What is the role of coworking spaces in rural areas and smaller cities?
Coworking spaces are a pretty well-known concept in many big cities around the world by now, and their members can tell you how much those spaces have contributed to their professional success. But what is the role of coworking spaces in rural areas and smaller cities? Could coworking spaces benefit the local communities there? Could they perhaps even act as economy accelerators? Cowork7/24’s Anita Fuzi did her research and shares her opinion.
Not long time ago I found results of a survey conducted by SocialWorkplaces amongst coworking spaces located in small cities and rural areas. Let’s name them economically challenged areas as they are located usually far from the epicentre of entrepreneurial activities.
While I could spot some similarities between my data and the results of their survey (like the lack or low awareness of the coworking concept in such areas), I was surprised to see that the majority of coworking spaces offer only traditional services such as hot desks and fixed desks in open plan area, meeting rooms, and event venues, but only a small proportion provided startup and entrepreneurship programmes. Similarly, 80% of the surveyed spaces stated that they operate without public subsidies.
While there has been a constant debate on whether coworking spaces should be running privately or rather benefit from government partnerships, or should be offering incubator-like programmes or only the basic office facilities, my experience shows that you, as a coworking space owner, could do anything you like as long as you support the growth of your people (personally and professionally) and nurture the community spirit. What I usually suggest is that you need to figure out what people need and try to make all the efforts to provide them with exactly that. So for instance, if you noticed that people in your small city or village struggle with gaining the necessary skills and knowledge to set-up and run businesses, consider designing a space that fulfils their needs and helps them in their professional and personal development.
Let’s look at an example,- coming from an economically challenged region -, that demonstrates why I believe that coworking spaces in rural areas and small cities should act as entrepreneurship development interventions. My ultimate favourite in Wales, the Welsh Innovation Centre of Enterprise (also known as Welsh ICE or ICE Campus) is located in Caerphilly, a town with a population of 30,000. It was created with the intention of helping businesses get off the ground, establish their brands and develop their businesses via supportive communities, but also to help them access the financial support which is particularly important in the early stages.
Having opened its door in 2012, Welsh ICE provides coworking facilities, private offices for single companies, a canteen and café area, meeting rooms, phone booths, and event spaces as part of its robust innovation centre. The coworking community mostly consists of entrepreneurs and early-stage start-up businesses. Welsh ICE is particularly designed to support networking and facilitate relationships, where members do not just interact but also exchange information and engage with each other in areas of interest. My favourite part about Welsh ICE is that its model has been built around helping people to enhance self-confidence, self-belief, self-awareness, and learn entrepreneurial skills and traits, such as the ability to manage others, make decisions, cope with difficulties, be persistent and trust in their own judgment. Add the supporting like-minded community, the passionate team that is running the campus and the purpose-designed interior, and you get the recipe for a thriving coworking space.
Why is learning such skills and traits particularly important in Caerphilly, and some areas of Wales?
In his study Rentfrow and his co-authors found that people living in Wales lack those personality traits which are positively associated with carrying out successful entrepreneurial activities. Because they lack confidence and aspiration to start a business, they need environments where various forms of peer support (emotional, mental, professional) combined with top-down support and financial support are available – just like what Welsh ICE does so well. Giving an example, Welsh ICE runs the ‘5-9 Club’ which is a structured 12-weeks after-hours course with mentors, specialists and experts designed to support aspiring business owners getting equipped with the right skills and knowledge to develop their enterprises. Idea generation, developing a business plan, marketing and branding are just a handful of sessions available for only a small fee. In addition, as Welsh ICE is supported by the Welsh Government, individuals who are keen to start their businesses or who are early-stage entrepreneurs can apply for free desks in the coworking facility. That free desk in the early stage of venture development can be a lifesaver, don’t you think?
What my research has found is that the model built up by ICE appears to work well for communities with a high proportion of young start-ups and entrepreneurs, especially those located in economically challenged areas. They are the ones who are more likely to need a facilitated and caring environment where self-confidence and entrepreneurship related skills can more easily be acquired. If this approach comes together with subsidised desks in coworking facilities at the start of the business life-cycle, people have higher chance to make their entrepreneurial dream come true as they save money on office rent, join a community of inspiring entrepreneurs, and have opportunities to learn skills and develop personality traits essential for running a business.
My personal opinion is that this is the most effective coworking approach in economically challenged areas. It helps unlock people’s potential and support their entrepreneurial journey. Just look at some numbers: since its start, 334 business have been supported, 619 jobs were created, and £1,8 million investment has been raised in the businesses locating in Welsh ICE. If that isn’t a significant contribution to the Welsh economy, I don’t know what is!