Rise of Coworking and its Influence on Social Innovation

caption for the image 2

IN 1998, A GROUP OF STUDENTS from the progressive, internationally-focused Atlantic College in Wales were captivated by the significance of the millennium on the horizon. While on summer breakJonathan Robinson, Mark Hodge, Katy Marks, Yuill Herbert and few other students were wandering along Londons South Bank and saw the imposingModernist Royal Festival Hall where thousands of events and exhibits take place each year. Coming from a progressive school where they were encouraged to act on ideas, the students wanted to put on an event to shake up lots of peoples’ thinkingand properly kick off the new millenia. They decided to speak with the Festival Hall event managers about an event for the millennium celebration and convinced them to take a booking for a 2-day event to take place the following year. One year and many phone calls and faxes later, the students had a fully-fledged conference featuring some of the most prominent world leaders and thinkers, including human rights activist and The Body Shop founder Anita RoddickEnglish journalist and TV presenter Jon Snow and several Nobel Peace Laureates. Im not entirely sure how a bunch of 19 years olds attracted such figures,” recalled Jonathan Robinson. I guess it was our combination of being kind of cheeky and a bit humble all at the same time.The 2-day event on human rights, environmental and social issues went off without a hitch and lead to a flood of interest from more international organizations, the most interesting of which came from the United Nations. Organizers of the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development asked the group to replicate the Royal Festival Hall event for their 2002 summit taking place in Johannesburg. Although the students were now deep in the throes of university studies, they werent about to let the opportunity pass them by. They booked flights to Johannesburg during a week-long break and quickly realized that the convention center assigned to them was not the appropriate place for their event. “Against everyone’s warnings that horrible things would befall us, [we] decided to venture into Soweto to find out what people there made of this impending summit,” said Jonathan. Created most dubiously when white South Africans moved black South Africans and Indians out of the city, Soweto is most infamously known as a political hotbed during Apartheid.Jonathan and his peers met people who had been at the heart of the anti-Apartheid movement and were now shifting towards community regeneration. They knew nothing of the UN’s World Summit but had a different sustainable development conundrum underway--dealing with a huge mountain of waste that was accumulating in the center of their neighborhood. Jonathan and his comrades saw an opportunity: “We felt there was a real connection between what these guys in Soweto were telling us the needed to make progress and the global issues around progress and sustainable development that we wanted to be telling leaders at the UN summit.” With Katy Marks working on the ground for 18 months in Soweto, the team and community members were able to turn the mountain of waste into a thriving, fully-functioning area by the time the UN Summit took place in 2002. Buildings were constructed from discarded glass bottles and car tires. A defunct water tower was turned into a light beacon. Half a dozen small social enterprises were providing food, waste, music, and film services. Soweto’s Mountain of Hope became an icon for community regeneration and sustainable development at a local scale, and many world leaders took notice.UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, UK Prime Minister John Prescott, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, and thousands more World Summit delegates visited the Mountain of Hope. Inspired by the magnitude of what was accomplished, Kofi Annan scrapped his formal speech and instead spoke about the project remarking that there was no point waiting for the UN summit to deliver since the real summit had happened at the mountain in Soweto.After returning to the UK, each of the students continued with their individual studies and, upon graduation, wondered how best to use this inspiring energy they had discovered, and the conversations it prompted, to make real change.

As in Soweto, they realized that people in the UK wanted to make a difference through their work, yet they were generally operating out of their homes, in isolation. Jonathan Robinson, a member of the group that had traveled to Soweto and a recent graduate and soon-to-be cofounder of the Hub organization, asked himself a question: “What if these people could come together in the same physical space and have a place to connect?”

The 3,250 square foot impact Hub Islington provides sweeping views of London from the top floor of an old warehouse
Hosts at Impact Hubs welcome guests and make connections in order to make the experience warm, welcoming, and homely.
The kitchen becomes a common meeting place at many Impact Hubs.
Hub Birmingham

“Connecting people from different worlds into meaningful relationships”

Petal-shaped tables have become a staple of Impact Hub's open workspaces. San Francisco

The First Hub Takes Shape

In 2005, the group of former students founded the first workspace solely dedicated to social innovation. Named “The Hub,” the 3,230-square foot (300-square-meter) space opened on the top floor of a warehouse-turned-artist space in London’s Islington district, collaboratively built by the people who would eventually work there.Design and construction were a bit crude at the beginning: starting with an open wood floor surrounded by old brick walls and topped with a sawtooth roof, the team began marking out different areas by drawing on the floor with chalk.They broke up the space into reception, event, office, and meeting spaces, as well as a kitchen, restrooms, and storage closets. With a limited budget, the group hand-built wood-and-metal desks, sunken meeting spaces, and a secluded library. Once the space was ready for opening, the Hub London began accepting startups, freelancers,and social enterprises, with membership fees based on the amount of time per month each member anticipated working in the space.Some of the features incorporated into the first Hub have become staples for new Hubs around the world, including leaf-shaped tables that spiral from a central shelf, and a reception area where members take turns serving as “host” for the space. Maria Glauser, who was the first host at Hub London and later led the development of hosting practice, said, “We didn’t want any traditional receptionists. We wanted to host people in the same way that you would host someone in your house or at a party — making guests feel at home and introducing them to people they should meet. So we looked at how we could develop a practice of creating collaborative environments and connecting people from different worlds into meaningful relationships.”Although enterprises like the Hub are now commonly found in most large urban cities, the idea of bringing people together in a common space to foster connections was not a new idea.In 1995, C-base opened as the first hacker space — a precursor to coworking spaces — in Berlin, founded on the mission of increasing knowledge and skills in computer software, hardware, and data networks. Four years later, in 1999, Bernard De Koven coined the term “coworking” as a method of facilitating collaborative work and business meetings, a phenomenon of “working together as equals.” Brad Neuberg began using the same term in 2005 to describe a space to support the community and structure of working with others. The term stuck. Since then, coworking spaces have sprouted up around the world, growing from three in 2005 — Spiral Muse in San Francisco, the Hub in London, and St.Oberholz in Berlin — to more than 3,000 in 2014.

Lounge space at Hub Melbourne
Impact Hub Bergen reflects its Scandinavian environment

As London’s first Hub began to attract members, it simultaneously attracted attention from people who wanted to build similar spaces in their own cities. In 2007, Hub London held a meeting for people interested in creating their own spaces; it attracted attendees from as far afield as Mumbai and Sao Paolo. “Although the initial purpose of the meeting was merely to share lessons related to the hosting practice, it quickly became clear that most attendees had come to learn how they could replicate the entire Hub model,” wrote Michel Bachmann, cofounder of the Zurich Hub, in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Many of the meeting’s attendees went on to found Hub sites in their home countries, inspiring a movement of like-minded people building similar Hub communities around the world. Three years after the first Hub was opened, nine new Hubs were in operation, including Amsterdam, Johannesburg, and even a second location in London. The success of the Hub network — which now has more than 60 locations worldwide and 20 new spaces under way — comes from the spirit of collaboration and a firm commitment to its members. “The evolution of the Hub has never been about any one person,” wrote Bachmann. “If there’s one thread that runs through the history of the Hub, it’s the fundamentally collaborative nature of the organization.”

The Impact Hub Westminster's bright space is highlighted by a glazed meeting space.

Locally Influenced within a Global Network

As each new Hub was created, many Hub founders and managers identified three common elements emerged as keys to success and longevity: (1) A community of entrepreneurial people who become members and create a network for sharing skills, cross-fertilizing information,and developing new ventures. (2) Content that is inspiring and thought-provoking to facilitate connections through events, labs, incubation programs, and facilitated meetings. (3) A physical space that is flexible and functional, facilitating activities to work, meet, learn, and connect. Although the Hubs (which changed name to Impact Hub last year) are part of a global network,each is rooted in its locale -- even within a single city. The original Impact Hub London takes inspiration from the local artist community and the old warehouse building where it resides, while just three miles away, Impact Hub Westminster offers an entirely different atmosphere. Located in the New Zealand High Commission building, the Westminster location buzzes with energy from the political district, which plays host to Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, and the British Prime Minister’s residence. Designed by architecture and design strategy firm Architecture 00 — whose founders were members of the first Impact Hub London — the “high octane” space purposely utilizes high acoustics to mimic the fastpaced surrounding neighborhood. Though the energy of the Westminster location responds to the local atmosphere, it still maintains Impact Hub’s global focus on connecting members. Workspace designs often look at efficiency and productivity of individuals serving a company,but Impact Hubs seek to foster connections of individuals working independently. “That’s the efficiency of the Hub: getting the maximum connections out of people,” said Lynton Pepper,the Architecture 00 designer of Impact Hub Westminster. “We look at how to get [members] moving around the day to meet more people.” When Impact Hub Westminster first opened, the designers rearranged the space every month to disrupt the flow. This created new opportunities to network as people constantly met new Hub members. Architecture 00 also designed permanent space to foster connections. “We used the common enemy: washing up,” said Pepper. “We purposely put in one tiny sink so people have to queue to use it. People then have to talk with each other — and the common conversation starter is,‘Why such a tiny sink?!’ ” Rooting design in psychology, Pepper is always looking at how architecture influences people and their behaviors. “We design for ‘condition settings,’based on comfort, attention, and noise,” said Pepper. The Westminster space includes a series of environments for different activities in anticipation of how people will use it, and incorporates opportunities for members to take ownership.For instance, a series of small rooms became telephone and recording booths, where members installed acoustic panels as needed. Other areas are becoming maker spaces, where members can build things. Through these opportunities for participation, the space is meant to instill a sense of ownership in members rather than a feeling of being managed or controlled.

Flexible furniture and an open floor plan allow Impact Hubs to be used during the day, evening, and night.

Impacts of a Network

With nearly 10 years of development under its belt, the Impact Hub network has begun to evaluate its impact on members and on larger workspace trends. The global network now has more than 11,000 members, accounting for individuals working as freelancers, in startups,and even in full-fledged enterprises. In 2012, the collective of Impact Hubs saw more than 400 new startups founded and initiatives started, along with more than 1,500 new full-time jobs created.This number mirrors trends in new businesses started annually. In the U.K. alone, a record number of businesses have recently launched, rising nearly 14% in three years, from 440,600 in 2011 to 502,068 in 2013. Along with new businesses, the number of freelancers continues to increase. In the U.S., 34% of the national workforce is doing freelance work, accounting for roughly 53 million people. The number of freelancers in the U.K. has grown 14% in the past decade, with 1.4 million independents working across all sectors. Across Europe, the number of freelancers — which have come to be dubbed “iPros,” independent professionals — has increased 45% in 10 years, from 6.2 million in 2004 to 8.9 million in 2013, making it the fastest growing group in the EU labor market.At a systemic level, the Impact Hubs are beginning to see more interest in collaboration from governments, especially in the U.K. and Canada. Two of the five Impact Hubs in England have been opened with financial support from local governments. The Westminster location was launched with 40% equity from the City of Westminster, and the recently opened Brixton location opened as a pilot project with the Lambeth Council. Across the pond in Canada, the Halifax and Ottawa Impact Hubs are working with local governments on piloting social impact bonds. Due to the high levels of jobs created each year at Impact Hubs, many local authorities are interested in creating similar incubation spaces to foster even more job creation. Alongside contributing to increases in jobs, businesses, and public-private partnerships, the Impact Hub’s main mission is to create a network of collaborators focused on making positive impacts on the world — and they are seeing this come true. In 2012, members reported an average of 10 or more highly valuable new connections made each year, solidifying the Impact Hub’s mission. With these connections in place throughout the network, the Impact Hub becomes more than a place to work. “We’re moving away from space at the center of our model to space as an enabler of impact,” said Debbie So, Impact Hub Islington’s Head of Partnerships. The global Impact Hub network is now more focused on supporting their membership base of entrepreneurs, freelancers, and changemakers, who are working at the edges of traditional work environments and business culture, to make the impact they desire to see at local and global levels, whether they tap into the network in the physical or virtual environments.

Impact Hub Milan's dual purpose storage and signage

Impact Hub




  • Bachmann, Michael. “How the Hub Found Its Center” Winter 2014. Stanford Social Innovation Review.
  • Baderman, James and Law, Justine.
    “Jonathan Robinson” Everyday Legends:
    The Ordinary People Changing Our World: The Stories of 20 Great UK Social Entrepreneurs.Heslington, York: WW, 2006. 102-07. Print.
  • De Koven, Bernard. “The Coworking Connection” 5 August 2013. Deep Fun.
  • DeskMag.com. “The History of Coworking Spaces in a Timeline” 2 September 2013.
  • Dunsby, Megan. “UK Hits Record 500,000 New Businesses for 2013” 13 December 2013.StartUps.co.uk.
  • ImpactHub.net. “Impact Hub.” 2014.
  • Kauffman.org. “Kauffman Index of Enterpreneurial Activity Interactive”
    4 September 2013.
  • Matthews, Ben. “Freelance Statistics 2014:
    The Freelance Economy in Numbers” 9 September 2014. BenRMatthews.com.
  • Neuberg, Brad. “The Start of Coworking
    (from the Guy that Started It)” 21 December 2014. CodingInParadise.org.