Designing Human Cities: Lessons Learned From Coworking

Designing human cities, workspaces, products or services should be the easiest thing human beings have to do. We are human after all! Still, reality proves to us every day that we are actually pretty bad at it.

Two and a half years ago, a friend of mine, my two brothers and I shared a common vision. It was time, we thought, to re-think the way people live and work. Technology enables us to work virtually anywhere anytime with anyone. In this context, what should work look like? Would we still need workspaces to carry out projects?

The conclusion we drew was that workspaces would not disappear. They would become central to innovation because they would enable collaboration and boost creativity. They would offer the social contacts and serendipity needed for projects to thrive, because a certain level of trust cannot be reached without offline encounters. They would be human workspaces, where people choose to go instead of being forced to go. We wanted to build such a workplace and realized we were not alone. We were part of a fascinating movement called coworking.

That's what we learned when building Mutinerie, a 400m2 Parisian coworking space.

Designing a coworking space is quite different from designing a city, but the framework we used when building Mutinerie applies well to cities. We came across this framework in 2011 in an article published by the Harvard Business Review and based on a research conducted by Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks. The core idea of their work is that spaces aiming for collaboration and innovation should find a balance between 3 main dimensions: the 3 P's, Proximity, Privacy and Permission.

Proximity, in their study, is not only about the physical distance between workers. It is also about "traffic patterns" between people. We wanted to identify and optimize these traffic patterns by placing shared resources strategically. The typical example in an office would be the water cooler, the coffee machine and the printer, where lots of innovations are born. At Mutinerie, we decided to put a café-like area right at the entrance of the space. The first message you get when you push the door is: this is not just about work. The gentle buzz of passionate discussions and music combined with a coffee smell creates proximity. It quickly became a meeting point for people, even outsiders, to exchange ideas. We also located meeting rooms and resident desks at the other end of the space so that people heading to their desks or for a meeting have to cross the open area and exchange a few words or signs with others.

Privacy, in a work environment, means being able to focus and having some private or semi-private spaces when you need them. At Mutinerie, we designed the space so that even if it's open-plan, no one can really see your screen when you work. While proximity is highly concentrated in the café area, the bright, open working space remains calm. Proximity is still here but at a lower level. We also added phone booths, a meeting room and a "cellar" area where the degree of intimacy allows for more private talks.

But Proximity and Privacy need to be balanced with Permission. This third 'P' might well be the least obvious one. All too often, it's overlooked by designers and architects. How can you make people feel that they can use and play with their environment as they wish? Places do speak. They send us messages all the time. A museum uses blank spaces to showcase artworks, letting each object tell a story. Libraries, with their shelves full of old books, tell us to focus and learn. Parks, with comfortable benches, tell you to take a break and relax... Details quickly make you understand what attitude is expected in different environments. We used these symbols at Mutinerie to structure the spaces in different areas. The library-like area, with a wooden floor, shelves and books make people be more silent and focus, whereas the cellar-like area communicates more energy and eccentricity. The furniture, made, for the most part, of up-cycled material or old things, tells you to think differently.

So, what's the "ideal" mix between the 3 Ps? We've learned, from building Mutinerie, that there is no ideal formula for how much proximity, privacy and permission you should put in a place. The right balance depends on the local culture, the degree of trust in the community, the level of equality between people and many other social aspects. This framework, like every good framework, is flexible enough to simply help you structure your thoughts when wanting to build human spaces without telling you what to do.

Today, a year after it opened, Mutinerie is a thriving ecosystem. Our space is now full and we host many events ranging from distribution of local food to conferences from TED speakers and ministers. We are now working on a coworking space in the countryside, looking for another space in Paris and working on an ambitious project to connect coworking spaces all around the planet, called Copass.

If we look at the big picture, things become even more impressive: the number of coworking spaces has been doubling for 6 years reaching 2,500 in February; there's an estimated 110,000 coworkers around the planet. Cities and countries are dealing with increasing complexity, but as difficult as it is, building human cities is worth it.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The New Cities Foundation, to mark the New Cities Summit in São Paolo, June 4-6, 2013. The summit highlights what works to solve the great urban challenges facing all cities.
For more information on the New Cities Summit, click here.