The latest co-working spaces: what makes them work?

Flexible work spaces, motivational atmosphere, ideas-two-a-penny, bewildering variety of expertise, learning regimes, compelling visions, inspiring visitors: all of them pressure cookers for hot ingredients.

You might think that internet connectedness was the antithesis of co-working, yet co-working spaces have never been more popular. Above all their users are about enterprise and innovation; and all the co-working spaces – whether corporate, geekish, get-up-and-go, dedicated or whacky – exude a culture of passion and determination.

Below are descriptions of Level39 in Canary Wharf, of Google Campus in Tech City, of Telefonica’s Wayra Lab, of Watershed in Bristol, of The Royal College of Art’s Incubator, and of a co-working space at London University; and Nesta is building one of its own. And there are Creativity Labs in several universities and other locations. And now ‘Hubs’ – large co-working facilities along with specially adapted meeting spaces – have arrived in London, as they have all over the world; and of course in Silicon Valley there are co-living spaces.

What are they designed to do and what makes them work?

 

The latest co-working space is ‘Level39’, half way up one of the towers at Canary Wharf, and in the middle of a cluster of the offices of a number of international banks – host to a recent Accelerator backed by the Mayor and Accenture aimed at helping some SMEs to market new products to big banks (http://wp.me/p3beJt-3). Unlike any other, it is more like a boutique hotel than a sandpit – laid out with a sitting area supplied with the latest iPad controlled coffee-making machine, an area of small meeting/ working rooms, an area of larger meeting rooms and a big event space. Level39 is focusing on accelerating young businesses in financial, retail and future cities technology areas. The space has been provided by the Canary Wharf Group – in the hope of attracting new businesses to the area; and it is overseen by Eric van der Kleij, previously Head of Tech City.

Tech City’s co-working spaces like TechHub, Central Working, Innovation Warehouse and Google Campus are a long way from the Common Room – if that was an early version of the co-working space; and a long way from most incubators, one of the more recent versions of co-working spaces, which were essentially small flexible spaces on short tenancies, with services on tap – for growing SMEs.

In its basement, Google Campus in Shoreditch has a large area of desks and soft seating – regularly packed, mainly with individuals working away on their laptops, alongside a café; it has a medium size presentation space on the ground floor, where there are presentations of all sorts at least once a day; and its upper floors are used for the cohorts of longer-term development programmes, each with their own regime – like Seedcamps, Springboard and Bethnal Green Ventures, the latter two being 13-week Accelerator programmes.

With desks close to one another, Bethnal Green Ventures was ‘accelerating’ six teams, developing ideas for social ventures which they would eventually pitch to investors. At the entrance was a large kitchen, where much discussion took place. (http://wp.me/p3beJt-2i) (Uden Films once converted some small premises in West London so that there were large kitchens at the end of each corridor, where staff not only made tea and coffee, but also cooked their meals, thus ensuring that they spent more off-beat time together, from which ideas might spring.)

Telefonica’s Wayra Lab in central London, its tenth Accelerator world-wide, has spaces for 20 teams (of 2-5 members), each one partitioned off from the others, around the outside of an enormous single-floor area; and in the middle of this area are recreation facilities (eg table tennis, darts etc), informal meeting and sitting areas, and an ‘Agora’ – a large open space where meetings of all kinds can be held. Each cohort has six months in the Accelerator, with the possibility of a short extension. (http://wp.me/p3beJt-s)     And it is in the process of duplicating this on a lower floor – for its collaboration with UnLtd for accelerating social ventures under a contract with the Cabinet Office. The Royal College of Art’s  modern Incubator in Battersea (for 2-year residencies) has a similar lay-out – on a smaller scale.

Nesta is in the process of fitting out a state-of-the-art area to accommodate the ten teams it is in the process of selecting for its first cohort in its Accelerator for social enterprises under the same contract.

Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol has a similar physical lay-out, though of fully open-plan space – recently expanded from 30 to 42 places – each in residence for 3 to 12 months; and contrives its own regime for getting the participants to use each other’s knowledge and experience, and for introducing them to experts from parallel fields in which ideas can soar. (http://wp.me/p3beJt-3y)  London University’s Centre for Creative Collaboration at King’s Cross, has a similar space for a few small businesses, with no limits on duration of tenure, and ‘no rules’!

Then there are spaces that are designed and equipped for specialised meetings such as Creativity Labs and Future Centres (for brainstorms and concentrated thinking – especially about strategy) such as Royal Mail’s Creativity Lab, BT’s Hothouses, and their equivalent at Essex University, Norwich University, Coventry, Liverpool et al.

Our burgeoning entrepreneurial world has given birth to myriad small businesses frantically seeking to fill emerging niches, for which The Hubs are purposed – as ‘spaces created for peer-collaboration where inventions and innovation are taken from idea to impact’. They ‘are designed to foster a unique culture of learning-by-doing – a workshop cum laboratory cum headquarters – a Superstudio for pioneers’. A very recent creation, there are now over forty all round the world, all owned and funded locally, of which three are in London.

Westminster’s (partly funded by Westminster City Council as well as  private funding) positively throbs with enterprise: there are 160 places at hotdesks or reserved spaces, available on all sort of flexible terms, with access to meeting rooms – of various sizes, with break-out rooms, a ‘greenhouse’, ‘collaboration booths’, an event space and a circular-style ‘strategy theatre’, plus a café/lounge, and of course fast internet connections. Every day there are inspiring, practical or creative events of different kinds including Hub Network lunches, with leaders, experts, gurus who have ‘done it before’ or seen it before (or else done something strikingly similar.)

There is a Founders’ Camp, which introduces founders to one another; there is ‘Academy at the Hub’ – a drop-in education programme for entrepreneurs; there are hosts and facilitators, and there are plans to set up a mentoring regime. The Hub both hosts and runs Accelerators (curated 13-week programmes of intensive development for new businesses); and it runs a Summer School. When it comes to ongoing funding, there is a network of investors; there is a Social Enterprise Investment Fund and a Crowdfunding platform. Seemingly every element available on hand for those seeking to develop ideas into innovations, and an ideal location for those many laptop workers currently to be found in Starbucks, Café Neros and Costas.

At the other extreme from Level 39, are co-living spaces – which have become popular in Silicon Valley. Designers, engineers, entrepreneurs and their ilk having found that their motives, their aspirations and their lifestyles were sufficiently co-incidental for them to come together and pool their money to take one of the large and less popular houses in the area. They claim to ‘gain an instant circle of fellow technological thinkers, brainstormers and tinkerers with whom they can dream and invent’ (See Over the Rainbow – FT.com, published 30.6.12).

‘Theoretical debates take place on the staircases, around the dinner table and by the grand piano. Whiteboards are scattered through the house with one covering the wall in the living room – floor-to-ceiling, where people do maths problems in different-coloured markers and scribble ideas for start-up companies. The residents host salon discussions once a month, inviting experts in politics, oceans or rocket launchers to lead conversations. A couple of times a year, they have a ‘hackathon’ when scores of computer geeks bring their laptops over and share some beers.’

 

Common to all of these spaces, especially those that take in cohorts for development programmes of fixed length, is that the participants are learning together and from each other. The extent to which each such space encourages divergent thinking may depend on how different their projects are, and on how radically participants are being encouraged to think.

 

If you run co-working spaces or are planning or developing a co-working space, contribute to the discussion here. (And if you manage co-working space, tell us who you are your most popular visiting speakers – experts from parallel fields, such as architects, theatre producers, chefs, artists, composers, designers or inventers.)

 

 

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