a goal to support senior living. An explicit contract might not be necessary, but many such projects suffer when reality does not match hoped for interactions.  If people don’t talk to each other, help each other, and participate, it is hard to have a community.

While this sounds like a great idea, I can see why these communities are rare.

For one thing, this seems hard to finance.  In the case of Humanitas specifically, both students and elders generally don’t have a lot of money.  Renting to students may be cheap, but it scarcely provides high quality elder care on its own.  So this would be an additional cost to already expensive housing.

There is also a deep question about how the community is recruited and sustained.  Building a community like this doesn’t just happen, it takes leadership and work.   In the case of the elder care facility, it is run by a professional organization, and, no doubt, legally regulated.

It is clear to me that intergenerational housing isn’t going to happen spontaneously.  If people are left to their own choices, they will choose a community that they are comfortable with, which generally means “people like me”.  In the US, that is almost certainly going to result in racially and ethnically segregated communities.  And age groups tend to self-segregate in the wild.  Students flock to housing filled with young singles. There are entire cities in Florida inhabited only by retired people—no kids allowed!

There may also be legal limits on how much “curation” can be done.  It is easy to imaging law suits arising from selection that violates fair housing laws.


An alternative to this kind of ‘programmed dormitory’ would be to implement the concept “virtually”, a la something like  a “rent-a-grandparent” service (see Claire Marshall’s 2015 book for a bunch of good ideas).  It should be possible to connect and visit people without living with them.  Or to connect with people who live nearby digitally and physically.

My own view is that intergenerational interaction is a really good thing, which should be encouraged in many ways.  I like the ‘elder care dorm’ concept, but I don’t think it will be very widespread.


  1. Sharon Ede. 2018. At Humanitas, senior care meets student dorm in shared intergenerational living. Shareable. https://www.shareable.net/blog/at-humanitas-senior-care-meets-student-dorm-in-shared-intergenerational-living
  2. Tiffany R. Jansen,  2015. The Nursing Home That’s Also a Dorm. Citylab. https://www.citylab.com/equity/2015/10/the-nursing-home-thats-also-a-dorm/408424/
  3. Claire Marshall. 2015. “How to Make Money (and a whole lot more) by Sharing.” Self Published. https://www.sharestories.net/the-book.

Origin: “The sharing economy without intermediaries”?

There is a lot of confusing and confused talk about “the sharing economy”. The term has been used to describe local resource sharing [4], and also to a variety of “peer-to-peer” businesses, a la, AirBnB and Uber [1].

The social psychology of these disparate enterprises seems to rest on the advantages of personal interaction. As Sensei Claire Marshall puts it, “Things change when money isn’t involved” .

This moneyless transaction is enabled by the Internet and ubiquitous mobile devices, and is realized in various forms of “markets”, which connect consumers with providers.  This is the AirBnB trick. The flexibility and low costs of these systems also enables fine grained transactions (i.e., short term rentals and division of resources).

Digital technology enables, but does not determine how people use it. The “AirBnB trick” can be embedded in a variety of business models. The “Uber” model, popular with many companies, collects a rake-off for the operator of the market. The same technology can, in principle, support cooperative, user owned, business.  There are a variety of efforts to create such “platform cooperatives”, with and without blockchains.


Into this confusion, Origin (which used to unwisely spell its name with a ‘zero’ at the beginning, 0rigin) is adding in the rolling catastrophe that is Ethereum.  Their idea is, “The Sharing Economy Without Intermediaries” [5].

Their idea seems to be that the important problem with “the AirBnB Trick” is that the intermediary that controls and rakes-off from the market. They (Origin) want to build a blockchain-based decentralized system that lets anyone play the AirBnB game.  They are using Ethereum executable contracts, and they say that the system is “open source” (whatever that means in this case).

Another key idea is that they imagine pooling all the users of all the peer-to-peer markets in a single gigantic market. Using Origin, the individual businesses will fish in this vast ocean instead of each one creating their own lake.

Together, these businesses would pay for the maintenance of the infrastructure, but no single company will own or control the use of the technology. (It’s unclear what role the “foundation” and developers would ultimately play in this network.)


I have to wonder about this idea, and not just because Ethereum is iffy, or because “smart contracts” are neither smart nor contracts.

The Origin people are eager to do away with not only the rake-off, but also the control and “censorship” exercised by the “centralized” company.  Their product brief complains about an array of abuses, including unilateral fee hikes, evictions due to “arbitrary” rules, and politically motivated denial of service [3].

Airbnb recently kicked guests out of rented properties and canceled their accounts after discovering those guests were planning to attend a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) rally

The decentralized Ethereum technology will, they say, make it difficult for any authority to impose such coercion on service providers.

What if goods and services that added value to the ecosystem could freely trade at their fair market prices and quantities without tampering from biased third parties?

Well, I think we know the answer to “what if”. See, for instance, 4Chan or various digital Dark Markets.


Even if you accept their diagnosis of the situation, it’s far from clear to me that this technology actually solves these problems.

As Uber, AirBnB, and others have found out, legal and public pressure is applied to the company, not to the technology.  Using executable contracts that “can’t be modified” will scarcely defend a company from the liability for their actions.

For that matter, the notion that blockchains eliminate excessive rents is highly dubious.  Setting aside the experience of cryptocurrencies (which have been captured by large scale mining operations, who are—wait for it—extracting rents), running a business is an end-to-end system.  Sustaining the business means fees, and successful companies and brands will charge premiums, blockchain or no.

Finally, I’ll remind the reader that the key to any of these digitally augmented peer-to-peer businesses is the user experience.  Users neither know nor care about the back end, they care about the interface and the service provided.  The blockchain not only doesn’t solve the UX problem, it often makes it worse.

Blockchain technology is pretty unpleasant to use, it generally has to be encased in conventional technology.  For example, the brilliantly successful CryptoKitties made much of its use of Ethereum. However, the developers actually use a “centralized” server, because, as they say, no one in their right mind would connect a UI directly to a blockchain.

More fundamentally, the supposed virtues of the blockchain, including the lack of any responsible authority and the “trustless” protocol are antithetical to developing the trust of the customers. A successful company like AirBnB works very hard to establish trust among the customers using their system, and this is their important value added.  How does blockchain help this quest for user trust?

My own view is that these businesses will be built with hybrid technologies, and will surely operate almost the same as a blockchainless business. The supposed cost savings from using blockchain (versus, say, conventional cloud based servers) are yet to be demonstrated.

Furthermore, I think the non-blockchain parts of the system will be just as arbitrary, and just as subject to regulation as any other system. Using blockchain will be awkward and inefficient, yet also will not deliver the imagined benefits.

The long and the short of it is, Origin is based on fundamental misunderstanding of technology, business, and society.  I’ll be surprised if they get off the ground.


  1. Robin Chase, Peers, Inc.: How People and Platforms are Inventing the Collaborative Economy and Reinventing Capitalism, New York, PublicAffairs, 2015.
  2. Brady Dale,  Pantera Invests $3 Million in Sharing Economy Token Origin. Coindesk.December 11 2017, https://www.coindesk.com/pantera-invests-3-million-sharing-economy-token-origin/
  3. Matthew Liu  and Joshua Fraser, 0rigin Product Brief: The Sharing Economy Without Intermediaries. 2017. https://www.originprotocol.com/static/docs/product_brief_v15.pdf
  4. Claire Marshall, How to Make Money (and a whole lot more) by Sharing. 2015. http://www.sharestories.net/
  5. Matthew Liu and Joshua Fraser, The Sharing Economy Without Intermediaries. Origin White Paper, 2017. https://www.originprotocol.com/static/docs/whitepaper_v2.pdf

 

Cryptocurrency Thursday

“The New Way of Work” in 2017

I continue to observe the development of the Gig Economy and related aspects of the “new way of work”.


Freelancing and the Freelancers Union

I am a member of the Freelancers Union (though I earn no income from freelancing), and continue to follow developments.  I strongly support the goals of the FU, though there is little visible impact out here in the boonies.

Their blog and other materials provide an interesting window on the life and challenges of Freelancers.

However, I have criticized their annual reports, which make dubious claims about the number of Freelancers now and project in the future.


Platform Cooperatives (with or without blockchains)

I continue to follow the development of “Platform Cooperativism”  New implementations continue to emerge, with and without blockchains.

While some enthusiasts are excited about ‘replacing Uber’ et al with blockchain-based decentralized markets, most of the hard work is in the user interface, community relations, and above all, the legal and organizational challenges.

I have observed several times that blockchain per se doesn’t really help solve most of the key challenges of creating a local cooperative. In fact, a “trustless” decentralized, digital organization is antithetical to the development of a face-to-face, locally run, community organization.  Using a blaockchain may be cheap and easy, but it isn’t especially conducive to creating personal trust.


What is Coworking?

I continue to blog about coworking, exploring the question “What is Coworking?”

As I have said, coworking is where the gig economy happens.

This year, I was particularly interest in some of the less developed flavors of coworking, including Kidful Coworking, coworking in rural areas, and the growing diversity of coworkers.

(Note:  please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming Reals Soon Now early in 2018.)


I expect all of these topics will continue to be interesting in 2018.

 

What is Coworking?

Make Smthng week?

This is MAKE SMTHNG Week, promoted by Greenpeace among others.  This idea combines interest in reducing wasteful consumption and empowerment by Making, and ties it to countering the commercial maelstrom of the holiday shopping season.

In short, they advocate, ‘instead of going shopping, make and do it ourselves.’

I certainly appreciate the value of reducing consumption, and, where it makes sense, reusing and sharing.  And I’m a long time advocate for Making and personal fabrication.  But this project leaves me uneasy for several reasons.

For one thing, while Making is certainly empowering, it isn’t necessarily ecologically sustainable.  Some makers are into reuse and upcycling, but many use non-recycled materials to build what amount to toys. In fact, the whole idea of Making is to create whatever you want, not to reduce consumption.

In short, upcycling is a subset of Making, but you don’t have to be interested in reusing stuff to be a Maker.  For that matter, you don’t have to be a Maker to reduce waste and consumption.

Even more troubling is my observation that many local makers try to make a living from their own DIY creativity.  That is, local cratspeople sell their creations for income. These artisans rely on holiday sales are critical for their livelihood.

So, ‘making smthng’ instead of buying from local makers can be really bad for your local makers, for your local economy, and for the whole planet.

To my mind, “buy smthng local’ is more important that ‘make smthng yourself’.  Not that you can’t do both – though that probably uses more resources.

All that said, I certainly encourage people to learn about reuse, sharing, and recycling. The more you understand where stuff comes from and what your choices are, the better citizen you will be.

By the way, I do like their web page, which invites you to “Start creating…[drag the elements around]”.  That’s kind of cool, though utterly and totally useless and wasteful (because using the internet on a computer or mobile device is horribly, horribly resource intensive.)

(File this under “Bah! Humbug!”)


  1. Greenpeace. MAKE SMTHNG Week 2017, https://www.makesmthng.org/.

 

What is Coworking? It’s More Diverse Than You Might Think

It is frequently observed that Coworking Spaces, like the Tech Industry, seems pretty, well, undiverse.

For example, Lori Kane commented, [4]

it hit me immediately: almost everyone in the space was young and white” (and mostly male). This was “not at all what the walk through the diverse neighborhood primed me to expect.

Similar sentiments have been expressed by many people.

At the same time, coworkers frequently perceive their own workplace to be diverse, and, indeed, the diversity of fellow workers is seen to be one of the principle benefits of a coworking space (e.g., [5, 8, 9]).

What is going on here?


For one thing, there are many different ways to be “diverse”. Kane notices the visible demographics of the space, especially compared to the city around it. Others are more focused on the range professional and technical skills in the room.

A second caveat is that any given coworking space has only so many workers, and generally draws a group “like-minded” workers. But there are many coworking spaces, with different membership, and no single workplace represents all coworking spaces or coworkers.

Atypical Entrepreneurs”

Sean Captain wrote last year in Fast Company about “A Growing Movement Of Coworking Spaces For Atypical Entrepreneurs” [1].  He writes about the emergence of “work spaces with public-service missions”. These operations may be not-for-profit, or for-profit B-corps, and may have a variety of members. The common theme is serving a social mission rather than pure profit.

Captain views this as a “new” trend, but coworking has had this strain of social mission from the beginning (e.g., the Centre for Social Innovation [9], Make Shift Boston [6], or EnSpiral Space [3]). But he does find that this concept is holding its own amid “mainstream, big-city coworking spaces like those in the WeWork empire” and their clones.

Besides a social mission, these spaces are also emphatically local.

Captain quotes Robbie Brown of WELabs [12] (located in Long Beach), “we’re drawing in membership from the community here rather than so much attracting outside folks into the area,” As Kane suggested, the local group is ”less threatening than walking into a coworking space and seeing a bunch of white guys in dress shirts, their faces in computers and typing away.

Captain mentions similarly local work spaces in Raleigh, NC,  Detroit, and other cities.

Again, the emphasis on serving a local community has been a key to coworking from the beginning. Indeed, the gigantic, one-size-fits all WeWork-Seats2Meet-NextSpace style of “consumer coworking” is a recent development. In the beginning, all coworking was “authentic”, local coworking, and there are plenty of locally oriented (but not necessarily social mission oriented) work spaces, such as The Harlem Collective [10], The Shift [11], Nebula [7], or CoHoots [2]).


In addition to demographic diversity (or perhaps, demographic locality), these small, low profit operations generally attract a variety of “non-traditional” businesses. He notes a variety of occupations and businesses, including healthcare, small manufacturing, and community development projects.

Again, these businesses aren’t as new and ground-breaking as Captain seems to believe–there have been similar community development projects for a century or more in most places. But, again, in recent years the big chains and business schools have promulgated a picture of what entrepreneurs are like, and what they do.


Captain does raise the interesting point that the leadership of these social mission spaces isn’t itself particularly diverse. This is embarrassing, smacking of cultural colonization, but also a matter of access to funding and know-how. Obviously, the next wave of “authentic local coworking” must be locally run and led.


My own view is that coworking has never been as homogeneous or, indeed, “corporate” as the business school version.

More important, coworking is all about community, and about the community feeling of comfortable solidarity and mutual support. Large scale operations may offer consistent, low cost services, but no one community “vibe” will please everyone.

If coworking is to persist and grow, it will need to recruit more and more diverse workers. This will require creating and sustaining communities that attract and nurture new workers, including people who do not aim to “move fast and break things”. (“Move steadily forward and fix things together”?)

For this reason, I view the future of coworking as a patchwork of many spaces, each locally led and connected to it’s location. Authentic, home style, workspaces?

“Even more diverse.”


  1. Sean Captain, Inside A Growing Movement Of Coworking Spaces For Atypical Entrepreneurs, in FastCompany – Leadership. 2016. https://www.fastcompany.com/3059990/inside-a-growing-movement-of-co-working-spaces-for-atypical-entrepreneurs
  2. CoHoots. CoHoots Coworking. 2017, http://www.cohoots.info/.
  3. Enspiral. Enspiral Space. 2015, http://www.enspiralspace.co.nz/.
  4. Kane, Lori, Tabitha Borchardt, and Bas de Baar, Reimagination Stations: Creating a Game-Changing In-Home Coworking Space, Lori Kane, 2015. https://books.google.com/books?id=ybFCrgEACAAJ
  5. 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
  6. Make Shift Boston. Make Shift Boston. 2016, http://makeshiftboston.org/space.
  7. Nebula. Nebula Coworking St. Louis. 2017, https://nebulastl.com/.
  8. Olma, Sebastian, The Serendipity Machine: A Disruptive Business Model for Society 3.0. 2012. https://www.seats2meet.com/downloads/The_Serendipity_Machine.pdf
  9. The Centre for Social Innovation. Culture | The Centre for Social Innovation. 2016, https://socialinnovation.org/culture/.
  10. The Harlem Collective. The Harlem Collective. 2017, http://www.theharlemcollective.co/.
  11. The Shift. The Shift – Home. 2017, http://www.theshiftchicago.com/.
  12. Work Evolution Labs. Work Evolution Labs,. 2017, http://www.workevolution.co/.

 

What is Coworking?

Note:  please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming in 2017 Real Soon Now.