Aug. 23, 2013 12:00 pm

Coworking spaces are communities that should learn from each other [Event]

As collaborative spaces have flourished anew in Philadelphia in recent years, these communities could stand to socialize around a shared interest: sharing their independent work to create something bigger, shared a panel of speakers on the topic of coworking.

Full Disclosure: Technically Philly organized this event and this reporter served as its moderator.

If you’ve built up a city, it makes sense to find ways to trade and learn and challenge with another city.

Likewise, as collaborative spaces have flourished anew in Philadelphia in recent years, these communities could stand to socialize around a shared interest: sharing their independent work to create something bigger.

“Space’ is the least important word in a coworking space,” said Alex Hillman, the godfather of modern coworking in Philadelphia, at Thursday’s State of Philadelphia Collaborative Spaces organized by Technically Philly and held at the Department of Making + Doing in University City. A sense of identity breathes life into cities, bringing the people, and it’s the people who get the trash picked up, said Hillman, and that’s just how building a collaborative space should work.

Or as Nic Esposito, the founder of the Head and the Hand Press and its writers workshop, said, citing inspiration he received from Hillman: “Don’t make your space what you want, welcome the right people to help you make the space you all want.”

That’s one reason Hillman, with Benjamin’s Desk cofounder Michael Maher, is helping to organize a regular meetup group for members of Philly’s coworking spaces. The first is in September.

The audience of 40 included a half dozen or more representatives of other collaborative spaces, from coworking spaces like Center City’s Benjamin’s Desk to maker spaces like Sculpture Gym to hacker spaces like Hive76 to incubators like Venturef0rth to startup spaces like BusinessCasual and more established players like the half-century old University Science Center, which is organizes a Regional Affinity Incubator Network.

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Espisito and Hillman were joined by Georgia Guthrie, the Action Mill designer who also coordinates the Hacktory maker group and the new collaborative Department of Making + Doing.

Coworking is sometimes used as a filler term — much to the chagrin of those who take these type definitions seriously — for all manner of shared work environments by small firms or independent workers. Philadelphia has seen an explosion of them in recent years.

Big takeaways:

  • History — The idea of bringing like-minded creative ventures together in a physical space to inspire is thousands of years old, said Hillman, from Chinese tea houses to French salons. Today’s modern use of the word coworking is fueled by new web-based communication tools that have grown telecommuting, post-recession startup culture and more.
  • Industry — Modern coworking came out of popular, growing technology communities but as espoused during the event the concept is being taken everywhere, from sculpting to writing to music and more, even though the artist commune may be one of the oldest versions. As Hillman said: “Whenever artists say they want to do coworking, I tell them ‘we stole coworking from you!”
  • Diversity — You’re paid to be at a traditional work place, but with coworking, you pay yourself to be there, often, so doesn’t that set up a barrier for lower income community members, asked one audience member? In some cases there are hard costs that need to be covered, reminded Guthrie, but as all three panelists had noted, you pay for the space, but the community can be accessed by coming to events and connecting online. “Social capital is all you need to get involved,” said Hillman.
  • Redundancy — Are there too many collaborative spaces in Philadelphia (or anywhere, for that matter)? “We have only seen membership grow faster as more coworking spaces have opened up,” said Hillman of Indy Hall. They’re helping to grow awareness of the concept and then people are finding what space suits them best.

See other thoughts on Twitter at  #collabphl

Christopher Wink

Christopher Wink is a cofounder and Editorial Director of, the local technology news network. Previously, Wink worked for a homeless advocacy nonprofit and was a freelance reporter for a variety of publications. He writes regularly about news innovation and best business practices on his personal blog here. The bicycle commuter loves cities, urban politics and squabbling about neighborhood boundaries.


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