Coworking, or coffee shops? Re-invigorating the town centre

Reflecting on what has changed about the town centre, and what has not, since an original blog on the subject in 2010

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by @paulcarder

In July 2010, I confidently predicted that “you will have a low-cost flexible workplace on every High Street, properly set up for business users, very soon….”.- see the blog post here. Like most predictions, it didn’t happen quite that way!  I thought that the big brands would pick up on the market potential of the town centre, and we would have seen by now some kind of “business class” coffee lounge offer. It could still happen (if it has, do let me know!), but most coffee shops are still catering for one category of customer – Joe Public – you and I, the consumer. They are not catering for the growing numbers of people who want to work with other people, collaborate, learn from each other, and hang out in a space which is better than the standard offers of business centres, executive offices and the like. Coworking was this solution, but the coffee shops didn’t go there.

Of course, coworking was already around (though not well known, and certainly not by me) when I wrote the blog in mid-2010. In fact, it started in the mid-2000’s. The term itself came from Brad Neuberg, who set up the first coworking space in San Francisco in 2005 – see his account here. But around this time the technology became available which enabled a variety of new work practices structured around individuals choosing temporary workplaces, and engaging in light forms of intentional, work and learning related social cooperation. Coworking (1) has become the most widely recognized, generic term for these work practices.

I was thinking about smaller towns when I wrote the blog in 2010. Not large cities, where we now find a variety of offers in the ‘coworking’ family of entrepreneurial spaces. Smaller towns where people mostly live – rather than the big cities where people commute to for their daily work. “What if”, I thought, “we didn’t need to commute so much, but rather we could work in our local High Street, a shorter distance from home?”.

The average town centre, and the main retail street in each which we term (at least in the UK) the ‘High Street’, are slowly dying. They are fighting hard, but losing out to changing patterns of social, work and retail activity. Shops (retail outlets) are closing down as they face competition from online retail. But one area which seems steadfast is the coffee shop – they appear to be everywhere! In fact, people walk or drive into the town centre just to buy coffee – or to sit in the coffee shop, and meet friends.

So I return to my question – “What if we could work in our local High Street?”. You can, with a laptop or tablet, in a coffee shop. But it is not ideal for anything other than a quick stop, a coffee and a few emails. Take a bathroom break, and you have to pack up your work and take it with you. Then there is the size of tables, noise levels and other issues. But most importantly, the standard coffee shop is not set up for ‘community’ activity – i.e., actively seeking out others to network with, collaborate and work with. But they could be. Or at least, could be expanded into this kind of social business enterprise.

The more people who could be attracted to working in ‘business class’ coffee shops in their local High Street, the more business would also be created for other retailers. This could significantly help re-invigorate town centres. As I said in 2010, watch this space ….but if I return to the subject in eight years time, will it be happening? I hope so. If not via the coffee chains and smaller coffee shops, perhaps new entrants to the market who understand how to build a community of users.

(1) Waters-Lynch, J., & Potts, J. (2017). The social economy of coworking spaces: a focal point model of coordination. Review of Social Economy75(4), 417-433.

The article also states that “three practices emerged concurrently in the mid 2000s; ‘coworking’ in San Francisco, ‘jellies’ in New York City and ‘the hub’ (now ‘impact hub’) in London.

For more on the development of coworking, read the work of Julian Waters-Lynch and colleagues from RMIT.  Or follow him on twitter. Julian recently finished a PhD thesis on A theory of Coworking: entrepreneurial communities, immaterial commons and working futures.”


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