Coworking to Quick-Start Rural Innovation

[imgbelt img=cocomembers530.jpg]In a new model for “the office,” diverse groups, local business people, and drop-in workers share space, wifi and expertise.  Why not in your town?

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Virginia Economic Bridge, which is adapting coworking at its new facility in Radford, Virginia, set to open fall 2011. This visit is an opportunity for Mitchell and fellow staff member Kimber Simmons to compare notes with their counterparts at CoCo.

Coworking refers to a shared work environment and a set of community and cultural values that guide the development and operation of office space: facilities where freelancers, entrepreneurs, telecommuters, and drop-ins work side-by-side. The benefits of a coworking space come from allowing independent and startup ventures to bypass rote logistical obstacles, like obtaining office or workshop space, and from valuing a free-form collaborative environment for sharing resources, expertise, and ideas.

To date, coworking has been predominantly an urban phenomenon, but many smaller communities, like Radford, are finding that the model suits rural settings equally well. Coworking supports and cultivates diverse, collaborative small enterprises, a class of economic activity that’s essential to building sustainable rural economies.

Coworking is flexible enough to accommodate for-profit, non-profit, or agency ownership, making the model adaptable to local economic and funding realities. Underutilized commercial space is common in many rural communities, and coworking’s flexible, do-it-yourself ethos is particularly suited to adaptations of existing space. This approach also offers resilience, because earned income through membership fees should cover the operational costs of a coworking space, regardless of whether the group seeks added grant or investment funding to procure special equipment or other shared resources.

wiki directory of coworking spaces, a bit disorganized, is still a good place to start searching for spaces in your region.

Deskwanted is a search tool to help ‘desk hunters’ find coworking spaces nearby.

If visiting a coworking space isn’t practical, here are a few starting points for conversations about how coworking might be a useful model in your community, business, organization, or agency:

  • Emergent Research’s Coworking Labs blog,  the publishing component of their Coworking Research Project, which aims in part “to identify how significant coworking is in America today and what role coworking plays for freelance and independent workers, mobile workers, and small businesses.”
  • The Coworking Google Group, a listserv with active participation by a large number of coworking space owners and advocates; this is a great place to learn about the realities of starting or operating a coworking space.
  • Ongoing coverage of coworking on Shareable, which “spares no digital ink when covering coworking efforts around the world.”
  • Rural Coworking,  a community project on the Coworking Wiki to organize resources related to rural coworking, including links to several spaces in rural communities.

Mark W. Kidd is Communications Director for Roadside Theater and Thousand Kites at Appalshop, Whitesburg, KY; he is also a member of the Central Appalachia Regional Network, a consortium of organizations promoting policy and action to improve the quality of life in Appalachia.

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