Sign up to our newsletter

Sign up to our newsletter

Silicon Vilstal Rural Design 2022: Self-sustaining Rural Coworking Spaces as a Way to Foster Community

Share This Post

Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on email

Written by Jose Antonio Morales, founding and managing partner at Lincoln Island. Based on Silicon Vilstal Rural Design 2022 Conference

Ten years ago, I went through a huge personal change that started a domino effect that brought me here to speak with you. 

I lived with my family in New York, with a 20 years career in information technologies on my back, when I suddenly decided to return to Europe and let go of IT businesses to start something new. 

I think I was anticipating a middle-life crisis, so I decided to create one earlier. That’s me.

My first encounter with a Coworking space happened around 2012 in Austria. I visited the Impact Hub Vienna and fell in love with what I saw: people of different ages and lifestyles sharing a space, conversations, coffee, and all that framed by the idea of Social Entrepreneurship. You could feel the culture of cooperation, inclusion, and also the will to create businesses that work.

I immediately became an Impact Hub member, and fast enough, their culture inspired me to start my first initiatives after my adventures in New York. 

Obviously, I was going to create my own Coworking space in Slovenia. Why not bring such a good entrepreneurship environment close to where I live?

“We are not simply renting desks, providing coffee and WiFi. It’s not about the space itself. It’s about what happens when we work together.” – Ashley Proctor, author of the Coworking Manifesto.

Coworking is about using space and multiple themes as incentives to bring people together.

Coworking is a framework for designing and building communities. It is not a real estate business.

After seven years since the birth of Aurora Coworking, I know that we contribute to solving problems of infrastructure, business, and networking. Still, those aren’t the most important ones: we address the issue of loneliness.

According to the book Around the World in 250 Coworking Spaces, Coworking is a “…new way of approaching work, placing humans at the centre of it. It is an experience but also an activity that happens within four walls or even virtually.”

Coworking spaces, in my opinion, are like embassies of entrepreneurship, innovation, and cooperation.

Aurora Coworking is in the city of Murska Sobota, capital of the Mura region in Slovenia, close to the borders of Austria, Croatia, and Hungary. The population is under fifteen thousand inhabitants. We have excellent infrastructure, and we are close to the highway. We are just a couple of hours away from Vienna, Budapest, Zagreb, and Ljubljana. 

So many positive factors wouldn’t become a problem for a new Coworking space, right?

There is not enough time to tell you the entire story of the challenges I faced, but I will summarise with the following:

The business models of a Coworking space operating in a city are not directly applicable in Coworking spaces operating in towns and cities with populations under fifty thousand inhabitants. 

Starting a Coworking space in a rural area requires a different perspective than traditional methodologies for starting businesses.

“It became apparent that the business models of coworking spaces in large cities cannot be transferred to rural areas without first being adapted. At the beginning of our research, it even seemed questionable as to whether a coworking space in a rural area could even operate economically based on the usual understanding.” -Alexandra Schmied Bertelsmann Stiftung.

Coworking spaces thrive in cooperation and stagnate in isolation. And that applies internally and externally:

  • Externally: collaboration with local organisations, other Coworking spaces, and international networks.
  • Internally: solid culture of inclusion and ownership.

In cooperation with my Coworking members, we found a viable model that I believe could help many other similar initiatives in Europe and around the world. It is resilient, self-sufficient, and encourages ownership.

Traditionally, the model used by many Coworking spaces is based on multiple tiers of membership: A daily access fee, a monthly fee for shared space, a monthly fee for dedicated space, etc. They also organise events and get access to public funding projects.

In the case of small Rural Coworking spaces, the risks are higher because their space limits the number of members and the size of the events they organise. That, as a consequence, decreases the impact desired by public-funded projects. 

Why would a local government care about a Coworking space with ten members?

After many months of battling, we decided to change the rules of our Coworking space:

  1. Every month, the expenses of running the space will be divided into equal parts.
  2. Every member agrees to pay the membership even when absent for holidays and similar.
  3. Each member is responsible for keeping our shared area clean and ordered.
  4. All important decisions are consulted with the rest.

We call it The Cooperative Way. Some of the effects it produces are:

  • It is in the interest of each member to find more members to decrease the monthly fee.
  • There is a sense of belonging and compromise.
  • There is a sense of empowerment and initiative.
  • Every member feels included.

Our Coworking space is a platform for community building. It supports each member in developing as a person and an entrepreneur, including myself.

Each member makes their income through their businesses, and our Coworking is our home office out of the home. 

As soon as I figured that the system worked, I started talking about it. I got no significant results at first. The idea is so simple that nobody thought deeply about it until I got in contact with other collectives and networks of Coworking spaces. I found validation, and with that inspiration.

Today, I’m one of the founding members of ACN, a freshly new Slovenian cooperative of Coworking spaces. I’m also leading the European Rural Coworking Project in cooperation with the European Coworking Assembly. 

With all that close contact with the world of Coworking, it is becoming easy to see that the European rural areas are ripe for establishing new and different kinds of Coworking spaces, centres for vitality, innovation, culture, and well-being.

Rural Coworking spaces tend to connect with others, scale their impact and gain value from wider networks. That fact matches with projects for international cooperation, regional development, academic research—a European dream.

Coworking, as a movement, offers an excellent opportunity to local governments to generate synergies with the private sector. For example, the Connected Hubs initiative, a unique case from Ireland, can become a blueprint for the rest of Europe. The Irish government offers a digital platform for listing all hubs or Coworking spaces, access to grants, and even a booking platform available for three years free of charge.

As you see, we are talking about resilient, interdependent, innovative, and sustainable centres for revitalising rural communities.

Of course, Aurora Coworking’s model isn’t the only model that can bring success to a Rural Coworking space, mainly because there are many different styles of Coworking. 

According to Colabora’s Rural Coworking Guide, there are three models based on their purpose: Coworking, Coliving, Third Spaces. According to their location, they can be: fixed, pop-up, or virtual. And considering the additional services they offer could be Fablabs (Makerspaces), Cafè Coworking, Accelerators, or Incubators. All of them can be mixed and become hybrid Coworking spaces. That’s hard to understand!

To make it easier, I would say the rural Coworking spaces can take multiple shapes, different business models, and offer general or specialised services. They adapt to how their target group works and what their location provides.

Rural Coworking spaces have the potential to support:

  • Tourism.
  • Entrepreneurship.
  • Local businesses.
  • Local culture.
  • New ways of work.

Rural Coworking is becoming the glue that unites all the players of an evolving ecosystem.

Rural Coworking spaces are born with the intention of sharing space and infrastructure. They also serve people that live close by. In principle, rural Coworking’s DNA produces sustainability.

VillageOffice in Switzerland is an excellent case that focuses on the environmental sustainability aspects of Coworking. 

“VillageOffice has set itself the goal that by the year 2030, every person in Switzerland will reach the next Coworking space within 15 minutes by bicycle or public transport. Our aim is to relieve the traffic infrastructure, strengthen local businesses and improve the quality of life by shortening the commuting distance.”

VillageOffice fosters cooperation between Municipalities, local governments, and other ecosystem players to create interconnected Coworking spaces across the country.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals can perfectly be used as a framework for Social Impact and Social Innovation initiatives in Coworking spaces. For example:

SDG 3: Good health and well-being.

SDG 4: Quality education.

SDG 5: Gender equality.

SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth. 

SDG 9: Industry, Innovation, and infrastructure.

SDG 10: Reduced inequalities.

SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities.

SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production.

The Covid pandemic and the current war in Europe present new opportunities for change, producing intense suffering and even a misty sense of hopelessness.

Elie Wiesel wrote: “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.”

It is beautiful to see the international community of Coworking coming together and deciding to stop business as usual to coordinate and support people in distress. These Coworking networks are today a part of the support infrastructure in moments of crisis. 

The European Coworking Assembly is actively working on opening channels of communication with the Ukrainian Coworking Community and local Coworking operators in different European countries. Visit The Idea Project Ukraine Edition page to see what those interactions look like.

Conclusion

The number of members, square metres, number of events, monthly fees is all ways to quantify and eventually arrive at an idea of value, a way to answer: how much it costs and what do I get?

But Coworking is about belonging, community, quality of life, personal development, expansion of our perspectives, expression, citizenship, human values, and that is priceless.

The Rural Coworking Project

The Rural Coworking Project is in its first development phase. Our team is an all-volunteer army, and our experience and enthusiasm is making this project come to life. We intend to start by achieving the following:

  • Identify local ambassadors for rural coworking across Europe.
  • Map rural and suburban Coworking spaces in Europe.
  • Explore existing business models.
  • Manage a communications platform to support community building.
  • Communicate best practices throughout our community.

You can register your Rural Coworking Space with the Rural Coworking Project. 

External references

Coworking Manifesto by Ashley Proctor: https://creativeblueprint.ca/page/6/  

Around the World in 250 Coworking Spaces: https://coworkiesbook.com  

Project Colabora: https://www.colaboracoworking.eu  

Bertelsmann Foundation Rural Coworking Research: https://www.bertelsmann-stiftung.de/en/ publications/publication/did/rural-coworking-en  Connected Hubs Ireland: https://connectedhubs.ie   

VillageOffice: https://villageoffice.ch/en/  

UN SDGs: https://sdgs.un.org/goals   

European Coworking Assembly: https://coworkingassembly.eu  

Idea Project, Special Edition Ukraine: https://coworkingidea.org/2022/03/09/idea-project-specialedition-ukraine/   

European Rural Coworking Project: https://ruralcoworking.org  

Aurora Coworking Network: https://acn.coop  

Aurora Coworking Murska Sobota: https://www.auroracoworking.com  

More To Explore

Unpacking Coworking HEADER
Uncategorized

Unpacking Coworking

What is coworking and what does it entail? This is a question we seem to come across often, because people don’t always know what it

Effects of menopause in the workplace HEADER
Uncategorized

The Effects of Menopause in the Workplace

Kate Usher, a coach and change strategist, for all things menopause and what we need to know about it in the workplace. Kate has more