The Mystery of The Commons
Like many thousands of educated Americans, I began 2012 by getting used to co-working. This means nothing about working collaboratively with teammates, which I still do much less than I’d like to, and everything about working in a place full of strangers who do similar things. Firms like Loosecubes and WeWork posit this as a new real estate model. They say it empowers “creatives” like yours truly to break the corporate yoke and free-agent into six-figure incomes. But check the wiring. Even if this model dislodges some landlords and specifiers, it concentrates pricing power in a few familiar corporate laps.
And while more co-working space means more revenue and brand power for a few companies, nobody can discern what it means for productivity or for output across a city’s income ranges.
To see why, consider our workspace on the ostentation scale and ask what productivity it creates. Places charge rent based on how they feel, but they stay afloat based on how well they connect to the Net. We share an overhead fan, a window, a printer and a landline (this last is coveted). These work as requisites, while reliable broadband access draws our monthly checks and inviting design earns a premium price.
The same goes for the espresso bars sporing around Lower Manhattan and northern Brooklyn- and probably your city too. Each claims a niche- my coworking space is for writers, an espresso place in my neighborhood also sells men’s shirts and shampoo- but each lives and dies with the strength of its Wi-Fi.
Which means that the players in this “new” workspace are corporations like Cisco, Intel, Google and Apple. Cisco, subtly but doggedly, has even invested in designing and managing coworking spaces in the Netherlands and in New England. When the folks supplying the pipes start outfitting the containers, it’s hard to argue that independents gain power in pricing terms.
What these firms do with the extra clout, though, remains unwritten. Broadly, history suggests a path like the one Microsoft forged in the 1990s or like the one Starbucks whacked out a few years later. They can choke off choice, or they can stimulate demand for a new category. Microsoft starved Netscape and other rivals; Starbucks triggered a wave of independent coffee shops all over America.
The co-working spaces exist in the physical world, even if their profits flow to tech companies. And real estate is harder to monopolize than cyberspace. So it’s tempting to hope that a lot of idiosyncratic designers and retailers will stoke a lot of configurations of coworking space, some public and some for members, some with smithies and some with shampoo. But even so, everyone pays rent to the router and interface owner. Which brings us back to the mystery: how does the overall economy gain?
That’s a question for job developers, real estate entrepreneurs, watchdogs, advocates, educators and (sigh) creatives like me in co-working spaces to hash out. And one we’ll have to co-work out with limited access to information. At least we’ll have unlimited access to Wi-Fi.
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