Work and the Open Source City

Illustration: Shumi Bose

One chilly Wednesday afternoon in late May, I joined a small group of technologists, researchers, architects and urban planners on a field trip through Lower Manhattan and three distinct neighborhoods in Brooklyn to get a glimpse of the future of work. The trip was organized by Todd Sundsted, an entrepreneur and co-author (with Drew Jones and Tony Bacigalupo) of the book I’m Outta Here! The group met around mid-day at New Work City, one of Manhattan’s first “coworking” communities. The space, located on the 5th floor of the building adjacent to the famous music venue Sounds of Brazil (SOBs) on the corner of Houston and Varick, officially opened to members in November 2008.

Photo: Tony Lupo / NWCNY

Coworking is rapidly emerging as a meme for the reorganization of knowledge work among entrepreneurs, programmers, writers and even, as we learned during our visits, sustainable furniture designers. The majority of discussions of the social implications of the Internet on the evolution of work and cities revolve around concepts such as the virtual office, online collaboration, and telecommuting. But, coworking communities (and related phenomenon that have grown out of the culture of the open source movement such as MeetUps and BarCamps) illustrate the ways in which these emergent forms of organizing are deeply embedded in physical places and, at the same time, enabled by new technologies such as laptops and wireless networks.

Photo: Tony Lupo / NWCNY

As the material artifacts of offices – messages, documents, photos and plans – are digitized and stored on servers, physical spaces have the potential to become increasingly open, flexible and sharable. Data security concerns aside, one can imagine a future scenario when most of the tools that we need to work effectively will be accessed and stored in “the cloud”. This allows the dynamic reorganization and co-location of people, firms and activities that have been separated since the early days of industrialization, the advent of the hierarchical firm and the rise of cities themselves. For example, an office building might house a conference room that doubles as an entertainment room for the co-located apartments. Such arrangements will require new ways of thinking about private and semi-private spaces, trust and security, and ownership and property.

Rather than lonely, pajama-clad programmers holed up in Grandma’s basement, a closer look at the nature of virtual work reveals that after several years of experimentation — ranging from working from home in relative isolation to slouching uncomfortably at Starbucks — mobile workers (including freelancers, the self-employed, remote workers and entrepreneurs) have begun to band together to form office communities of like-minded coworkers whom they don’t actually work with, but rather, they work alongside in order to “cross-pollinate.”

This cross-pollination comes in many forms, from the informal, water-cooler conversations about the last episode of Battlestar Galactica to intensive lunch meetings about bookkeeping for freelancers, and from quickly troubleshooting a Google Calendar feature to collaborating on events and projects. For example, while New Work City hosts regular workshops for technology entrepreneurs, it is also a hub for Open Government meetings.

In late January, on a trip to Kansas City to meet with the Kauffman Foundation, I stumbled into a Panera Bread directly across from my eco-friendly hotel in order to get some lunch within hours after landing. After devouring a bowl of chicken soup in one corner of the nearly-empty restaurant, I noticed two women and a man poised in front of their laptops with a small pink rectangle sign on the table that announced “Creative Club” in large letters and “Jelly” in smaller letters underneath.

Panera Bread, Kansas City. Photo: Laura Forlano

Jelly, founded by Amit Gupta and Luke Crawford in New York in February 2006, is a semiweekly casual coworking event that typically meets at someone’s apartment. It was only their second meeting, but nonetheless, to the surprise of the Kansas City group (a graphic designer, a public relations professional and a sustainable design consultant), I instantly recognized their effort and documented it as part of the larger coworking phenomenon. I presented it the following day at Kauffman.

In his work on social innovation and creative communities, Italian designer Ezio Manzini, presenting as part of the Stephan Weiss Visiting Lectureship at Parsons in early May, makes the point that small, locally-based initiatives such as co-housing have an unprecedented ability to scale globally. As such, the local is no longer an isolated, provincial village that seeks to return to the past but rather a connected cosmopolitanism according to Manzini.

In search of these small but scalable social innovations, our group squeezed onto the B train to Newkirk Avenue in Brooklyn where we visited Ditmas Workspace, a coworking community for writers and researchers located on a “Am I really in Brooklyn, New York?” street lined with large Victorian houses garnished with expansive flowerbeds and trees. Interestingly, Victorian houses are not subject to the zoning requirements that separate residential and office uses of the built environment. This has allowed the 12 members of Ditmas Workspace, half of which are full-time employees working remotely and half of which are freelancers, to create an affordable workspace of like-minded colleagues in the neighborhood where they also live and raise their young children.

Ditmas Workspace. Photo: Liena Zagare

Liena Zagare, an urban planner who founded the Ditmas space in September 2008, emphasized the benefits of the cross-fertilization of ideas and the synergies that take place in the community as well as the need to separate “quiet work” like writing with “loud work” such as doing phone interviews, which they do through the designation of specific rooms for these dissimilar activities.

Our next stop was to Treehouse Coworking, a community for designers in downtown Brooklyn. There, Matt Tyson, a sustainable furniture designer at EcoSystems, which is currently located on the 4th floor, guided us through all 7 floors of the building. We climbed top to bottom one cold, dark and dusty stair after another since we had exceeded the elevator’s carrying capacity. The building is completely and meticulously filled with art, objects, antique furniture, old mattresses and junk collected over 27 years by the owner. In describing his motivations for opening the Treehouse space to the coworking community in January 2009, Tyson said, “I want to be surrounded by really smart people…I have a strong affinity for community.” Treehouse will soon be offering classes at their woodshop in order to train people interested in learning new hands-on skills, a boon in the ailing knowledge economy.

Treehouse NYC. Photo: Matt Tyson

All this talk of cross-pollination and social innovation throughout the day recalled a very different experience that I’d had several weeks earlier while away at a Pervasive Computing conference in Japan. While I had survived the rigorous one-hour swine flu quarantine procedure resembling a scene from The X-Files complete with men in green cover-ups, goggles and masks that scanned the passengers with a thermo-sensing camera, I had failed to reserve a hotel with Internet access.

While at the Asakusa Shrine in Tokyo, I noticed that I was dangerously close to the limit on the 20 MB data plan on my iPhone 3G and sought out the nearest Internet “café” (if one could call it that). I would, I had decided, call AT&T on Skype in order to upgrade to a bigger data plan. However, upon entering, I was told by the attendant at the counter that I was not allowed to make calls while in the café. In addition, only one person was allowed to accompany each laptop computer into the space.

Coworking is rapidly emerging as a meme for the reorganization of knowledge. Rather than spaces for mobile work, it is well-known that many of Japan’s Internet cafes are, in effect, living spaces for the country’s unemployed youth who have taken to holing up in private Internet cubicles about the size of an English telephone booth but without the distinctive red paint. The 24-hour cafes come equipped with instant ramen and vending machines, rows of pink comic books and showers; they even sell toiletry sets containing combs and shower caps for 160 yen in the women’s restroom so that their guests can freshen up in the morning.

But, rather than sites for community, collaboration and innovation (though I can’t claim that these qualities are completely absent after only a one hour visit), the spaces remain absolutely silent and devoid of social interaction, perhaps so as to not disturb the patrons that are sleeping? In the end, I found – to my utter surprise – that AT&T had finally created a page that allowed me to add and remove international data plan features without suffering through a redundant twenty minute conversation with a customer service representative. Problem solved, and without uttering a single word.

Back to Brooklyn. We ended the day, which was actually quite exhausting after all of the stairs at the Treehouse space, at The Change You Want To See Gallery in Williamsburg. Again, the conversation shifted to the importance of opening their space to coworking as a way of enabling collaboration on media interventions by artists and activists.

The Change You Want To See gallery. Video: Not an Alternative.

As we redesign our cities with these emergent open source models for the reorganization of knowledge / work in mind, we might ask ourselves about the changing nature of our relationship to our work that is reshaping our identities, loyalties and communities. In the future, New Yorkers won’t ask “What do you do?” over pints of German beer and currywurst in the East Village but rather “Where do you work?” Rather than merely a place to do work, the choice of a like-minded coworking community with the right amount of diversity and exposure to new skills and ideas could be as important as choosing a neighborhood to live in.


Laura Forlano is Kauffman Fellow in Law at Yale Law School. Her research interests include mobile and wireless technology, the role of space/place in communication, collaboration and innovation, entrepreneurship, organizational behavior, and science and technology studies.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

15 Responses to “Work and the Open Source City”

  1. I work in an office with a web design firm whose founder, my landlord, sits near me and employs two full-time staff who work out of their homes. Near as I can tell, our work community defines itself by what we overhear and how we share the refrigerator- without shared tasks, we’re more like neighbors than colleagues. My hope is that folks who share workspace will find ways to share urban space too- by teaming up for triathlons, volunteer projects, or social events. And I suspect that as city spaces feel less like borderless workplaces- that is, as we emphasize more public plazas on the street and fewer Wi-Fi hooksps in the parks- that hope will find its own form. Thanks for the insight, Laura.

  2. Jed says:

    Baltimore has one of these shared workspaces @ Beehive Baltimore: You can also find little collectives of collaborative workers in local coffeeshops such as Red Emma’s.

  3. Lisa Chamberlain says:

    Great piece. There’s another co-working space on Gowanus, created by RawSpaceLab and a couple of young and creative developers:

  4. AL Fayard says:

    Great essay Laura and a nice complement to your article in the Situated Technologies Pamphlet on Situated Advocacy by the Architectural League of New York

    Two points I’d like to highlight in your essay:

    1.You highlight the tension between “the ways in which these emergent forms of organizing are deeply embedded in physical places and, at the same time, enabled by new technologies such as laptops and wireless networks.” This leads me to the more general discussion that is taking place in organizational studies on the role of materiality (boundary objects, space, etc.). It also highlights the point discussed at length on our blog building_space_with_words on the merging, intertwining between physical and virtual space: technology allows people to “leave” the office space but they go back to public spaces because of their physical and social affordances.

    Last, it is important to note that these new forms of organizing, sometimes described as virtual forms of organizing are not immaterial – just think of the laptops and the wireless networks!

    2. I found the anecdote on your experience in Japan really interesting. First of all, it reminded me of some of Pico Iyer’s descriptions of his life in Japan. Second, and more importantly, it leads to the question of the “nature” of technology. Even if we agree on the socially constructed nature of technology, we often still assume its cultural neutrality. Here as my work on videoconference (see “Interacting on a video-mediated stage: The collaborative construction of an interactional video setting”, 2006 in Information, Technology and People) also led me to discover (but unfortunately not investigate further) technology can be seen as a cultural lens – as it has been shown to be a social lens. This of course raises issues for researchers… all this work on informal interactions and innovation and creativity, and the role of space, does it make sense in all societies? in all cultures? what does it mean for global organizations?

    thanks Laura for this great essay which raises so many important questions,


  5. Hi Laura, great piece! And the subject matter is becoming ever more relevant as we survey the ruins of a failed business culture of consumption and waste that has finally burst from its own indulgence.

    I ran a commercial brokerage in the city, Brooklyn Atlantic Real Estate Co., for about 2 years focused on adaptive reuse of industrial properties, micro office spaces and creative sharing of space and place. Umbrella Office, which Lisa had mentioned above, was a project in the same vein, our hope was to marry a shared office concept with our real estate business to defray costs and invite collaboration and varied inputs into our daily workings. It didn’t work as planned, but its not always the successes that are most instructive. As Alec mentioned in the first post, cordiality sometimes triumphs over community in these environments and I believe success in these “commons” begins with an ideological grounding that makes people feel not only comfortable but eager to share space.

    I think (and hope!) we are going to see people relying on these participatory infrastructures and shared resources more and more as the stigma dissolves around utilizing common systems to enable personal productivity.

  6. Scriptopolis says:

    Thank you for this essay.
    It points a lot of very interesting perspectives. Mobility practices and co-working spaces, just as some specific ICTs uses (Twitter is one of them), are deeply transforming what we used to think as “community practices”. It is now impossible not to see the links between places, activities and language. There is no such things as “organization”, “information”, “groups”, “technology” and even “matter” that is not enacted in a dynamic, and fragile, composite of these three dimensions.
    Community practices are constantly performing themselves, and it seems a whole ecology of resources is emerging to help them. So much simpler and more effective than all the ambitious technological all-in-one prototypes that we’ve seen until then.

  7. Former MEx worker says:

    “We ended the day, which was actually quite exhausting after all of the stairs at the Treehouse space.”

    FYI: When entering the MEx, the Metropolitan Exchange Building, if you walk a little further (PAST THE STAIRS), there is an elevator.

    If you did in fact see the elevator and it was not working, that’s very unusual. I worked in that building for 6 months, and the elevator was under repair on two of those days, totaling only about 5 hours.

  8. Joy Parisi says:

    I am one of the owners of Paragraph, a shared workspace for writers in downtown Manhattan, and can attest to the collaborative behaviors and cross-pollination that shared workspaces inspire. Our writers work in adjacent cubicles in a quiet space that does not allow any talking or collaboration (more similar to Japan model), but we also have a separate kitchen/cafe area where writers take breaks and meet one another. Organically, a supportive/social network forms. Every day from my office I am witness to this.

    I thought the concept had been started much earlier than 2008, though. We opened in 2005, and I believe there were already shared workspaces in the city. The Writers Room, another writing space, has been around for 25 or more years. Sunshine Office Space and TechSpace were also open for a few years when we opened, as well. Though, these may not be the type of collaborative workspaces you’re writing about here.

    Very much enjoyed the piece. I do hope the question, “Where do you work?” will come to mean, at which shared office location to you work, rather than, who do you work for.

  9. TJ Murphy says:

    The idea of coworking has created some traction in the larger markets, and it’s just a matter of time before you see this in mid-market areas around the country.

    The traditional model of work is changing rapidly. I wonder how long it will take the “old guard” executives to figure this out.

  10. Wayne says:

    I have a coworking space in Providence, RI and am also working to change the way we develop and engage in cities…

    I think this article was on the money. The reorganization of knowledge and our changing relationship to work, family and community is going to change how we look at the future development of our cities. It’s not about the big city-changing projects anymore. It’ll be about the many small layers that make great cities, that are conducive to the new ways of working and interacting, and reusing/improving what exists to fit with the new ways of work and life.. Great places matter again. Community matters again. Family matters again. New technology is enabling us to get back to basics.

  11. shan says:

    Great work Laura.

    I’m thinking of co-working as a response to a post-school environment, where there isn’t a common social ground in which to learn and work together, or meet new people, or an analogue to an ‘open studio’ for artists where your paint doesn’t spill over into my space, but we have a fertile environment to do stuff in. For ‘knowledge workers’ and that breed of that you’ve spelt out, the search seems to be for an environment that enables that creative exchange.

    David seems to me right about cordiality taking precedence over communication, and the importance of willing parties.

    I’m intrigued by the question of how to design coworking spaces that enable cross-pollination and creative action, while preserving the lines of privacy, confidentiality and quiet. How do these models spark collaborations and set up environments that enable that, in the case where activities are dissimilar? Informal social opportunities (that don’t disturb others)?

    Any examples and insights as to failed coworking communities yet?

  12. Jeff says:

    Very cool. I’ve been looking for a place with shared resources I couldn’t afford on my own, particularly a wood shop + tools. Even if it has casual visitors that don’t work there all the time, seems like a great hub of ideas, discussion and cool people. That’s gotta lead to something good?

    On a side note, where can I contact a lawyer as progressive as Laura, the author? All the lawyers I speak to don’t “get” this co-working, locative-media, “open source”, etc. technology marketplace… or do I need to go to the treehouse first? 😉

  13. Eleanor says:

    I spend more time at work than at my house but it is not a place I enjoy being (from a spatial standpoint) or where I have many aspects of my life fulfilled. We should pay more attention to make work spaces be places where we want a very large part of our life to unfold. The community should be inspiring and challenging and allow individuals to flourish, relax, and be productive.

    Alec Appelbaums’s (above) and these co-working spaces sound ideal as places where people “are more like neighbors than colleagues.” When I was a teenager I was sure that I wanted to have my office be in the back room of a coffeeshop with a bunch of other freelancers–guess my idea wasn’t so original after all.

    Some of the coworking situations are all people working for themselves; but it would be interesting to see more office organized this way. If the scope stays small it is possible for each person to be the boss of their own single-person department. Organizational decisions can be made by consensus; this removes the hierarchical nature of the traditional office which is responsible for much of the spatial layout and human interactions that make your job “work” instead of “career.”

  14. Eleanor says:

    Are there any people out there who find the stability of a traditional work environment comforting? Do you prefer to come into the office, even if it is not a particularly inspiring environment, do your job, even if you don’t like it, and leave at the end of the day?

  15. faslanyc says:

    i do. sometimes only though. i want both. borders can be nice, but nicer when not obligatory.

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