Coworking to Quick-Start Rural Innovation
By Mark W. Kidd
When we arrive at CoCo, a year-old coworking space in St. Paul, Minnesota, about two dozen members are occupied at desks on the second and third floors; several other folks cluster by the kitchen, where coffee is fresh. This is where "the library meets the coffee shop," a phrase common in co-working literature, because the analogy fits.
On our tour are leaders and advocates from Central Appalachia who are interested in applying the coworking model in rural areas. Also present is Carl Mitchell, President and CEO of Virginia Economic Bridge, which is adapting coworking at its new facility in Radford, Virginia, set to open fall 2011. This visit is an opportunity for Mitchell and fellow staff member Kimber Simmons to compare notes with their counterparts at CoCo.
Coworking refers to a shared work environment and a set of community and cultural values that guide the development and operation of office space: facilities where freelancers, entrepreneurs, telecommuters, and drop-ins work side-by-side. The benefits of a coworking space come from allowing independent and startup ventures to bypass rote logistical obstacles, like obtaining office or workshop space, and from valuing a free-form collaborative environment for sharing resources, expertise, and ideas.
To date, coworking has been predominantly an urban phenomenon, but many smaller communities, like Radford, are finding that the model suits rural settings equally well. Coworking supports and cultivates diverse, collaborative small enterprises, a class of economic activity that's essential to building sustainable rural economies.
Coworking is flexible enough to accommodate for-profit, non-profit, or agency ownership, making the model adaptable to local economic and funding realities. Underutilized commercial space is common in many rural communities, and coworking’s flexible, do-it-yourself ethos is particularly suited to adaptations of existing space. This approach also offers resilience, because earned income through membership fees should cover the operational costs of a coworking space, regardless of whether the group seeks added grant or investment funding to procure special equipment or other shared resources.
Kimber SimmonsCarl Mitchell (left) of Virginia Economic Bridge discusses coworking with CoCo's Garrio Harrison.An example from the Twin Cities
During its first year, CoCo members worked together through several rounds of group planning to create an efficient and unobtrusive structure to support their entrepreneurial community. “It was not going to be sustainable if we were just moving square footage -- then you are in the real estate business. We are working towards ideation and collaboration, ” says Garrio Harrison, whose social web firm doublethink is based in CoCo.
What pieces of infrastructure have been necessary to support CoCo’s members? According to Harrison, the essential components are coffee, desk space, and reliable wifi Internet access. When pressed, he mentioned a few other basics:
Open plan office areas (with partitions and partition walls used only in moderation)
A mailing address and mailbox
Printer, scanner, copier, and fax
A conference room and a lounge area to meet with clients
A cleaning service
Part of what gives coworking its vitality is that while the model is enriched by participation from a mix of entrepreneurs, technologists, artists, government agencies, and non-profit organizations, a coworking space can be established and operated with modest financial sources by members of these sectors working more independently.
Located on the border of Pulaski and Montgomery counties, Radford has a population of about 16,000. As in many Southwest Virginia communities, the main street is contoured along the railroad where Norfolk Southern railroad cars carry coal and timber every afternoon. Virginia Economic Bridge was established in 1989 to overcome cultural and economic differences between urban Northern Virginia and the coalfields of Southwest Virginia. Mitchell joined the organization in 1998 to manage this signature program, and assumed directorship in 2000.
Opening the new facility is the culmination of three years of work for Mitchell and his staff. “We just moved into a new building with 6000 square feet that was completely renovated for our use. We have the broadband and network resources, we also have fully furnished office space, and we’ll be able to offer computers so someone can simply come in, sit down, and work,” explains Mitchell. “If I needed a place to work, the great thing about our new facility is that I can be an independent contractor, small business owner, or work for a firm in an urban center because I’m in a space that has those basic amenities I need.”
Coworking bypasses logistical barriers like access to secure, broadband-ready space, features that can be especially vexing for innovators in small communities. And while local government, state and federal agencies, and rural funders can play important roles in supporting the establishment of coworking environments, these spaces can be established by a sole proprietor or civic group without major financial backing.
Existing organizations with community facilities – like craft centers, libraries, community colleges, and churches – could be excellent partners for establishing a coworking space. Teleworking agencies and businesses that recruit teleworkers are exploring models to promote ‘on-shoring’ through rural telework, and could make natural partners or anchor tenants as well. Virginia Economic Bridge is working with telework recruiter Convergys and other education and training partners in precisely this way.
Local participants in Virginia Economic Bridge’s programs are not required to work out of the new facility; rather, the programming focuses on preparing community members to work as independent contractors regardless of their location. The facility complements this objective by offering low-cost coworking space to teleworkers who would benefit from an office environment.
The business community that forms within a coworking space is its own incentive to join. A local non-profit organization and a Radford-based financial advisor are among a handful of businesses that have already committed to memberships before the doors have officially opened. Rural coworking spaces may well have an upper hand in recruiting and retaining a diverse membership. While coworking spaces on the whole tend to attract young, male workers in creative fields and new media, the 2011 Global Coworking survey indicates that rural coworkers are more age diverse than their urban counterparts. Coworking feeds off of diversity, and is strengthened by practices like mentorship and cross-sector collaboration; these social amenities are crucial for doing business in rural communities.
In Radford, Mitchell sees a facility based on the coworking model as a means to link two important aspects of his organization’s approach to economic development in Southwest Virginia. “Virginia Economic Bridge connects businesses to businesses and businesses to workers. This facility will help us build a stronger economy by supporting new endeavors and putting local ventures on a footing to deal with larger clients in other areas,” Mitchell says.
Relationship to business incubators
Some elements that are commonplace in economic models like the business incubator can actually be destructive if applied to coworking. “A program where you would offer, for example, visits with angel investors as part of membership in the space would not be good for our community. We would have people joining just for the chance to meet an angel investor, not to collaborate or innovate," says Harrison. "Investors might come to CoCo if they hear this is an interesting place, but that is not how we would build community."
But coworking is not necessarily incompatible with business incubators. A second CoCo space in Minneapolis has been possible in part because of a partnership between CoCo and Project Skyway, a technology accelerator program. Project Skyway serves as an anchor tenant in the coworking space, providing an incubator experience for selected tech startups while helping ensure CoCo Minneapolis is financially sustainable. Much like Virginia Economic Bridge’s telework program, the partnership between CoCo and Project Skyway illustrates how coworking’s flexibility serves to encourage partnership and synergy at an organizational level as well as among members of a space.
Mark K. KiddThree co-working style areas at Virginia Economic Bridge in Radford, VA. The 6000-sq.-ft. facility includes workspaces of various sizes, including private offices. Coworking spaces do not offer packaged professional services, nor do they supply the progression of application, matriculation, and graduation. Instead, coworking puts the priority on supporting a community where such services and opportunities to develop emerge from local resources and collaborations. “The thing with small business incubators is that you have to lock into a lease, then you have to grow and graduate out,” explains Mitchell. “That doesn’t make as much sense for us. Our space is intended to support really strong rural-urban linkages and strategic alliances between the members instead.”
The coworking model anticipates that members are going to come and go or periodically adjust their membership levels depending on their current ventures and projects. Though they generally lack of packaged services, members are free to contract with their neighbors to handle a new venture’s bookkeeping during the first critical months of operation. It would be natural to call on the web firm in your coworking space to consult on drafting the request for proposals for your new website, if not to handle the project itself. The more diverse the membership of a coworking space, the more opportunities for innovation and collaboration.
To explore coworking
Mitchell looks at coworking as a simple way to express what Virginia Economic Bridge learned over more than twenty years of economic development experience. “Rural businesses are creative and entrepreneurial. We can add in broadband deployment and simple and innovative uses of existing commercial spaces, like we see with coworking, and rural communities can create opportunities for themselves,” explains Mitchell.
One easy way to get a conversation going is to take a trip to a nearby coworking space.
This user-created wiki directory of coworking spaces, a bit disorganized, is still a good place to start searching for spaces in your region.
Deskwanted is a search tool to help ‘desk hunters’ find coworking spaces nearby.
If visiting a coworking space isn’t practical, here are a few starting points for conversations about how coworking might be a useful model in your community, business, organization, or agency:
Emergent Research’s Coworking Labs blog, the publishing component of their Coworking Research Project, which aims in part “to identify how significant coworking is in America today and what role coworking plays for freelance and independent workers, mobile workers, and small businesses.”
Mark W. Kidd is Communications Director for Roadside Theater and Thousand Kites at Appalshop, Whitesburg, KY; he is also a member of the Central Appalachia Regional Network, a consortium of organizations promoting policy and action to improve the quality of life in Appalachia.