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Serendipitous Collisions: How Co-working Communities Are Fostering Innovation

February 2, 2017

Ryan S. Barry is Strategic Projects Coordinator in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s Office of Research and Economic Development/Office of Innovation Commercialization. Currently, he works in an advisory-like role supporting professors in finding pathways for their research - including linking with commercial partners and contributing to grant applications. He also contributes to economic development related topics. His background includes both public and private sector experience in startup to Fortune 500 settings. Previously, he founded a boutique management/strategy consulting firm focusing on Healthcare, Economic & Sustainable Development, Technology, Sustainability, and Non-profits; Co-founded an entrepreneurial Co-working space (HQ Greensboro); had stints with the Corporate Development & Strategy team and Office of the CIO at Computer Sciences Corp (CSC); and served as University of North Carolina System Liaison at Fudan University in Shanghai, China. His experience includes mergers & acquisitions, divestitures, partnerships & alliances, strategic planning, business-case-development and executive advisory. His education includes an MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School; Mergers & Acquisitions Executive Education at UPenn’s Wharton School of Business; and a BSBA Marketing from Appalachian State University.

Co-working spaces in modern societies — Why it matters

In regards to inclusive innovation, there’s a proverb that I really like: ”If you can talk you can sing, if you can walk you can dance.” Recently, I stumbled upon a similar quote from one of the originators of Nike, Bill Bowerman. “If you have a body you are an athlete”. Similarly, we at HQ Greensboro think if you have a mind, you’re an innovator.

We built HQ Greensboro based upon the notion of inclusive innovation – a piece of the vision being that, through co-working, people who may walk right by each other on the streets or never encounter one another in their daily routines are provided an opportunity to meet and share ideas. The in-person experience of co-working enables them to connect and find commonalities that otherwise may have gone unnoticed. It creates the possibility of what we call ‘serendipitous collisions’ occurring. People can build upon their own ideas, or what we really like to see is when ideas collide. This is often where innovation occurs.

We believe that all ideas are created equal. With that said, ideas mature and evolve and some, with time, become ideas that are indeed differentiated. The co-working space provides a space for these ideas to evolve — often with a single idea splitting into many others or multiple ideas merging, creating new form. Big thinkers like Steven Johnson (author of Where Good Ideas Come From, among other books) and Victor Hwang (Kauffman Foundation and The Rainforest Scorecard) speak of the best innovation ecosystems having characteristics resembling those seen in nature, mimicking biospheres such as rainforests and coral reefs.

Similarly, we view co-working spaces as vibrant micro-coral reefs of sorts. Where diversity thrives, is welcomed, and creates innovation tributary systems that flow into grander communities and innovation ecosystems. This is the people’s space. The folks that are members treat the space like their home. We try to create a sense that “this place is yours”. It’s here for you to create, hone, and master your craft, whatever that may be.

Christopher Gergen, a colleague of ours, who we linked up with to move the idea of a downtown co-working space from concept to reality, wrote a book called Life Entrepreneurs. We’ve seen patterns that nicely align with his writing, namely that being a part of a co-working community is a lifestyle choice. People are seeking more than dollars; they are seeking motivation, they are seeking community, they are seeking mastery, they are seeking independence and purpose, and they are seeking a life.

This place has a cathedral-of-creativity feel to it. We’ve all experienced the stale office — you walk in and it feels like you’re in a basement, and it kind of squeezes the energy out of you. As soon as you walk into HQ Greensboro there’s a positive energy, a vibe, a buzz — which creates an environment that stimulates idea creation. We believe that we are reflections of our environment, and our environment a reflection of us as people. As opposed to hasty, short-term, mindless build-out of space, people-friendly-by-design spaces that have the human in mind first and foremost are value generators.

Yes, budgets matter, but building environments that have people in mind embraces a longer-term view of economics and value creation. We believe that people who work in these settings will be healthier and more creative yielding long-term dividends. It’s not just the mavericks, pioneers, and risk-takers that we call entrepreneurs who are immersing their daily lives in the co-working life-style. Large companies have taken notice as well. General Electric, KPMG, and Cognizant have linked up with WeWork. Furthermore, Verizon Communications recently announced an interest in embracing co-working and has linked up with Grind.

As noted in a Boston Business Journal Article, in 2005 the US only had 1 co-working space; in 2013, it had 781. The co-working phenomenon is global, with people doing this all over the world. So, we at HQ Greensboro are not the originators of the idea, but what we have done is attempted to create a space that is uniquely Greensboro and a part of this movement. A movement we believe is still in its infancy. The goal is not to simply stamp out these spaces, but rather to make them unique to a local, embodying the characteristics of the broader community in which they reside. We hope in Greensboro that our space will generate some of the next big job creators in our community, and/or even help to attract other companies. For example, if a west coast company wants to startup an east coast presence – Greensboro, NC may be a place to look. We’re endeavoring to help create a broader ecosystem that will attract such future opportunities.

As recently as 100 years ago, cities were places people travelled to in order to interact with other people, trade goods, and also to hear ideas. They were places where people stayed connected with society. Libraries were hubs of learning — an individual went to a library to plug into new ideas, to have exposure to thoughts from minds from afar. The internet has created ‘libraries’ and an appended global brain at our fingertips. It begs the question of the purpose for community-meeting locations of old, such as the library. I believe libraries will continue to be important centers of learning & connection within communities, but at times will be supplemented by modern spaces of idea exchange, such as the co-working space.

Furthermore, we are seeing inklings of co-working spaces becoming a sort of modern classroom, as well as a way of getting students exposed to experiences beyond the traditional walls of classrooms. Universities are setting up offices and creating programs in co-working spaces (e.g. Duke University at the American Underground in Durham, NC; University of North Carolina at Greensboro/North Carolina A&T University Engagement Office at HQ Greensboro in Greensboro, NC). Further happenings, such as the Apollo Education Group’s 2015 strategic investment in The Iron Yard, and Skillshare setting up classrooms within co-working spaces at Hiveat55 (NYC) and COCO (Minneapolis, MN), show signs of traditional learning institutions venturing into the realm of co-working spaces.

Technology is an integral part of all of our lives, and will increasingly be so in years ahead. That’s simply the reality of the world we live in. It’s amazing that we can connect with individuals around the globe in ways that were unimaginable just a generation or two before us. People are increasingly connecting via online communities, but we find that with the vast amount of time individuals spend connected online it actually becomes more important to disconnect digitally sometimes in order to connect with people the old-fashioned way — face-to-face, in person.

Thus, online communities and offline communities have a possibility of being complementary and reinforcing each other. Cities will increasingly be a part of our ever-evolving societies, and co-working spaces will fuel the exchange, debate, and creation of ideas that manifests our future societies. The nature of how we live and how we work is changing, and so too will the spaces where we live and work. The co-working space will increasingly be a part of that changing dynamic of how we live and work. It will be exciting to see the evolution of these spaces in the years to come.

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