A pioneering social entrepreneur says the rise of coworking could play a major part in keeping Scotland’s town and city centres alive.
Claire Carpenter, founder of trailblazing Edinburgh coworking hub The Melting Pot, says a growing network of places where thousands of people can work flexibly and collaborate has the potential to unlock millions of pounds more of spending in communities.
And she is sure the creation of more hubs would provide another way of bringing empty buildings in the centres of communities of all sizes back into use. They’d become ‘destinations’, attracting people who would then spend with other local businesses – as well as creating invaluable opportunities to collaborate and innovate.
The Melting Pot, where Claire is now Executive Director of Social Innovation, has mapped some of Scotland’s network of coworking spaces. She’s also been carrying out research into the challenges and opportunities they face post-pandemic.
It shared insight into the social and economic potential of the network as part of European Coworking Day on May 10, with high hopes shared by organisations including Scotland’s Towns Partnership (STP), the organisation behind the Scotland Loves Local camapaign.
Claire said: “The benefits to people and places are huge – turning a building into a vibrant hub of activity and entrepreneurship, bringing people together who then support other local businesses. Collectively, it could be worth millions of pounds more. Everyone wins.”
Simply put, coworking is where people of all different types of backgrounds and businesses gather in a shared workspace, which can be booked and rented on a flexible basis.
Advocates say they not only stop people from working in isolation – a complaint among many who have home-worked since the first coronavirus lockdown – but boost the economy by creating new networks, encouraging ideas-sharing and innovation.
The Melting Pot, now based on Calton Road in Edinburgh city centre, was one of the world’s first coworking spaces when it was founded in 2005. It is Scotland’s Centre for Social Innovation – and creates practical services which help other people make social impact.
“When we started, some people found coworking a difficult concept to understand. But it’s one that’s really grown, especially since the changes to many working lives since Covid-19 and the realisation that many do not need to commute into an office five days a week,” Claire added.
“At The Melting Pot we’ve created a resource base for people who make social impact. It has had an influence on thousands of people in Edinburgh and throughout Scotland. But also internationally in the work we have done to support leaders around the world.
“If you just want to sit at a laptop you can do that at home, a company HQ or a coffee shop. Coworking is all about people and community. Yes, there’s the practical stuff to think about – you need wifi, coffee, access to printers – but good coworking hubs have community development at their heart. This is because of the positive impact ‘community building’ has on their customers, and on the hubs’ USP and brand. It’s a win-win
“For the people who use them, it’s like having a favourite pub. You keep going back time and again because you feel you fit. We all need a sense of belonging. We need to feel nurtured – part of a place, and of a network or peers. Good Coworking hubs do that.
“We also know that people in a coworking hub spend money in the local economy – and people are desperate to get footfall back into town centres.”
It is widely accepted across Europe that coworkers spend about £9 a day with other businesses in their local economy when at their coworking hub.
Covid-19 lockdowns globally led to the closure of about a third of coworking spaces across the world.
But the changing world of work has seen a renaissance of interest in creating more, including in towns across Scotland. That, however, is not without its challenges.
Claire explained: “It’s really hard to get a coworking hub off the ground – and it’s all about economics. A small facility can only earn a small amount of money. But the cost to set it up and run it will be proportionately higher than a facility that’s four, five or ten times higher.
“It’s about supply and demand. How does the supply get set up affordably and quickly – and who owns that supply side – is it done by the third sector or is it done in partnership with the private and public sector?
“I see flexible workspace demand rising, though. It’s the case all over Europe and the rest of the world. We’re in a cultural stage where more people have permission to work flexibility. But where are the appropriate, safe and best-in-class facilities to do so?”
STP, the collective which champions the nation’s towns and places, is sure that demand and growth of hubs will trigger investment, while also helping respond to the climate emergency and the cost of living crisis – key elements of its Scotland Loves Local rallying cry for people to choose local and get behind their communities.
Interim chief officer Kimberley Guthrie said: “Coworking opens opportunities for those involved to collaborate with and support other local businesses of all kinds, creating powerful regional ecosystems and economies.
“Reduced travel helps the journey towards net zero and cuts costs, easing cost of living pressures – not to mention protecting local jobs and creating another use for town centre buildings, keeping communities busy, vibrant and successful.”
The Melting Pot’s research reinforces the fact that coworking hubs also do not only have to be in the centre of cities and larger towns.
In Dunkeld, Perthshire, a former doctor’s surgery has become The Dunkeld and Birnam Community Co-Working Space.
Director Sally Robertson said: “Our coworking space gives people who want to live and work here the chance to do exactly that. It undoubtedly keeps people local and that supports other businesses.”
In Dunoon, The People of Place (POP) shop on Hillfoot Street has brought a new facility to the town as well as creating critical connections which are not only good for peoples’ wellbeing but the economy too.
POP shop enterprises is the community interest company behind the venture, which is home to desk space, a gallery and workshop. It opened in September 2022.
Founding director Hannah Clinch said: “We realised that some people – particularly freelancers and people setting up small and social enterprises around care responsibilities- were struggling working from home. They needed somewhere to work outside of the house to connect with people professionally and socially.
“There isn’t much in the way of office space here, so we thought that desks in a coworking space developing in combination with networking events were the ideal answer for this community.
“For some, the space and network helps achieve not only a better life-work balance, but it provides a social space, a place for printing and problem solving, helping people to make connections and feel more professionally visible in the community”.
“It’s tough getting this to work financially on our scale, so we have had to look for investment and explore income generating ideas including having a desk sponsored by GreenMap.org a not-for-profit based in New York. Coworking and an openness to collaboration offers so much potential for economic development, in remote and rural communities and towns.
“When people are working at home, the social and economic impact of what they’re doing is hidden. That’s a real shame. In Dunoon, the POP Shop has started to provide a space that brings people together to connect ideas and enterprise opportunities, securing work and funding that otherwise go out of the area”
The Melting Pot offers consultancy services to help get coworking hubs off the ground.
Spaces across the country held celebration events as part of European Coworking Day.