Entrepreneurs require serendipity to be a success.
One of the most eye opening aspects of my visit to Cambridge, Massachusetts in the spring of 2012, where I visited a number of co-working spaces, hackerspaces, accelerators, incubators, et cetera, was that in each one there was always an "aha!" moment between members story. Two or more people will be talking over lunch or coffee or around the water cooler, discussing the problems they are trying to solve, and almost invariably there what I called a "moment of serendipity". They find their ideas are complementary, if they combine efforts they solve a new problem and a new venture is spawned. Sometimes an even better than the idea that brought them to co-working in the first place.
Every place I visited had a story like this--the happy accident.
Though it isn't luck. It's a matter of better odds under the right circumstances. The only thing that is for certain is it won't happen if you work in isolation.
Physical space: where do our entrepreneurs innovate?
Innovation in isolation is insignificant. (Say that three times fast). If you are the basement hacker writing code alone, programming the next big thing in your spare time, your chances of success are in the same order of magnitude as winning the lottery. Fifteen years ago and earlier it did happen much more frequently, and it still can and does, but it is getting much more difficult. Even an "introvert" like myself prefers certain types of social atmospheres (though I prefer to call myself an "introspective" instead of introvert).
This is all leading up to co-working spaces. Both in the shared office space sense of it, in the maker/hacker space forms, and in any space where people are sharing equipment and tools to carry out their professional or creative activities. This is the entrepreneurs' physical infrastructure. Communities have universities, libraries, hospitals, police/fire stations, et cetera--and don't forget roads.
The analogy of the road is a good one. If we build roads in a community, people will come, not necessarily so but it is so that people put up buildings and houses. The one thing is for certain, where there are no roads there are no buildings, and people won't come. Sure there are float-planes and helicopters to get to remote places with no roads but they are the exception, not the rule.
The same is fast becoming true for co-working spaces. Where there are no co-working spaces there will be no entrepreneurs, at least not in a modern technology sense of it. And not in any statistically significant number. Entrepreneurs will be the exception without co-working.
Small Towns: Where do we get space?
I live in a small town, in Sackville, New Brunswick. A town of about 5000 people not including a university population of 2500 plus. In 2012 I looked at the former town fire hall as a potential spot for a co-working site. It was ideally located in the centre of town but some structural issues with the roof would have blown the budget I had in mind for the project--so it never came to fruition. But former government, municipal, regional (state/provincial), or federal owned buildings are likely prime candidates to look at. Such as old office buildings, warehouses, schools, et cetera.
I grew up in Bathurst, New Brunswick, a small city of 12,000+ residents. I went to Bathurst High School in the mid-1990s. I noticed in the school there were many abandoned and under-utilized spaces at that time, probably still true today. The big spaces at my high school were an abandoned swimming pool, that became a graveyard for broken desks, chairs, and obsolete computers. As well as the machine shop, automotive shop, drafting room, woodworking, welding, basically the trades in general were out of favour at the time. Since then the student population has been declining. I believe this is common in a lot of schools in many small to medium sized towns.
Why can't parts of an underutilized school be used as co-working spaces?
Access to a machine shop could be very nice for a makerspace. Add in some modern electronics capabilities and 3D printing and you've got a nice 21st century development space. Not to mention unused classrooms for open office spaces and access to a cafeteria (just like the students). This also opens up the possibility of connecting with kids in the community who are interested in technology and/or entrepreneurship.
Part of my criticism of the contemporary school structure is that we segregate kids from their communities, placing them into a bubble of sorts. This gives them a bastardized connection to the world; they become cut off and disconnected from their local community but have a virtual connection to the rest of the world through the internet.
The problem of increased bullying, in my opinion, is because of this bastardized connection kids have to the world. Not to digress, but reconnecting students to their communities in a meaningful way will help curb this. I also think schools should end the year-based age by grade segregation (schools where classrooms have mixed ages/grades have less bullying).
Cooperation, Collaboration, and the Social Aspect
Not all co-working spaces are created equally and they cannot be all things too all people. The social groups or cliques that form within a space can be destructive to the working environment if or when there are clashes between people. Office politics can still infest a co-working environment even if the inhabitants are not working for or with one another.
Multiple spaces are a possibility. Or multiple zones within a single space devoted to particular types or forms of entrepreneurship. And don't force anybody to long-term contracts to take up space when they really don't want to be there.
The elephant in the room: Capital and Wealth
All is well and good now, eh? Not quite. Money, regretfully still, makes the world go round. Not everyone in a co-working space is an established freelancer or consultant with enough work to pay the bills. How do we attract more people to co-working? By paying them to do so in some form.
First, convince people on forms of welfare, on unemployed benefits, or people living off their severances after being let go, to come and be a part of the space. Engage these people during their work transitions. This at least curbs idleness within the community.
Second, government bureaucrats need to frequent the space, as well as elected representatives from all levels of government. People who create and administer the benefits, subsidies, and grant programs that can help a community kick-start its entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs should not be chasing the bureaucrats for these problems it should be the other way around.
Third, and most importantly, the investors: the angels and the VCs. The people with the money looking to invest in the next big thing. This is a no-brainer but likely easier said than done. The one certainty is it's much more difficult to get potential investors to visit you in your basement office or garage for a meeting.
Engage the wider local community as much as possible
Open invitation to community events and engagement. Bring in some retirees of the community to share their wisdom of a lifetime of work (free coffee and biscuits are good bait for this). Host as many local speakers and teachers, workshops, hackathons, and show-and-tells, as possible.
There are many more out there better versed in the topic than I am. There are lots of ideas out there, in every community, and the goal is to bring them out of the woodwork and into view. The only way to do this is with the right infrastructure and that is the co-working space.