We spent some amazing days in Ubud, Bali for CUASIA – Coworking Unconference Asia 2015 last week. Meeting and learning from extraordinary people from India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Germany, Singapore, USA, France, Spain, Brazil, South Korea, Sweden and more, in the most spectacular surroundings of The Green School and the Hubud Coworking Space.
I have been involved in the coworking industry now for about four years – as a coworker at (among other spaces) Hub Melbourne, Hub Stockholm and Spacecubed – but in my roles as founder of Superhero Spaces and enkel, also as an observer of the coworking phenomenon, fascinated with where it’s heading in the future.
My experiences, conversations and observations from CUASIA turned into a post on four challenges for coworking space owners and the coworking industry to consider.
Here we go…
1. Networked coworking – looking for light structures
Coworking is about community and connection with others. One of the challenges within a coworking space is to build and manage interactions between people and turn them into bonds of mutual trust.
But this also applies between coworking spaces.
I’ve seen this earlier when a large group of coworking space owners, founders and workers come together: We all feel connected and want to formalize that connection somehow. At the inaugural Australian coworking conference in Melbourne in 2012, we formed an Australian coworking association, which basically was a yammer network for connection and knowledge exchange.
And again, here at CUASIA, the group of conference participants decided to form an alliance of Asian coworking spaces. There is a need for something larger beyond our own space. But what? We do not exactly like the idea of a union or association which decides what we can do or not do. Many of us were drawn to the coworking field just because of this reason: We don’t want our lives too structured and rigorous with rules, frameworks and regulations.
The beauty of coworking is the diversity both in members and in spaces. Not one coworking space is the same. The challenge for the newly formed coworking alliance Asia is therefore to find a light structure which can represent this feeling among the members. Belonging, knowledge exchange and diversity without bureaucracy, top-down hierarchies and regulations.
2. No exit strategy?
Alex Hillman, coworking evangelist and founder of Indy Hall – one of the first and most successful coworking spaces in the world – said via Google hangout that he hopes his space will be around for more than 100yrs, and sees himself being part of it for a long time. Others I spoke to during the conference don’t want to be married to their coworking space for life…
We learnt in some of the sessions at CUASIA that there are not many known successful exits in this industry. Sure, it is a young industry, but it is still hard to find a viable exit strategy for a founder. It is difficult to put a number to the value of a space, and it’s often the community rather than the space which is of value. If a founder and important team members leave; will this value still exist? As Alex Hillman put it; “How do you sell a neighbourhood?”.
Another type of exit is through traditional succession planning, which brings other dilemmas. Who will inherit the farm?
And another exit I mused over is to decide a set date for the closure of a coworking space. When starting a space, we could for example decide that it will close say exactly 7 years from the opening date. In this way, people will have to give and gain as much value as they can from the community during this time.
3. Vision and Soul
Together with Dr Anita Kelleher I facilitated a session on possible futures of coworking, where we explored various scenarios for the field. One thing that struck us in this session was that there weren’t many ideas of what we’d ideally like coworking to be in ten years. Some people from the corporate world could envision corporates being more like coworking spaces, but what about coworking itself? A question for all of us to consider is therefore:
What would you like your coworking space to be in 10 years?
One current trend in many large Asian cities (such as in Bangkok – mentioned by Hubba founder Amarit Charoenphan in his talk) towards megaspaces (where other industries such as serviced offices, real estate, hotels etc build massive coworking spaces) did not seem to attract many participants.
No, most space founders seem to be in coworking for community rather than money. A challenge discussed at CUSASIA is how to scale community and collaboration without losing the soul of a coworking space and of the coworking phenomenon in general.
4. From Outsiders to Pioneers?
While spending time with the extraordinary people at CUASIA I reflected on pioneers and outsiders.
Both these categories are extremely important for our societies and planet to thrive – perhaps more now than ever, when it seems like our institutions cannot guide us into the future. To me outsiders and pioneers are those who together have the solutions to tackle some of the huge challenges of our era.
It’s easy to see futures we prefer in all the exciting projects outsiders like us run and catalyze in Asia and the rest of the world. But I couldn’t help thinking about the dark side in this: Perhaps we’ll always be outsiders and pioneer new things, without ever really profiting from it in other than social capital.
And to me, this is the main challenge for us CUASIA unconference particpants; how do we as individuals and a collective transform ourselves from being outsiders to being pioneers?
Adam Jorlen, Founder Superhero Spaces