There’s a moment early in Hulu’s Fyre Festival documentary where the 21st-century pantomime villain Billy McFarlane introduces the digitally-integrated, venture-capital-backed, synergistic bottle of snake oil he was hawking before he moved into the disaster-festival business.
Imagine a credit card, but like, for cool, wealthy millennials: Magnises. And what makes it cooler? Chiefly the fact that it gives you access to the Magnises Townhouse, a communal workspace in New York’s West Village which is more than just bricks and mortar; it’s an elite networking spot for making deals and firing the creative juices during the daytime – and relaxing and partying in the evenings. Like the Fyre Festival itself, Magnises sunk in a mire of unfulfilled promises and widespread customer angst. But it’s the choice of deluxe perk which seemed to capture the zeitgeist: of course, this absurd ‘black card for millennials’ came with its own club-like coworking space.
The phenomenal rise of coworking spaces across the west tells us a great deal about how we live our lives, how we work and how our cities do or don’t function in 2019. They are a response to exponentially-rising precarity in the job market driving ever more people to self-employment (whether that is their own small business, or freelancing), to rising office rents brought on by gentrification, and even to the broader picture of post-industrial employment – where ‘creative industries’ and tech and digital-driven work lend themselves to flexible, ‘nomadic’ alternatives to the 9-5. According to Desk Mag, there were about 14,000 coworking spaces worldwide by the end of 2017 – compared to about 75 in 2007; and over 1.2 million people were using them. Coworking spaces operate in 89 countries on six continents worldwide, according to The Conversation.
Being able to plug straight in to a site that already has, at a minimum, wifi, toilets, meeting spaces, and a kitchen – and at the more deluxe end, micro-roasted coffee, ‘craft on draft’ and prosecco on tap, acupuncturists and massage therapists – is an obvious boon to small entrepreneurs wanting to be careful with their start-up capital, or anyone who doesn’t want to take the risk of a commitment to an office-space lease. They are, ultimately, a response to the precarity of self-employment and the risks of entrepreneurship: and the fact they have boomed reflects the ongoing, substantial changes to our patterns of work, the end of jobs for life, and the slow unfurling of deindustrialisation. Between 2001 and 2017, the number of self-employed Britons increased from 3.3million to 4.8million – and a lot of those people need somewhere to sit down outside their house.
Inevitably, the vast majority of growth in coworking spaces in the UK has taken place in London, where the creative industries, self-employed young professionals and insanely high rents are all substantially over-represented.
To take, as an example, the most notorious name in the coworking space business, of the 48 WeWork sites now operating in this country, 45 are in London – the other three are in Manchester.
The first WeWork site launched in the UK less than five years ago, representing a staggering rate of expansion. But then the company’s global rise has been nothing short of meteoric – and that’s how an injection of venture capital usually functions. The company was only founded in Manhattan in 2010; it now has 585 branches worldwide in 100 cities and is valued at $20billion.
The brand pushes exactly the kind of Janus-faced Silicon Valley mantra you would expect – ruthless when they want to impress upon you their business acumen, but cuddly to show they’re not heartless wolves of Wall Street either: “we move fast and we challenge each other, but we look after each other and care about our culture” announces the company’s ‘mission’. There is a great emphasis on ‘community’. Their primary ‘value’, they say, is “We do what we love and are connected to something greater than ourselves”; and it’s worth thinking through this hat-tip to the networked society – specifically, what is that ‘something greater’ they think their customers are connected to? An abstract sense of purpose? Does it simply mean we are connected to our freelance peers and clients? Or does it refer to the local community and wider city that surrounds your little hotdesk? The ambiguity is deliberate, but given that coworking spaces are about space, as much as work, this last point is vital.
The explosion in coworking spaces keenly reflects how our cities are changing. Gentrification has become a buzzword and a cause célèbre in recent decades, as the pace of change in cities like London, Manchester, New York, Seattle, San Francisco and Toronto has rapidly accelerated, and contention over who has ‘the right to the city’ – and who, by dint of their lack of privilege, does not – becomes ever more fraught.
There’s an obvious point that needs making in this context: a very particular kind of self-employed person is liable to use a coworking space – skewing younger, wealthier and whiter than the mean. You can see this reflected in the spaces’ marketing campaigns alone – the freelancers in question may be relatively economically precarious (if they were rich they’d have their own office, right?), but they’re hardly struggling, either. At up to £550 per month just for a hot-desk in a London WeWork – hot-desking; where even the flat surface you put your laptop on is precarious – it’s not cheap.
And these customers – because they are customers, not partners, peers or comrades – attract a certain kind of secondary business to an area: hipster bars and on-trend new lunch spots, sure, but also Sainsbury’s Locals and Tesco Expresses, banks and chain restaurants – the kind of commercial gentrification that eventually pushes up rents of all kinds, forcing poorer residents out of their homes, not to mention mom-and-pop shops, cafes and newsagents.
If you look at the WeWork location map in London, it should come as no surprise that, along with a few sites scattered in the west end and the south bank, the vast majority are concentrated around the inner-east-London postcodes, most of them starting at Silicon Roundabout – sorry, Old Street- and spreading south through Shoreditch, Spitalfields and the Barbican towards the river. It’s notable that none of London’s WeWork branches are in areas that are at tipping-points for imminent and evolving gentrification: there are no sites in Deptford, or Peckham, or Tottenham, or Brixton, or East Ham – instead, they’re generally congregated in places closer to the city centre, where that battle was fought and lost some 10 or 20 years ago.
It’s important to understand that the chain of events that leads to the gentrification of an area is complex, legalistic, and often somewhat hidden from view: by the time the bougie pop-up shop that only sells artisan crisps opens, the transformation is already complete.
Similarly, these coworking spaces aren’t the initial sparks that catch alight and end up with working-class people being forced out of their homes, they don’t in themselves lead to the demolition of council estates; that’s not how gentrification works.
The definition of gentrification, as coined by academic Ruth Glass in the 1960s, is that the housing opportunities for poorer communities recede, while housing opportunities for the middle-classes increase – leading the former to be forced to move out of their homes. A good example is the demolition of the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle from 2011-14 – a humongous council estate in what has now been deemed a prime location – to be replaced, over the last few years, by the luxury flats of Elephant Park that are now being erected. What we are now seeing is a substantial negative knock-on effect on the commercial premises (cafes, shops, bars) run by working-class Latin communities in the area. But the process started with controversial planning decisions made by Southwark Council, well over a decade ago – not with the arrival of young creatives working in web design.
On that note, there is no WeWork in Elephant & Castle – not yet; I would be surprised if there wasn’t one there in five years time when Elephant Park is complete. There is already at least one shiny new coworking space in the area; Hotel Elephant, “for Creative Entrepreneurs” (their italics) – two minutes from where the Heygate Estate used to stand.
Ultimately, creative young freelancers and new businesses generate exactly the kind of youthful and entrepreneurial energy that property developers and investors love. In a world where marketing is everything, your vitality, ‘cool’ and creative energy make for a great sales pitch. A few years ago a senior property developer explained to me that “creatives” are the ultimate lure for investment: “It’s that magical something that [London councils] all want,” he said. “They all want IT businesses and they all want creative industries because it gives them that young, hip vibe. People take it very seriously because it creates value.” In this respect, the individual self-employed people using coworking spaces are no more responsible for the eviction of working-class families from their homes in cities like London than the bands booked for the Fyre Festival were responsible for it going up in smoke. They are merely cogs in a machine which is engineered to enrich the much less creative money-men behind the scenes. But it’s something to think about when next approaching the prosecco tap.