Next-Gen Working Space Discussion Draws More Than 100 Participants
A lively mix of entrepreneurs, artists, web designers and business owners made for interesting conversation at the December 6 RI Nexus event — From Coworking to Fab Labs: Creating Next-Gen Working Environments for RI’s Info-Tech and Digital Media Community.
More than 100 people met at the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation’s (RIEDC) Providence offices — located at the American Locomotive Works in Providence’s Valley neighborhood — to hear what a six-person panel had to say on the latest trends in next generation spaces for creative and high-wage sectors, such as the info-tech and digital media (ITDM) industry.
The event was the first of several upcoming RI Nexus forums addressing issues in the ITDM sector. Stemming from various conversations about coworking and new work space, RI Nexus brought together real estate developers and potential users under one roof to share ideas on next generation working environments in Rhode Island.
Jack Templin, co-founder of Providence Geeks and an Internet strategy consultant moderated the panel which included real estate and technology experts from Portland to Philadelphia. The group shared their thoughts on coworking, fab labs and establishing spaces in urban Rhode Island that are conducive to programmers, infopreneurs, digital artists and others.The panel consisted of:
Gary Brandeis, managing director of Philadelphia-based FB Capital. Gary recently led the purchase of the landmark Federal Reserve building in downtown Providence and plans to develop it into the first of a series of high-tech "iBuildings" to be rolled out nationally.
Greg Gibson, serial Internet entrepreneur and co-founder of Cambridge-based Betahouse, one of the country's premier coworking spaces. Greg is also a moderator of the Coworking Wiki — a leading website for coworking information.
Umberto Crenca, founder and artistic director of the pioneering AS220 community arts organization. AS220 has a long history of creating innovative spaces for creative expression, and has recently begun to significantly step up its involvement within the info-tech and digital media fields.
J Hogue, co-developer and owner of The Grant in Pawtucket, a former department store turned studio/office space for creative professionals. J is also the Principal of Highchair designhaus and is a founding photographer/historian of Art In Ruins, a popular website dedicated to keeping Providence informed of architectural preservation, construction news, ideas and the changing face of the city.
Brian Jepson, executive editor for Make Magazine’s Make:Books series and co-founder of Providence Geeks. Brian has been active in trying to bring fab labs and physical computing to the Rhode Island community, and helped organize a summit on this topic between Providence Geeks, AS220 and the Steel Yard.
Sally Struever, designer and activist. Sally is the co-founder of PUENTE, the non-profit real estate and economic development organization that developed The Plant — an innovative mixed-use space in Providence's Olneyville neighborhood. Sally is an active member of the business, design and development communities in Portland, Maine.
Saul Kaplan, executive director of the RIEDC, welcomed the crowd to the forum. “As a state we need to shine a light on and pay particular attention to the IT and Digital Media sector,” he said. “It’s the sector with the highest wage jobs in Rhode Island and it’s one of the state’s biggest assets.”
Indeed, the ITDM sector is an engine of high-wage job growth in a 21st century innovation economy. In Rhode Island, the sector employs more than 15,000 people and accounts for more than $1 billion in wages. In 2006, the average salary for ITDM was nearly $70,000.
The panelists discussed the advantages of sharing space — an informal atmosphere, shared equipment and, most importantly, collaboration. Panelists were brought into to this forum to stir the pot on a discussion that first started online and to build awareness around co-working, said Jack Templin.
“A lot of non-traditional real estate people are getting involved including homeowners and students,” Templin said. “I believe that Rhode Island is especially well positioned to take advantage of next generation working space.”
The panel got off to a quick start with a discussion on the real value of coworking. Gary Brandeis, a real estate developer for FB Capital, and his team in Philadelphia are in the processes of combining real estate and technology by creating “smart” buildings — buildings complete with wireless access, digital signage and a web portal — for companies, individuals and entrepreneurs in old historic structures.
For artist and free thinker Umberto “Bert” Crenca, artistic director for the AS220, coworking is about building your own compost pile and bringing different people together in a space where many things are happening in a creative environment. “You create an environment and don’t try to predict the outcome,” he said. “Don’t even try to predict and I guarantee that stuff will happen.”
Betahouse co-founder Greg Gibson described coworking as a space with a bit of everything for people who often work alone at home or in a coffee shop. He believes coworking offers more than just a desk space and an Internet connection. It offers a place for knowledge sharing. “It’s nice to spin around in your chair and get help,” Gibson said. “Having access to that kind of technical know-how around you is also exciting to the entrepreneur.”
Fab lab enthusiast Brian Jepson chimed in, adding that co-working provides individuals with a less expensive option and eliminates costs for those just starting out who may not be able to afford their own space, office and machine equipment and communication systems. As a result, people have formed so-called “fab labs,” which are low-cost work spaces set up in communities worldwide where people can fabricate objects while sharing not only equipment but ideas.
“For me, I find that I’m not the only one that has the ideas,” said designer and activist Sally Streuver. “My work isn’t as good unless there are other people around to talk with about it.”
So if the value of coworking is there, where’s the best spot to build or start a coworking space?
A downtown area is the right place for next-generation work space, Gibson said. In Cambridge, where Gibson’s Betahouse is located, transportation, restaurants and local bars played into the decision. Access to public transportation alternatives has played a key role in supporting those coworking at Betahouse.
But for The Grant co-founder J Hogue, finding the right location meant finding an affordable city and a space that made sense. “I like the fact that Slater Mill is right down the street [from The Grant],” he said. “[Pawtucket] has an almost quaint feeling about it.”
Jepson, who lives in South Kingstown, suggested that those who are not in the big urban areas (like himself) look near their homes for opportunities. “If there are five or six of you looking into renting a space you may want to think about buying a building in a part of your town that needs revitalization,” he said.
Location is important to the user, but for those who were interested in developing space, other issues surrounding real estate are quick to arise, said Gibson. “There are real estate realities,” he said. “There is this whole layer of real estate stuff you have to deal with so be cautious and be educated.”
Cost, another important topic of the panel, drew interest from the crowd. Many had no idea how much coworking spaces cost.
At BetaHouse in Cambridge they take care of everything from $400 a month for full timers to $200 a month for part-time people who want to come occasionally, said Gibson.
“[The Grant] is $12 per square foot per year,” Hogue said regarding the 16,360-square-foot space in Pawtucket. “My space is broken down because I share with another company and people pay their own utilities. They have space, a lock and key, and can put in as many people as they want.”
According to Struever, you become a member when you get involved with the HUB. The Hub is an incubator for social innovation found in several major cities throughout the world including London, Johannesburg and Sao Paolo. With a connection membership you can have a place to work around the world.
“It is about $30 a month and ranges upwards,” Struever said. “What is interesting from a real estate perspective is you have 30 to 40 desks and 200 paying members and there is different accounting involved. You have people living around the world so building a global network is an important and interesting part of this.”
The HUB creates space for social innovators, said Stuever. “I personally have been thinking about ways to express ideas about things and access people that do actually share values,” she said.
The 45-minute panel spanned interesting aspects of next-generation working environments and fielded questions from an anxious audience during a 30-minute Q&A session.
Questions ranged from what defines a “smart building” to where to get the capital to buy a building and start a coworking community. Some asked about intellectual property and whether you can really protect your IP in a co-working environment.
Others wondered about the risks involved with starting a co-working community.
The pot has been stirred and Kaplan, Templin and other interested individuals say they are ready and rolling up their sleeves to experiment in this area further. Are you?
For more information on this forum and to post any suggestions and recommendations you may have on this topic, check out rinexus.com
About RI Nexus
Launched in 2007, RI Nexus is a public-private initiative of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation to support entrepreneurs and spur activity across Rhode Island’s ITDM sector. At the core of this initiative is RINexus.com, an online hub that helps the sector’s stakeholders connect, communicate and collaborate.