Thinkfarm Berlin: redefining co-working as a commoning practice

thinkfarm mini logoThis post reflect findings from Stephanie Jakubowsi’s Master Thesis. She analyzed the co-working spaces Thinkfarm and Grünhof (Freiburg) using participant observation and semi-structured interviews with the founders/initiators of the two initiatives. She examined the topics of work organization and structures, shared values, common goods and infrastructure as well as alternative decision-making process. This master thesis is an initial attempt to investigate the relationship between commons and commoning and the transformation of working structures and social ties at workplace.

The process of commoning refers to the interaction between a shared resource (commons) and a group of people who use this resource (commoners), as well as the structures that result from it. In my thesis I asked the question: how commons and commoning influence and change working structures in relation to the vision of Thinkfarm and Grünhof founders/participants of creating a space for a “new-working-together”. The two case-studies differentiate two types of co-working spaces. While Grünhof is based on an entrepreneurship with service character and describes as a more classical model, the Thinkfarm fits more the model of a “permacultural co-working space”.

I believe such co-working spaces, as an example of changing working structures, can be understood as a commoning process.

For the purpose of this blog post, I focus on the working and decision structures at the Thinkfarm.

Thinkfarm was officially founded in July 2013 as a co-working space based on self-organized and basic democratic structures. People working there are more than coworkers in the classical sense; they have an active part in the process of shaping the structure of the place. Working groups were established from the very beginning to organize the distribution of tasks related to the daily administration and development of the co-working space. For example, selecting new members or choosing a legal status for the Thinkfarm as an organization is a collective process. Thinkfarm consists of people, organizations, NGO’s or social enterprises working in the field of social and ecological change, but each person occupying a desk is a member in full capacity of the collective.

Interviews revealed that there is no distinction made between founders and coworkers – everyone is part of the creative process of Thinkfarm. Every interview confirmed the idea that it is not the aim to just work together for sharing space and costs and perhaps exchanging some contacts from time to time (networking), but, rather, build a true community to achieve a shared vision of a social and ecological change in working together. Based on this commitment, Thinkfarm members experiment with these shared values in their daily working life.

Work is therefore not any longer seen as a one-dimensional subject, but as a possibility to create and shape transformation together through the practice of commoning.

A central point of this “new” kind of working space is trust. As there is no hierarchy among participants, there needs to be sufficient trust that everyone contributes to the collective structure and act responsibly. The focus on the community dimension challenges the traditional separation between working and living. Thus, the precarious working context linked to the practice of freelancing (freelancers being the majority of the “coworkers”) has led the Thinkfarm to establish some solidarity mechanism through the financing of a limited number of desks for individuals/organizations who cannot afford the rent. Work is therefore not any longer seen as a one-dimensional subject, but as a possibility to create and shape transformation together through the practice of commoning.

As part of a community building process, thinkfarmers face different challenges whether they were involved in the founding period (How not to have all the responsibility or control? How to distance oneself emotionally?) or whether they have recently joined (How to find ones place? to take part in decisions?). Overall the development of such community lies both in the establishment of common rules, but also entails a certain amount of personal development and inner change, the two being intricately connected.

The “commons dilemma” identified here lies, on the one hand, in finding structures for participatory decision-making that foster responsibility of the individuals within the community, and, on the other hand, in establishing and sustaining “resources” like space, relations and common goods over time. An overarching tension lies on how to use all available resources with responsibility instead of hoarding possessions. Cooperation instead of competition means not only sharing common goods but also finding a new way to interact with each other through a “common working ethos”: sharing responsibility and sometimes also the burden of a self-organized initiative (eg. organizing new working places with tables and chairs, keeping the space clean).

Eventually, the individual beliefs and opinions about work and relations at work are strongly connected with the community-building process. Thinkfarm is a self-created, commoning space, to implement its participants’ vision of working together around a shared set of values: cooperation, community and social change.

Post authored by Stephanie Jakubowski and edited by Adrien Labaeye

Thesis title (English translation): Commons and Commoning and the transformation of working structures and relations at work. An empirical research of the co-working spaces Thinkfarm (Berlin) and Grünhof (Freiburg). Download link coming soon

Original title (Deutsch): “Nutzen statt Besitzen” – Wie Commons und der Prozess des Commoning Arbeitsstrukturen wandeln. Eine theoretische Annäherung und empirische Fallstudie der Coworking Spaces Thinkfarm (Berlin) und Grünhof (Freiburg)

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