Written by Imran Ali.
A couple of weeks ago, the White African blog discussed the need for coworking spaces in African cities, driven by the needs of emerging tech communities in some of the continent’s major cities.
Writer Erik Hersman argues the case for communities that are part coworking communities, part startup incubator and part VC/investor hubs. Establishing a coworking space isn’t trivial or easy, requiring some time for a healthy community culture to emerge; developing and leasing the physical space is relatively straightforward.
Hersman cites a couple of interesting African coworking options, such as the Regus-owned Habitatz (more like a serviced office than coworking), but it’s uncertain whether they see the same need to conflate investment, coworking and incubation.
I’ve been heavily involved in developing a coworking space that’s funded by one of the city’s universities, but populated and run by coworking residents and the university’s tech training arm. We all believe that aligning web workers, entrepreneurs, students, academics, investors and mentors will ultimately bring value to our city. In that regard, Hersman’s ideas are portable across cultures, but do require the development of their own shared culture.
It’s a long journey that requires a lot of diplomacy, development of enduring institutions and some values for everyone to cohere around. Without these values, or a shared vision, it’s tricky to bring together the diverse interests necessary in the infrastructure of innovation that Hersman speaks of, but not impossible. Done well, a perfect storm of meetups and coworkers, coupled with a pipeline of young, student entrepreneurs full of ideas can create an exciting nexus that’ll begin to get on the radar of potential investors…if, indeed, investment is necessary or desirable.
At the other end of the spectrum, existing coworking communities are beginning to reach their physical limits and grow beyond their current leases. The granddaddy of coworking spaces, San Francisco’s Citizen Space, is shortly moving to a space more than double its existing size (though at the same property).
As the first generation of spaces begins to outgrow their locations, they face the issue of whether coworking communities can scale without diminishing their values and cohesion, as well as avoiding the development of cliques. Is a ‘classroom’ size of 20-30 people ideal? Do you simply start a parallel community or keep adding to the existing group? Both open and interesting questions that coworking operators will begin to consider as the phenomenon matures.
Interestingly, an established UK-based tech company, Carsonified, is launching its Carsonispace project to open its unique corporate culture to hotdesking workers – firstly perhaps as a way of raising revenue in tough times, but also as a means to bring new ideas and people into the company’s intimate culture. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see larger employers like Google, Apple and Microsoft embracing such a notion? How’s that for an infrastructure for innovation in African cities!
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