Rise of the Regions
The Lack of Space
If you think of the countryside, there is usually one association that most of us share: Space. Lots of Space.
Plenty of it.
And it’s not just the space between buildings. It’s the space between villages, the space between towns, the sheer distance between one place to the next. Lots of space to breathe, live and prosper.
But then again, there’s not.
In the initial piece of “Rise of the Regions”, I wrote that there is a lack of infrastructure in the countryside that makes entrepreneurs and startups head for the cities. To me, one key element of such an infrastructure is the co-working spaces, cafes, hubs, labs and such — the “Third Spaces” that aspiring entrepreneurs use for a variety of purposes.
And for all that space in the countryside, there is hardly any “Third Space”.
Let me follow up some facts for my region.
There are currently 17 co-working spaces and co-working oriented cafes within Cologne’s city limits ( roughly more than 1 million inhabitants).
There are exactly 4 co-working spaces in the “West of the Rhine”-Region. In four different towns, two of them “only” 20 kilometres apart, which also perfectly align to mark a kind of border: everything to the west of that border is a co-working wasteland.*
Again, a cursory round-up of Wikipedia numbers makes some 1,5 million inhabitants for the “West of the Rhine”-Region.
Cologne has 1 Co-Working Space per 58k inhabitants, “West of the Rhine” has 1 per 375k inhabitants. Let this sink in for a while.
Co-working spaces offer a lot of benefits and advantages to everyone using them. Search for “Co-working advantages” and you will find plenty of pages listing anything from 6 to 27 items.
Instead of harking on every item here, I would like to highlight just 3 advantages that more co-working spaces would bring into the countryside.
One of the vital life-lines of any person are networks; and these have grown with Social Media and the Business Social Networks available online. The countryside communities are a tad different, family & friendship ties being an important issue, informality another. Yet these networks quickly exhaust themselves in face of the need for more specialist skills or knowledge. Co-working spaces allow to transcend these networks and create access to other resources, skills and other networks. The increased heterogeneity of networks creates a better environment for entrepreneurship, business-building and knowledge-transfer.
We often believe that the wide open space of the countryside must be a real kickstarter for creativity; perhaps even handing us that spark of genius we need for the next unicorn. But this is rare.
Creativity — often enough — needs something different. It needs exchange with both like-minded and different-minded people. It needs conversation, the pitch of ideas, sharing visions; the bubbling and noisy as well as the silent and thoughtful of human interaction. As with the networks, a co-working space will offer this exchange. It offers an escape from echo chambers. A way out from the monotony of your own desk.
Tentatively speaking, most entrepreneurs need an audience to sell their product, visions or ideas. The aforementioned networks growing in co-working spaces do their fair share for that. Yet those spaces also offer a chance to do bring SMEs and already established companies into contact with entrepreneurs. They help accelerate cooperation and collaboration as well as aiding in selling skills, products and services.
Another great advantage of co-working spaces is the way that they act as focus for a community and for a geographical locale. Yet demanding such as space for every village would be foolish. Such a move would not just dilute the whole energy that may be generated, it may also serve to isolate even more. To create heterogeneous community in and around these spaces, one would need to deliver both scarcity as well as accessibility. Placing such a space inside smaller town that already serves as transportation hubs would create such accessibility. And by NOT expanding into every corner of the region, one would create enough scarcity to aid in establishing that kind of community that “Third Spaces” need to prosper.
This space could act as the “center of gravity” for the region and smaller outliers would be possible in a second step — not to make the center obsolete, but to deliver such things as co-education and co-creation to the wider audience.
I do believe that adding two or three smaller co-working spaces to the “West of the Rhine”-Region would create new communities that provide a haven for budding entrepreneurs as well as already established ones.
They may act as centers of innovation, collaboration and co-creation for the local economy and help root much, otherwise lost, potential in local communities.
They would help unlock exactly that potential, which those regions and communities actually have yet cannot fully develop in face of the services and opportunities rendered by larger cities.
Disclaimer: My writing is based on observations made from a certain locale, i.e. West of the Rhine/ East of the Meuse in North Rhine-Westphalia. It will differ from your experience. And that’s what I would love to hear about!
*Check this map by Thomas Riedel on Co-working spaces in NRW. The region I am writing about is to the west of Düsseldorf, Cologne and the Ruhr-Area. And the four mentioned coworking spaces marking that “border” inside the area are Moers, Krefeld, Mönchengladbach and Wassenberg.