The Working Commons Everyone Needs

2021 update: Since this post was first shared on Linkedin in 2015 the State Government has sponsored third space for the tech sector at The Sydney Startup Hub. Post COVID we need third spaces in our community spokes as well as the city hub – there’s still a role for Local Government to play.

The City of Sydney has put together a 10-year action plan on how the City can support the tech startup community.  In a submission to the Council, I argued for new kinds of infrastructure that will help many more people who work in the city.

Where is the next generation of entrepreneurs right now?

Emerging tech entrepreneurs are likely to be sitting in an environment that already is responding to rapid and disruptive change. In the last decade Universities have been profoundly reshaped by the proposition that learning is mobile and social. Academic libraries have been transformed to offer more casual, interactive zones where people can work collaboratively fuelled by food and coffee. They often provide support services and resources for hire/loan as needed. These new working and learning zones have outgrown the stacks and the study carrels. They colonise campus corridors; they are the focal point for lobbies; they multi-task as bbq areas in open spaces. New benchmarks see campus planners aiming to provide one wireless work point for every four students on campus.

The result? People used to working anywhere, anytime.

Knowledge work has moved with the progressive liberation of ICT from the mainframe to the desktop to the handheld device. When people aren’t tied to a desk to work, they’re free to move to the kind of setting that best suits that task at hand. Activity Based Workplaces start with evidence that shows that most desks are empty for most of the day. They recognise that people are more productive when they can choose where and when they want to work. And they know that it’s unsustainable to allocate each person their own work point, and then offer a range of other settings to support focused or collaborative work. (Google is a notable exception here) Shared working environments are part of the global shift from assets to access.

As part of my work with companies looking to rethink their office portfolios I encourage them to look to the diversity of work settings already available in the city. The five principles I describe that underpin the new way of working encourage them to:

–  Use less space

–  Share the space they have

–  Look for permeable precincts

–  Use the space in between

–  Plan for events and experiences

The result? People used to working anywhere, anytime.

What kinds of infrastructure do these people need before they qualify for the various support mechanisms that a tech ecosystem might provide?

The rise of coworking spaces goes some of the way to meeting these needs, but there are still gaps in the ecosystem and a degree of market failure that points to a new municipal solution.

Co-working Incubator spaces provide an important service to people needing office space in a communal setting without the cost burden of establishment. Better facilities are shared across a group, and social and business networks are nurtured. Membership might be restricted to people focused on a particular sector or at a particular point in a business lifecycle, eg “pre-income producing”.

For all the freshness and appeal of these alternative settings, many coworking businesses are still old fashioned in their space models. They still herd people into membership models, and even into their own desks and rooms. Coworking business models want to build community from a committed group of regular members, rather than host a larger pool of users with weaker ties to the group.

The larger pool of people seeking somewhere to work is growing. Increasingly people want time and space to get things done when they are permanent employees. They don’t need or even want to be working alongside colleagues and friends all day, every day. People in corporate ABW environments love the increased interaction, but they also value periods of uninterrupted time to focus. Even if enclosed shared spaces are provided in the workplace, many cite regular day(s) working away from the office as the secret to high quality time for reflection. These people work from home, or their local library or a coffee shop. Time to focus doesn’t need to be quiet time, it just needs to be solo time – time in the company of strangers where you won’t be distracted by questions and colleagues.

We need more choices in our cities. More third spaces. New generations of university graduates will look quizzically on workplaces that dictate where they sit and the hours that they will work. The growing ranks of the freelance and contractor work force need the flexibility of going where the work is, and with the expectation that they will not impose a space burden on their current employer. Organisations shifting their workforce from permanent employees to variable contractors will also be seeking to consolidate their accommodation. The burden of space to work is shifting to the contractor. The contractor is looking to the city.

What’s the role of local government in the tech startup ecosystem?

There’s an important role for Councils to play here. The kinds of settings that will nurture this target group are the kinds of settings that many more city users now need. I have three recommendations for the City of Sydney to consider as it finalises the Action plan. They all focus on the new kinds of infrastructure needed to support distributed work.

  • Provide free working commons spaces throughout the city for all – everyone needs space to think, dream, research, write, test, plan, connect and produce. The single biggest shift in first eight years of the Sustainable Sydney 2030 plan has been the explosion in smart phones and portable devices. The unit of planning for economic development is now personal. New urban infrastructure that feeds all of us will underpin the growth for the ones who will fuel high profile tech startups. Universal WIFI would be a good start, and then we need toeholds in the city, inside, alongside and outside buildings.
  • Expand the range of settings and services in libraries – to offer greater support for different individual preferences, group sizes and work group needs. A focus group I convened at the Global CoWorking UnConference in June seized on the idea of a ‘loud library’ as one new solution to working in the city.
  • Place a working commons at the heart of the Entrepreneurship centre – offer a staging space that supports people before they are eligible for incubators and accelerators.

The brief for a new Entrepreneurship Centre needs to be broader than the concept outlined in the City’s Draft Action plan. The new facility should do more than provide a venue for events and accommodation for a cluster of tech-based businesses, accelerators, VC firms and angel investors. The shop floor for the new Centre should be a working commons open to all, in the same way that a food court provides space for everyone to gather and to access a wide range of retail options.

This space should offer a range of individual and group work settings – both formal and informal – with wireless internet access and power. Specialist spaces that can be booked and used on a PAYG basis – eg storage lockers, docking stations with large monitors, booth settings with screen display, meeting rooms with presentation facilities.

Our cities need to start catering for a new kind of third place – not home or work – but a place in the public realm that lets you be at home while you work.

The Soft Build is a strategy consultancy that helps people use buildings as a scaffold for organisational change.

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