On the speciality of Finnish coworking network

About eight years ago, as a group of inspired coworkers, we started an experiment on bottom-up urbanism.

We had our own small coworking community in Helsinki and we wanted to learn to know other similar. We were familiar with only couple of communities established by our old friends, but we also knew that already in our neighborhood there were many more, of which we just did not know exactly. Self-organising coworking communities prefer places of low rents that allow all kinds of experimenting and are thus often hidden in the cityscape. We wanted to test, what would start to happen, if these small pioneering coworking communities would interact more.

Since the beginning as facilitators of this emerging network we learned to lean on openness.

We experiment with a combination of conscious design and letting bottom-up practices emerge (or whither) in the network.

The idea of openness is present in many scales, for example the use of network is open to anyone, free of charge, and our internet service is based on open source platform. We have not had any fixed idea about what the network should become. Even us facilitators hold several concepts of what the network is at the moment. I see that this diversity has been one of the reasons why network has flourished.

Self-organizing coworking communities create places for themselves. (Image from Paper Bee by Leena Kisonen)

With a taste of humor, we call the network Mushrooming. Name describes facilitating connections between communities that were earlier isolated from each other, growing mycelium in other words, and seeing what results, what mushrooms, pop up.

Network has grown to biggest cities in Finland having about 7000 users. It has developed to a curious combination of platforms, having the national and international hub at webpage with an AirBNB-like service. Then there are the very important local city groups in Facebook, of which Mushrooming Helsinki is the oldest.

These local groups allow for complex enquiries when in search of new members or space. They also allow all kinds of informal interaction that the communities have come up to, from informing about a special shareable machine to searching urgent help to finish a project. Then there is the forum of face-to-face meetings, varying from specific problem-solving workshops to yearly Open Studios-happenings. This kind of informality is rare in other coworking networks.

Mushrooming has grown special in comparison to other coworking networks abroad. Having just been in a seminar of Urban Studies Foundation in Greece, concentrating on new places of work in city, supported my earlier findings.

In other countries researchers do not really have access to self-organising coworking communities.

I presume it does not mean that they are rare, it just means that they are not networked and thus they are not visible. Coworking trend has developed especially in big metropolitan cities, where the networks on sharing coworking space memberships have been developed as startups. These start-ups have had the need to make profit, thus their networks consist mainly of enterprise-led coworking spaces capable of and interested in paying for networking.

It is difficult to say how much Mushrooming has just brought visible the scene of self-organizing coworkers and how much it has morphed it in its becoming in Finland. Nevertheless, it is an unique situation to have a network of at least 300 coworking communities of which majority is self-organising. Due to openness of the network different kinds of processes of specialization and mixing have occurred. Other coworking networks seem to consist mainly of the usual suspects of creatives or knowledge workers with laptops, while in Mushrooming nowadays the variety of professions reaches from physical doctors to craftsmen, mechanics, cooks and yogis. As the variety of professionals has grown, so has grown the variety of spaces of work available via Mushrooming.

Spaces in Mushrooming have become varied by different professions sharing their environments. (Image from Workshop of Rankka by Wang Mandi)

The everyday life in enterprise-led coworking spaces is different to self-organizing coworking communities. Self-organising communities practice shared decision making and problem solving in the intimacy of 2-30 people, while enterprise-led ones collect together hundreds of people to interact with the help of community agent and other payable services. Many of the observations are even opposites to each other. For example in enterprise-led spaces the coworkers usually form professionally homogenous groups of same ages, while self-organizing ones develop surprisingly varied combinations.

With an unusual way of doing research by Mushrooming kind of an experiment of growing a network, we have created in Finland an unique pool from which to draw for a more whole picture of the phenomena of coworking.

The profitability of enterprise-led spaces is noted questionable, while self-organizing communities develop practices to shelter over periods low income. Thus as majority of the international research on coworking has been able to reach only the enterprise-led realities, our understanding of the phenomena remains twisted and partial.

Elina Alatalo

Faculty of Management, University of Tampere