Friday, October 2, 2009

Coworking and knowledge spillovers: When does being in close proximity help?

The concept of coworking isn’t really an original thought. Humans have a gregarious nature, gathering around the dinner table to break the bread and share meals. The same can be said about coworking. People like to work around others, particularly in an environment where the risk of office politics is much lower. A shift in the economic production paradigm from an industrial to a knowledge society has also contributed to the popularization of shared office space that can be rented by the hour, the week or the month.

Coworking has gained more traction in recent years (some argue that Brad Neuberg created the first shared office space in San Francisco), particularly with increasing telecommuting options and the rise of a whole new breed of entrepreneurs. While sharing office space with other impresarios can be seen as one of the world’s greatest ideas, the pure geographical proximity does not guarantee that cross-pollination and knowledge-sharing will occur.

Research in the field of economic geography (by the way, economic geography was the main theoretical lens of my doctoral dissertation) has found that for knowledge spillovers to occur, geographical proximity is a necessary but not sufficient condition. In the case of coworking spaces, having like-minded entrepreneurs can have a very positive impact in the general morale of each individual, some cross-pollination and sharing of ideas. However, I believe that a necessary condition for coworking spaces to succeed in fostering knowledge spillovers is to offer a foundational framework (in the form of formal or informal rules or guidelines).

Another great way to encourage the sharing of ideas in a coworking space is to organize monthly/bi-monthly gatherings where like-minded individuals can mingle and exchange thoughts on potential business ideas. It’s important to realize that just by “being there” (e.g. sitting in close proximity) does not guarantee that we will learn from each other. We need to take a first step.

Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega is a Vancouver-based researcher, educator and consultant in the environmental public policy field. He conducts research in water governance, urban sustainability, comparative environmental policy and economic geography. Dr. Pacheco-Vega’s consulting studio has a home at The Network Hub.

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