Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s two-year Reimagining Infrastructure project.
Sometimes I wonder whether I should have become a technology billionaire, but then I think about the logistics. The commute to Silicon Valley from my home in Santa Cruz, California, would run like this: drive out through five traffic lights and up Highway 17 into the mountains. Slalom trucks as they slam through the vicious unbanked curves of the roller-coaster road. Accelerate hard, brake hard, sit in traffic, repeat. Park, shaking with fear and rage, and go to work. Do it again eight hours later, this time in the dark.
Each leg of the trip would burn a gallon of gas. When traffic is clear, it would take forty minutes—when traffic is bad, it could take two hours plus. Along with being horrid and expensive, my commute (16,000 miles a year!) would be carbon intensive. I took a little carbon footprint test to see how sustainable my programmer alter ego would be, and this commute is half—half!—of my climate impact. Bad for the soul, the wallet, and the environment.
After a couple years of that, I’d decide to work from home. (I am aware of the Google buses. But they share most of these problems and even offer some of their very own. Besides, most people don’t work for Google.)
At home, I’d wake up and be at work three steps later, alone, except for the new scanner I had to buy. It’s chilly and foggy in the morning—better keep the heat on. The fridge is right there. Mmmm…leftovers. I’d look at the clock. 10:24 a.m. I’d be heating the whole house, and I’d be the only one there. I could go to a coffee shop, but I don’t want to buy two lattes a day. I’d have to work at NextSpace.
I discovered NextSpace when I noticed a funny sort of orange doorway in downtown Santa Cruz. Being a curious guy, I nosed my way in and found the bustling, warm-colored future of the American workplace. The space itself is not huge—11,000 square feet, maybe—but when I went there I found close to a hundred people—programmers, environmental activists, artists—working steadily away without feeling crowded. There are 230 members, which is about all the space can handle; they may expand. And despite being indoors, I felt a strong sense of place, with sculptures of Santa Cruz’s anchovy schools and seagulls hanging from the ceilings, along with rich photos of the California coast and native wildlife. It happened to be nearly 4 p.m. on Friday, which is happy hour (and there’s an in-house bar). I made a mental note and decided to return the next Friday, notebook in hand. Between-times, I dug into some research on NextSpace and the phenomenon of coworking.
The names and photos of NextSpace members decorate a wall in Santa Cruz.
Coworking is a creation of the internet—the word was only invented in 1995. Some twenty years later, there are many hundreds of coworking spots all over the world. NextSpace runs nine of them (Santa Cruz was its first), mostly in California, but there is one in Chicago. It’s essentially a working club. You buy a membership (there are various levels depending on your situation) and for this you get workspaces (either your own office or a spot in their café), uber-fast internet, printing, scanning, and all the other things found in an office. Members get twenty-four-hour access to the space, in case you’re most productive between midnight and 5 a.m.
All of this isn’t only good for the workers—it’s also good for the community, which keeps all these talented people and potential customers close to home. When people can walk or bike to work, or even when they have a short drive through neighborhoods, this plugs them into the community, mentally and physically. NextSpace embraces this: when you work there you get free membership in Zip Car and discounts at local yoga studios, gyms, and restaurants. There’s even a NextKids program, where you can stay close to your children and still get things accomplished.
Most importantly, in NextSpace you also get to work around dozens of other people, people whose interests, skills, and experience probably match up well with your own. The synergies—NextSpace loves to talk about “synergies”—that come out of this sort of professional fermenter are like fuel for the people who work here, and more than one company has been founded via conversations in the hallways. What sort of companies? Really, anything that deals with information and creativity. At happy hour the next week, I met artists and programmers, lawyers and consultants and genomics experts. I talked with a guy who’s invented a collector for the toxic particles that rub off your brake pads. The staff is there to make sure these things happen—if you’re an artist trying to figure out how to market your photographs, they can make sure that you talk to the right person.
In the knowledge economy, more and more of America’s work can be done anywhere there’s a computer and an internet connection—mine can, and I’m sure a lot of yours can, too. All of this got me thinking about sustainability: we often think of it in terms of resource use, but it’s about more than that. Sustainability is also about your community and place—the knowledge economy needs to happen somewhere. It’s not as if working at home means that your infrastructure needs vanish; if you work from home but it drives you crazy you’re going to burn all that carbon driving over the hill, even if you don’t truly want to. But if you work at NextSpace, you can find synergy, not just between people, but with your community.
By 2020, freelancers will be 40 percent of the American workforce. The only question is where we need to bring our laptops to find success. If you’re reading this as a break from work at your kitchen table, or in your cubicle an hour from home, you might find out more. NextSpace’s site is here, and for those outside of California or Chicago, you can learn a lot here. If anyone reading this coworks or has otherwise found creative ways to work sustainably through a laptop, it’d be great to see them in the comments.
Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. He’s currently at work on a PhD at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he’s researching the ways people restore and remake their environments.