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Governance of the Immaterial Commons

February 10, 2017

[This post is an edited version of a talk I gave in 2016 at the New Economy Conference: activism, enterprise and social change. It’s an idea I expand upon in my thesis (to be submitted this year) and will develop theoretically for publication.] 

Contemporary Work Conundrums

Imagine you’re 25 and listening to the talks over the course of this conference and accept the general propositions. You accept the current game doesn’t make sense, and you want to contribute to a fairer and more sustainable economic system. You want to be the change you want to see in the world – start to model the alternative economic and social relations in your own small way that reflect the larger world you want to inhabit.

And yet you’ve been born into this Schumpetarian world of creative destruction. And you’re cognisant of the looming tsunamis of change. The twin forces of globalisation and technological innovation constantly disrupting industries, changing the culture of work relations. The elevated stature of creative knowledge work in the digital economy, especially the inordinate rewards for the translation of new knowledge into commercial activity.

Imagine you’re searching for meaningful work that can have an impact on these concerns with social equity and ecological health. But you don’t have any property or assets to fall back on, and need immediate income to pay rent.

But you also want to preserve your autonomy and dignity in working life. Perhaps you’ve already seen some evidence of Oliver James’ contention that the dark triadic personality traits of machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy are disproportionately represented in leadership and upper management positions in large organisations.  And you’re cautious of the perceived ignominious exchanges that careerist employment may demand. 

How do you think about the decades of your working life ahead? What do you do next?

Would you enter the public service hoping to shape, say tax policy in a few decades time?

Would you enter the private corporate sector hoping to steer the big end of town towards less corrosive forms of capitalism?

Would you apply for a role in the third sector – hoping to help those left behind by both markets or states?

Well many faced with such choices choose to start their own ventures. To attempt to gain their livelihood through non-standard working arrangements, as freelancers or entrepreneurs doing something they both enjoy and believe in.

And yet despite popular accounts of liberation from ‘the man’, this path can exchange one set of problems for another.

People can escape the iron cage of bureaucracy, only to encounter the challenges of self directed work – isolation, loneliness, precarious income and confusion about what to focus on next. Perhaps part of this common anxiety really is, as Soren Kierkegaard claims, the dizziness of freedom.

Or perhaps ultimately, as Zygmunt Bauman suggests, we’re all looking to maximise both freedom and security, but constantly faced with tradeoffs, we can’t optimise for both.

Coworking is the Answer


These experiences often lead people to Coworking and Coworking spaces.

Coworking is a rather complex phenomenon. On one level Coworking spaces are open plan offices that mobile, independent knowledge workers share as places of work. But Coworking is usually understood as more than mere access to space and facilities. From its inception the emphasis was on social participation and collaborative activity within a bounded community. This is why I emphasise Coworking practices – voluntary cooperation between independent workers. The positive spillover effects enabled by social proximity.

The word originated in 2005 in San Francisco when computer programer Brad Neuberg put out a call for “independent writers, programmers, and creators come together in community a few days a week. Coworking provides the “office of a traditional corporate job, but in a very unique way.”

Since that time thousands of Coworking spaces have grown in major cities across the world promoting these voluntary social relations as their primary value proposition. Now these offerings vary along a spectrum – at the lighter end, simply the positive social pressure tacitly absorbed from working alongside busy people. At the heavier end, an initiation into a trusted, values aligned community in which one might find partners to start new ventures with or engage in ongoing work.

And there is an emerging art in organising a spatiality and sociality that does this well. In my PhD I document many of these distinct social practices that allow Coworking to function – welcoming, introducing, sharing, offering, asking and receiving practices. The wilful blending of the personal and professional – of work, learning and play. The various ways of ‘working out loud’. The discursive construction of boundaries between insiders and outsiders.

Such practices are enabled through an assemblage of platforms:

    • the design of the material environment itself;
    • many spaces also have an internal digital platform (like facebook);
    • programs of formal events & hosted conversations
    • and less formal rituals like weekly shared lunches   

But ultimately it is the Coworking participants themselves that construct the culture – the routine enactment of cooperative social practices helps foster less transactional, more trusting exchanges.

Now we all do versions of this through our interpersonal networks, and many of us actively blend personal and professional relationships. But what’s distinct about these projects is they are not simply confined to existing personal ties. They can be sites that encourage strangers to meet under the aegis of more cooperative social norms; partake in longer encounters than the typical anonymity or polite but brief interactions with strangers in the street. One always risks crossing the weirdo line if you ask too many questions or linger too long in such encounters in public spaces. Coworking spaces, rather, can reside as small villages guided by different social expectations, pockets hidden in plain site within the larger urban environment.

Yet this is only possible when undergirded by a logic of cooperation, a mythos that gives meaning to cooperative rather competitive behaviour. That encourages the funnelling of discretionary effort in the form of intellectual and emotional labour into the space, into the community. As Richard Dennis reminded us yesterday, there’s always an opportunity cost when doing so.

And at least in my own ethnographic research, it worked… or more accurately it did for a while. I was frequently told how important Coworking experiences were in people’s lives.

Up until the point when the undergirding mythos breaks down.

By the end of the four years of my PhD, most of my cohort of research participants had moved away from their original Coworking space. There were many reasons for this, but a common response was ‘it just stopped making sense’; ‘I had to establish some boundaries around giving’; ‘I felt like I was contributing to someone else’s business’.

So I want to end with some reflections on the collective production of culture and consideration of Coworking as a kind of commoning activity.   

Immaterial Production and Appropriation


The term ‘collective production of culture’ might sound like a tautology, but there is a distinction between inherited culture – language and customs – and culture that is the product of intentional labour within a bounded domain. Here we can easily be fooled by the immateriality of culture, and become confused by questions of who creates it, who should own it, and who should benefit from it.   

So here’s a thought experiment that I hope is illustrative.

Imagine I organised a community garden by leasing a patch of land, and then made a public call for others to come and tend it with me; bring their own seeds and seedlings to plant; routinely water and fertilise; all the while supporting public messages that its purpose is to serve the community, that if everybody puts a little in, we will all be richer upon harvest. That the whole we will create together will be greater than the sum of our mere parts. Imagine that this discourse is taken up and propagated by a small cadre of early adopters that advocate enthusiastically for this vision in a variety of public events and private discussions.

Imagine then I begin charging participants a monthly subscription fee for the right to enter the gates and produce the food. Perhaps many would understand and be happy to pay a small fee to cover the costs of access to the land and gardening resources. But consider the likely response if I start to sell the food, hire staff, open many more gardens and travel to international conferences talking up the benefits of the ‘sharing economy’.

Such an ‘innovative business model’ begins to resemble a much older form of feudal tenure, where medieval ‘villeins used to pay fees to work a lord’s land, upon which he would appropriate a portion of the harvest.    

Now this analogy with Coworking is not perfect, Coworkers are not bound to a feudal lord and can always choose to leave. And yet to the extent that we think of the accumulation of trust within a group, those thick social norms as a kind of wealth, it is a common wealth. It is produced by the participants in the community, by the members of the space. And I should say in the case study I observed most closely, much of the care work – watering plants, making chai, cooking food, listening to people’s concerns – was done by women that weren’t busy seeking investment or promoting their idea for a new, disinter-mediating app.

But this recognition sits uneasily with private ownership of a Coworking platform, where the control and benefits are not adequately distributed back into the network. I want to make clear that I don’t believe break down is the inevitable conclusion for such ventures. Indeed examples like Enspiral in Wellington or Gangplank in the USA have explicit protocols geared to sustaining such cooperative interactions.

But it does highlight the danger of attempting to pour new wine into old wine skins. Attempts to foster communal social relations on top of platforms seeking to extract surplus value, and further exchange this accumulated ‘good will’ for financial capital to expand an enterprise, or further the ambitions of founders. 

It also underpins the fragility of a shared mythos that sustains such relations, and I became fascinated by the instances in which people fell out of belief in the narrative. The moments when participants felt the fruits of their labour they had given to a common project were appropriated for  private reputational or material gain. It left a bitter taste for some.

So I believe we need to think carefully about the appropriate models of governance for immaterial commons-based-peer production. Elinor Ostrom’s eight principles of commons design are a good start, but these were largely developed around inherited material, ecosystemic commons – fisheries, pastures and forests.

There is scope to adapt them towards these emerging sites of immaterial Commoning. But if nothing else, my investigations of the Coworking world have convinced me that enterprise models relying on commons based peer production, should be stewarded by commons based models of governance.



Long Moments

December 19, 2014

Aoife Cropped

Long moments.

Maybe that’s all I ever wanted for my daughter,

To have the freedom to play for long afternoons, where the sun stretches out in warm yellows until after dinner,

To feel the security of being held and rocked gently until she falls deeply asleep, arms hanging loose in gravity’s embrace, not put down too early,

To know that dad is still here for long conversations, where questions and curiosity do their slow dance, not hurried on by mental clocks and lists of to dos,

To read long stories, where imagination stretches and soars, old archetypes revived within the theatre of young minds, where there’s another chapter and twist before the end,   

To hold long hugs, not perfunctory hellos and routine goodbyes but deep, proud signatures of love leaving moments and memories marked,   

To shed long tears, so that the sadness can rise and swell naturally, not caught in her throat or lodged in her heart, making past aches haunt long futures

To laugh long laughs, full body vibrations that ring out across the kitchen, infectious in their tone and sweeping seriousness and worries aside,

To live a long life, buoyed by the love and support of a childhood not gotten over, so that the loves she chooses can be full of long moments too.

Structure as Scaffold in Diaphanous Times

December 12, 2014


In a conversation with a friend yesterday I caught myself dismissing a recent organisational process as not really ‘working’.

One of the ways we often think about the success of structure and processes in organisations is through their persistence in time. In fact a definition of structure we use in the Holos Group is an enduring framework. Like many, I’ve spent time in different roles and projects designing and communicating new organisational structures and processes. Often they’re adopted for some time and then fall away, and it can be tempting to interpret their waning as evidence of poor design, a form of failure. Familiar phrases like ‘we tried that and it didn’t work’ come to mind. Of course working and not working are laden with implicit assumptions and expectations. 

Perhaps some better questions are

What purpose did it serve?

– Was it appropriate for the time?

What did it enable and disable?

How was it experienced by others?

Considering organisational structures and processes as temporary scaffolding for what’s needed in a particular context of time and place opens up a more generative inquiry, at least for me. They may still be well or poorly designed, but we need to ask different questions in order to find out.

The legacy of the solid machine keeps creeping back into our thinking about organising in an age better suited to the diaphanous. Now that is truly an unconscious metaphor and enduring framework that has persisted over time.

Organising for Edgeless Silence

September 2, 2014

‘How do you think it’s going?’

I asked my friend in between sets at a late night Fitzroy gig years ago. He leaned over his guitar with a thoughtful look on his face.

‘Hmmm, it’s like we’re leaving a lot of space, but we’re not playing the space’.

It’s an expression that might sound odd in another context, but I knew exactly what he meant. I’ve been thinking recently about what I learned concerning creative work in groups and principles of organisation from my time studying and working as a jazz musician.

There’s much to be said – in fact much has been written – about musical metaphors for organisation. Rather than attempt to cram multiple ideas into this post, I want to focus on just one (or two).

Silence and Space.

It took me a long time to actually hear the space in (my) music. To realise that the notes only exist because of the silences in between them. But there are different kinds of ‘silences’. There are silences that are still busy, cluttered with concerns or crowded with uncertainty. Silences that full with questions – should I play-do-say something now or wait? Happenstance silences that are unconscious spaces in between activity.

Then there are beautiful silences. Silences and spaces that are full of awareness. Silences that are as consciously played as the audible notes. It’s the quality of listening to these silences – whether audience or performer – that shapes the music.

There’s also centred silence. Stillness that become a womb, nurturing action and movement for its appropriate time.

When we create models, we often ignore the silences, the spaces in between our scribbles.

When I read music on a page, my attention gets absorbed in the notes and I often forget the spaces, at least until I know the music so well that I can find them again.

When I work with organisations, most of the attention gets absorbed on the boxes and arrows, not the empty spaces in between. But the empty spaces give life to the boxes, become the silent context for the action to take place. If we look and listen close enough, the coloured dots and sounds themselves are made up of empty space, edgeless stretches between the contours of pixels and sound waves.   

spaces in betweenWhen Miles Davis died, Keith Jarrett wrote a tribute article in the New York Times*.

“Try to imagine the first musician. He was not playing for an audience, or a market, or working on his next recording, or touring with his show, or working on his image. He was playing out of need, out of his need for the music. The original musician was not looking for his image; he was using his voice to learn about the world. He knew the world to be liquid (i.e., not made up of discrete entities). Whatever noise was around him, Miles still played from that need, his sound coming from that silence, the vast liquid, edgeless silence that existed before the first musician played the first note. We need this silence, because that’s where the music is.”

I read this book about 14 years now and this passage has stayed with me since. I know what playing the space is like with music. I can’t always do it, but I’ve experienced and I see great musicians playing it effortlessly. I wonder what playing the space between the boxes and arrows looks like in other work, in organisations.

My friend and colleague Neil Houghton reminded me yesterday of John Cage’s revolutionary work, 4’33. I remembered a story from school, that Cage became so fascinated with the possibility of absolute silence that he visited an echoless sound absorbing studio at Harvard University. But he found that even here, he could hear two sounds, the low pulsing of his blood circulation and a high hum of his nervous system. It inspired me to revisit the context and inspiration in which Cage wrote it and I came across this line:

The realisation as he saw it of the impossibility of silence led to the composition of 4′33’.

Cage discovered that absolute (living) silence is impossible illusion, a kind of Zeno’s paradox.

The emptiness is always full as much as the fullness always empty. 

What would playing the spaces look like in your work and life?



*Quoted in Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner

Much ado about Holacracy: the elusive diagonal in organisational decision making.

August 28, 2014

I’m fascinated by how people make decisions when we come together, especially when there is no explicit process on how to decide. Our attention tends to become fixated on the content of what to include, what should happen, what evidence to consider for or against a course of action. Seldom do we pay attention to the patterns of the social interactions, the first steps that become group habits. Who suggests a course of action? Who shoots down the idea? Who asks questions of the group that frames the problem or bounds discussion? What governs who should say what and when? 

Holacracy is an organisational operating system and approach to decision making that has recently received much attention, both high profile support at Zappos and mildly condescending reviews like this one from the Economist. Some commentators conflate it with being a flat structure, which displays a clear ignorance of the ideas and aspirations at the core of the system. I believe the cause of this interpretation is that the experiences many have with power and decision making in groups is confined to two types – what I’ll call vertical and horizontal.

Here I want to introduce a third way, a diagonal* in decision-making. It’s this diagonal that is absent from common organisational imagination. This is understandable as very few institutions value and embrace such processes.


VerticalThis is where the authority for the decision (final say) clearly rests with an individual. This is the standard experience of traditional institutions. The military chain of command and later machine metaphors that have persisted into a democratic era.

It certainly has its advantages. It can be efficient and appropriate if the accountability for that decision, and consequences of failure rest unduly with the individual in question. I see this with entrepreneurs and small business owners whose livelihoods (and often mortgages) are tied to the consequences of such decisions. Of course they have the ‘final say’- employees and others can just walk away.

However while decisions can happen quickly, they can be brittle. Dominated by the perspective and worldview of one individual and often leave out important information that others hold. Overburdening  individuals with increasingly complex decisions can create process bottlenecks. Whilst one person can decide quickly, the creative and cognitive juice required is taxing and deferring creative decisions to an individual creates burnout and overwhelm.

It often doesn’t feel good to be part of these systems. Imposed answers tend to get subtle (or overt) forms of resistance. Most people tend to want a share in creating something together, this stimulates engagement and ownership of a decision, invites us to become shareholders in rather than spectators of the venture. When we sense our own perspectives and ideas have little impact we tend to retreat from offering them over the long term.


So what’s an alternative? Unfortunately the most familiar experience of group process is unstructured discussion loosely aiming at ‘consensus’.


An advantage is that it can tease out previously unconsidered aspects of a topic, look at a problem from multiple angles and include diverse perspectives.

It can also ‘feel’ good. The latin root of consensus, consentio, means ‘feel together’, and there is a distinct harmonious quality to the ‘we all agree’ moment. Perhaps this is why many indigenous tribes and communities like the Quakers had similar practices. Many still argue that this form of group decision-making and distributing power is preferable to vertical approaches.

But knowing how to finally decide, when to stop discussing differences, integrate perspectives and converge around a conclusion is often unclear. Sometimes the impasse is broken by a reversal back to the vertical, as confident or socially dominant individuals reassert power and make the final call. Other times meetings drag on (in some cases literally for hours) as people are worn down by the discursive process. As proposals bounce around in loose discussion, attempts to shape outcomes that everyone is happy sometimes end in a decision with which literally no one is happy or feels a sense of ownership. In response politics begin outside the formal decision making process – people test out proposals and garner allies – so the actual formal discussion becomes more of a theatrical performance than a genuinely creative occasion.

Another horizontal alternative different to group consensus is the distributed ‘anyone can make decisions’ approach I sometimes see under the banner ‘it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission’. While this may work in small teams in regular communication, scaling without clear process will result in incoherence, lack of coordination and duplicate activity. Sometimes even energy being directed in opposing directions.

Essentially horizontal processes tend to be too slow and unwieldy or incoherent for organisations aspiring to be lean, responsive and strategically focussed.


How could decision making processes maximise the efficiency and accountability of vertical systems and the openness and ability of horizontal systems to include diverse perspectives and relevant information?Diagonal1

Balance the tensions of the centralised iron cage of bureaucracy and disparate chaos of adhocracy?

In his recent book Reinventing Organisations Frederic Laloux offered twelve examples of organisations that are doing things differently, have created their own (I would argue diagonal) processes. Holacracy One – the organisation behind Holacracy – is just one of the 12 featured (in fact before the name Holacracy, an earlier form of their process was simply called Ternary’s Way, in reference to founder Brian Robertson’s software company).  

The key is holding a living (eco)system metaphor, integrating appropriate aspects of vertical hierarchy and horizontal networks to develop a sharper awareness of information (and tensions) across all aspects of an organisation, and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to respond with a fast next step.

This is what I see great teams dong instinctively – finding a third way through the traps of the vertical and horizontal.

This is what I see emerging formalised systems like Holacracy attempting to scale.

What do you see?

*I first remember discussing this term with fellow futures friend Jose Ramos

The Dark Matter of Games

July 13, 2014

Last Friday, Rich, Neil and I ran a prototype at Swinburne University’s Lean Agile Systems Thinking (LAST) Conference of a new futures game we have been iterating (currently) called Dark Matter.

This is another step in the process of gamifying the phases of The Holos Group’s innovation journey, from spotting an opportunity to shipping a new product, service or feature to stewarding an entire ecosystem or movement. Creativity Prism a game designed by Rich Harmer and Adam Jorlen to facilitate the rapid generation of new viable ideas, was one step along this journey. 

Innovation Journey

However, even when an organisation is consciously seeking to change or develop a new offering, so often the deep familiar patterns hold the system in place. As Kegan and Lahey make clear, we have an immunity to change, and some work is needed to uncover the unconscious reasons for keeping things the same. 

That’s why we designed this new game, called Dark Matter (thanks to Hailey at Collabforge for collaborating on the name!) 

Dark Matter and Dark Energy, although still a speculative phenomenon, are estimated to make up 96% of the universe. As one book title puts it, what we see and inhabit is only the 4% universe. It seems natural to question what percentage of organisations do most of us see and inhabit?

Dark matter and energy were first proposed to make sense of the mysterious gravitational pull exerted on visible matter. The standard model of physics predicted the universe should collapse in on itself, yet its measurements indicated inexplicable expansion at an accelerating rate. The metaphor serves when exploring what holds organisational systems together when they could fly apart, as much as what holds current systems in place when we say we want to change.

Our Dark Matter game uses pattern dynamics, a systems thinking language, and the futures triangle, a map of different temporal panoramas, to explore a theme of importance and uncover previously invisible aspects of a question. It helps unlock the dark matter surrounding the theme and its effect on the players and organisational systems at play. 

2014-07-11 11.37.10

Games bring people and ideas to life. A good game has a life of its own, a power and momentum that draws ideas and action out of us beyond the habitual. Games, like any social occasion, also have rules. How people relate to rules is often revealing. We can reject, conform, compete, bend, break, shape, or recreate them. Piaget recognised that as children we explore our relationship to rules through games, and that development is intimately bound to how we think about social rules. But perhaps the most important and valuable property of a game is that it is fun. Research increasingly recognises fun, or in psychological terms positive emotional valence, is the natural field for learning, creativity and development. Although this has been recognised and applied in children’s learning and development, we seldom craft these principles into the adult world of work. If  learning is the pathway to more complex activity and performance, it would seem this is ripe for revision.

In a world of increasing complexity and volatility, the ability to bring groups together to learn, create and co-construct the new is critical. This is one of the reasons why we are so passionate about designing games that bring futures and strategy to life. The other is because, well, they are fun.

What happens when coworking becomes just working?

July 12, 2014

Everyday at precisely 3pm I receive a google alert that another coworking space has opened in some new corner of the world. From Boston to Beirut to Bali, with each additional space and news item, the word ‘coworking’ become a little less foreign to the public at large.

What’s driving this remarkable growth? 

The technological story is straight forward. Ubiquitous wifi, cheap mobile devices, software’s great migration from the server to the cloud. All this adds up to a world where many people can work from anywhere, at least technically. No longer bound to the phone and computer on the desk, or the files on the server (let alone the paper in the filing cabinet), for many, work has become a case of something one does rather than somewhere one goes. Then there is the story of outsourcing and downsizing, the victory of the temporary contract and short term project over the increasingly elusive general employment agreement. Finally there are the work-life aspirations of the millennials – over half of which claim to be planning to work as freelancers or start their own businesses. The choices here appear different to the past, privileging freedom of mobility over fixed security. Working anywhere, anytime on projects of passion. From push to pull, this is the world the coworker inhabits and, arguably, the world of work that will become more and more widespread.

But what does this mean for public culture?

Use of public space has changed over the past decade. Answering phone calls and emails are routinely public affairs – walking down the street, jostling on public transport, even public toilets see people squinting at smart phone screens. Cafes have become a second office for many, from the caffeinated-email-sprint pit stop to the longer form composition hunched in some corner or couch (I happen to be one of them right now). 

It is actually surprising how little we discuss the cultural implications of bringing private work into public places. 

But the counter-insurgence to social life being colonised by work, is work life becoming more social. Mid-week work meetings are routinely booked in busy CBD cafes. The rows of cubicles, low ceilings and grey carpets that formed the backdrop of twentieth century office life are being opened to the multi-niche ecosystems of Activity Based Working. Standardised palettes are giving way to diverse spaces, colours and shapes designed for different work styles and tasks. Finally a host of new ‘enterprise social’ tools aim to foster conversational digital interactions within organisations. The boundaries between work and social life continue to blur. 

Nomadism becomes a trait of the liquid modern’ observed social theorist Zygmunt Bauman. Liquid Modernity for Bauman has not been a positive thing, full of ambivalence and uncertainty as defined social structures and role identities become fluid – expressions of individual choice rather than collective solidarity. But nomadic cultures have their own cosmologies, constellations of rituals and beliefs that facilitate a sense of place amid a world of constant change. Historically they also found security in the interdependence of the tribe. 

Lone nomads didn’t last very long. 

My own research interests are in how people learn to thrive within this state of flux as much as how they might ache. What kinds of narratives about work, life and community help individuals navigate the choppy rapids of the network society? What subtle skills do savants exercise to stay afloat? Where are the new tribes that enable work-life nomads to thrive? 

This shift from solid noun to liquid verb permeates other areas of life too. Like work, in this world community becomes less something to which you belong and more something you actively create. Institutions increasingly seek community ‘managers’, ‘catalysts’ and ‘curators’. Community once formed around and outside of work, an unintentional byproduct of human relations. We now see businesses whose commercial strategy depends on building a sense of community (and measuring its properties and dimensions with increasing sophistication). Peer to peer platforms face the chicken and egg dilemma of requiring users to generate value and requiring value to attract users. The only way around this is to articulate a vision and offer experiences that appeal to early adopters – cohorts that will engage with vision and persist with clunky ‘beta’ phases over the need for clearly realised value exchange.  

Participating in pioneering the new can be inspiring and the experimental excitement of early days is enough of an attractor for some. The coworking movement started out with a vision of how the experience of work could be different. An invitation to reject both the perceived dysfunctional culture and politics of corporate life and the isolation of the independent contractor working from home . But like many early adopter community movements, what initially feels like a series of bold experiments soon becomes enfolded into the everyday majority. Mainstream billboards now promote these early experiments –  ‘I can work from anywhere’ or ‘Corporate ladder? I’ll make my own way thanks.’

So what happens to the coworking movement when many of its distinct properties and practices become just…work?

There are several possible scenarios that have been outlined for the future of coworking. 

One possibility is that coworking’s corporate cousin – Activity Based Work – becomes the normalised template for large organisations. The knowledge and experience of successful coworking spaces and communities can offer valuable advice and lessons learned in approaching this transition. An interesting development  is the provision of coworking services not only to employees of the company but to customers and potentially other stakeholders. The National Australia Bank is experimenting with a version of this through The Village.     

Another is that coworking-learning spaces become a recognised publicly funded institution – the public libraries of the 21st century. That the public funds and infrastructure currently locked up in storing books are (partly) spent on coworking offerings. There are already movements in this direction with The Edge in Brisbane and the Alexandria Coworking Network. The city of Oakland’s Public Library, for example, was recently referred to as Oakland’s original coworking space

Third is that a dominant primary operator emerges – a Starbucks like franchise rising out of the current cluster of independent providers. This raises many challenges for the practice of community building and potentially foreshadows a less intimate experience of coworking. We Work already have 19 spaces across the USA and London and the multinational Regus, although offering serviced offices since the 1980s has more recently begun using the word coworking to describe its offering. 

Fourth is that a system offering that enables single space independent operators to be linked together and take advantage of scale, whilst remaining autonomous. A federated approach that allows members of one space to access services from other spaces. The perfect back office and community facing portal is one of the holy grails of the coworking industry and a lot of work is happening in this space. Hub Australia has just released its version of this in Mesh

Finally there is the collapse scenario. The massive growth in coworking spaces over past years may take the turn of the dotcom bubble – especially if free access to collaborative workspaces and communities become publicly or privately systematised. Beyond the public library possibility, offerings like seats2meet are experimenting with ‘free’, or at least non monetary forms of exchange with such a possibility.

These scenarios aren’t mutually exclusive, in fact glimmers of all of them are currently happening. Whatever the future of the ‘co’ in coworking  turns out to be, how coworking communities find meaning in their identity as distinct from just working is an open question I will be holding over the coming years.