October 12, 2017

A place of encounter

Christoph Fahle is one of the co-founders of betahaus Berlin and thus an absolute pioneer of the German coworking scene. When he and his co-founders-to-be applied to the city of Berlin for start-up capital for a new type of workspace at the end of the noughties, they were only wearily smiled at. In the meantime, there are dozens of coworking spaces in Berlin and quite a few of them – whether secretly or overtly – are inspired by betahaus. Mr. Fahle and I talked about the nuts and bolts, the past, present and future of coworking and also came up with reasons for and against digitalisation optimism.

Viktor Hildebrandt: Mr Fahle, betahaus is one of Berlin’s most popular coworking spaces, and has been since 2009. Why do so many people come to work at betahaus?

Christoph Fahle: I think we have created a place with betahaus where people can realise their ideas, mostly by starting a business. Our members like to come to betahaus because they can meet many other people who are also working on their projects. First of all, people come to us so that they are not alone. One of our very central tasks as betahaus is then to create relationships between our members so that a resilient network and a real community emerges from it. We are convinced that nowadays you can’t move anything, or at least very little, as long as you are on your own. So you have to know where to find like-minded people and where you can get uncomplicated help. The betahaus is such a place and thus, in a certain sense, the eye of the needle. But that also applies to many other coworking spaces.

How do you create a sense of community between complete strangers who initially share nothing except their workplace?

Most of our members could work anywhere in the world as long as there is an internet connection and a power socket, because they spend most of their working day sitting in front of a laptop. In this technology-dominated and fairly location-independent world, however, we are paradoxically all the more dependent on places where we can actually meet other people. We therefore try to make betahaus a place of encounter, quite simply by organising various events that are all geared towards our members getting to know each other, sharing their knowledge and ideas, and learning from and with each other. Of course, we also have rooms for concentrated work, but the focus at betahaus is clearly on the community.

Could you please describe a few typical events?

Most events take place on a regular basis. The betabreakfast, for example, is one of our oldest formats. It is a weekly breakfast to which people who just want to have a look are also cordially invited. We all sit around a big table in the café, have breakfast together and some of the members or guests introduce themselves and their current projects. Then there’s Tupperware Tuesday, an informal lunch meeting where everyone brings their own food. Every Wednesday, some of our members go jogging together. Every now and then we also have a jam session or a small party. And wherever appropriate, we also use external events such as the Fête de la Musique as an occasion for an event here at betahaus. At all these events, the focus is on informal exchange. But of course there are also numerous workshops and seminars on various topics from 3D printing to design thinking to woodworking or meditation. Some of these events last an afternoon, others a few days, some even two weeks. Meanwhile, our so-called Office Hours are also going really well. You can really think of them as office hours at the doctor’s or the professor’s office. Experts are available on a regular or irregular basis to answer all kinds of questions from members of the community. Here, too, the range is very broad. For example, you can have your business model critically examined, improve your own customer management or learn how to apply for a patent. In contrast to the informal events we just talked about, the focus here is on the organised exchange of knowledge and experience. Both are totally important in their own way for the community of our members.

Drawing of people sitting at a table

What role does betahaus, the space itself, play for the community?

The space creates the basis for meetings. Everyone knows that the kitchenette is a central meeting place in every office community. The layout of the room must radiate openness and friendliness and the individual elements must be flexible enough to be adapted to different needs. The room contributes decisively to the mood of the people who use it. And it goes without saying that the technical infrastructure, from the printer to the router, must function perfectly. If that doesn’t work, even the best events won’t help. But in the end, none of this is rocket science. There are no secret ingredients or super tools, neither for the events nor for the rooms. And whether the chairs are green or red and whether you meet for breakfast or lunch, quite honestly, it doesn’t matter at all.

At betahaus, there was a lot of improvisation at the beginning. Everything was put to the test and questioned again and again. Nothing was final. Nothing was finished. That was very charming and suited the name very well. Have the structures in betahaus solidified in the meantime?

Partly. Of course, we have more routine(s) today than in the early days. On the other hand, the world is in such a fast, comprehensive and profound process of change right now that we can’t shake the feeling of having to stay flexible and evolve. We want to create a place for new forms of working. This place can’t even be ready yet, because the meaning of work is being completely redefined. So we are still our own beta version. What is really remarkable in this context is that people want a clear framework despite all the flexibility. We have opening hours and people think that’s great. At home there are no opening hours, they can sit at their desks until after midnight. The place itself – in our case betahaus – also creates boundaries. It offers its users a fixed point and is part of their daily framework.

For some years now, the number of people working in coworking spaces has been growing rapidly, not only in Germany but all over the world. There has already been a doubling from one year to the next several times. Do you think this trend will continue?

In principle, yes. When we opened betahaus in 2009, there was virtually no comparable place in Berlin. Of course there were other office communities, but they didn’t officially run under the label “coworking space”. Today there is – I exaggerate a little – a coworking space on every corner. But taken together, we still fill just two percent of the office space in Berlin. If you then consider that only 1.5 percent of all freelancers work in coworking spaces at all and that there are more and more freelancers, you get a pretty good feeling for the potential of this still rather young typology.

“People still have the feeling that they are at home where they live. But they don’t stay there forever because of that.”

In addition, office concepts are also changing in larger companies. In the future, the workplaces there will also be more strongly designed for community and collaboration. But of course they won’t all be called “coworking space”. In short: Yes, I think the market for coworking will continue to grow strongly for years to come, and above all it will differentiate.

Coworking spaces have more and more members on average. Why is that?

The number of members is increasing because the operators of coworking spaces can make more turnover with more members and thus also make more profit. In the past, many coworking spaces were not interested in making a profit. But that gradually changed and today it has become big business.

Do the users of these rooms also benefit from this?

Not necessarily. Increasing membership is beneficial up to a certain limit and after that it can even have a negative effect. I believe (and there is a statistic for this somewhere) that this limit is around 150 members. So 100 users are better than 20, for example, because everyone benefits from the larger network. But at some point, the members lose track of each other and it becomes more difficult for the operators to connect people and take care of everyone. In principle, you have to think of it like the supervision quota at university. At betahaus we have 500 people. That sounds strange now, but I think it would be better for our members if we had fewer users. The problem is, however, that prices would then rise and many of our members would not be able to afford a more expensive workplace.

At first, coworking spaces were mainly found in metropolises. Today we find them not only in smaller cities, but even “somewhere in the middle of nowhere”. Freelancers work on a cruise ship, on the beach of a deserted island or in the walls of a former monastery. Was the big city just a stopover for coworking?

I don’t think so. I would rather say that people are changing locations more and more regularly. More and more freelancers are spending two or three months – I’ll use my own example now – in Bali or Portugal, but still live in Berlin for the rest of the year. I don’t see an either-or here, but a both-as well. In my opinion, this trend is based on a changed understanding of home. People still have the feeling that they are at home where they live. But they don’t stay there forever. It was different in the past. There, one’s home was something permanent. People were asked, “Is this your home?” and the answer was “Yes”. Then they would ask, “And will you still live here in 50 years?” and the answer was again, “Yes”. Today, the answer to that second question tends to be, “How should I know?” or even, “I hope not!” This increasing flexibility is made possible by the ongoing and ever more comprehensive digitalisation of our everyday lives. At betahaus, you can follow this development from a privileged perspective, from the front row, so to speak. How do you evaluate what you see?

Well, first of all, I’m not only sitting in the front row, but – together with many others – I’m certainly also in a kind of bubble, at least temporarily. You have to be aware of that every now and then.

Basically, I find the new possibilities that come with digitalisation incredible. I think it’s great that I no longer need a car because I can simply use car-sharing services, that I can easily find accommodation anywhere in the world through Airbnb, that I can simply drive to Madrid and work from there if I want to. For me, this means a gain in freedom. I am less tied to possessions and save a lot of time. This is largely made possible by technology that simply wasn’t available 20 years ago. And if we meet again in 20 years, I’ll probably say the same thing about self-driving cars. They are now on the verge of being ready for the market. And quite honestly, it’s no longer a big surprise that cars will drive all by themselves at some point. I just always ask myself, “Why isn’t it that far yet?” On the other hand, I am also very sceptical about digitalisation. And especially with regard to the monopolies that come with it. I mean, of course, the huge power of companies like Google, Facebook, Airbnb, Uber or Amazon. That’s where the political scientist in me always comes in.

And what does the political scientist say?

Well, he complains that the digital infrastructure, just like the analogue infrastructure, is not part of the community, and thus accessible to all, beneficial to all and democratically legitimised in its functioning. Of course, parts of our analogue infrastructure – from waterworks to hospitals or schools – are also increasingly being privatised. I don’t like that either. But at least there is still the idea of the common good there. With digital infrastructure and the processes that build on it, it’s quite different. I’ll try to give an example: roads belong to the community and thus to everyone and no one at the same time. The basic idea is that roads are important for the community to flourish. Therefore, everyone can use them under certain conditions and benefit from this use as a private person or as an entrepreneur. If I am driving along the road and stop at a red light, then I feel that having to stop is legitimate because it was decided by the community at some point. The digital infrastructure, on the other hand, works quite differently. It doesn’t belong to everyone, but only to a handful of people, and the terms of use are set by these few and are also geared towards their profit. The rest then have to live with it or look for alternatives or build up so much pressure that the providers see themselves forced to adapt the rules of the game.

And what about the states? They could regulate these companies.

There is regulation, but firstly it is not particularly ambitious, secondly the states are constantly lagging behind and thirdly the companies are always finding new loopholes. The only states that really crack down on this – see China versus Facebook – are not democracies, and that’s not necessarily any better. The whole problem is so complex – I really have no idea how it will develop in the future.

You are not alone there. Thank you very much for this interesting conversation.


October 12, 2017

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