22 December 2018

The success of the sharing economy has been underpinned by the rapid advancement and increasing pervasiveness of digital technologies. According to some forecasters, these trends are also laying the groundwork for the future of shared-living concepts, changing the manner in which we design and occupy our cities. Simon Caspersen, co-founder of Space10, Urgent.Agency’s Christian Pagh, and Maksym Rokmaniko of DOMA, share their thoughts on this topic with Patrick Kingsland.

A crisis of affordable housing. Increased population pressure on major cities around the world. A desire to live less bunkered lives. These trends are leading to a renewed interest in an idea that is almost as old as man itself: shared living.

Often associated with the cooperative movement of the 1970s, co-living – individuals sharing amenities and space with a larger group of people – has turned into a multimillion pound industry in recent years, through companies such as WeLive, Common and The Collective.

These companies have received support from influential architects such as Patrik Schumacher, the outspoken principal of Zaha Hadid Architects, who believes the market should take a greater lead in how we plan our cities and effusively praised The Collective in a controversial speech at the 2016 World Architecture Festival in Berlin.

The company’s schemes have helped demonstrate that “there is money to be made within shared living”, acknowledges Simon Caspersen, co-founder of Space10, IKEA’s external innovation lab. “Knowing it is a proven concept from an investment point of view is enabling a traditionally conservative industry to experiment much more,” he adds.

But while interest in shared living continues to grow, the amount of residential projects that take shareability into account remains relatively small compared with other forms of housing. Research from Space10 has found that the “complexity of financing, designing and managing shared-living projects prevents many schemes from being realised”.

Facing criticism: leading co-living companies

Far from the community-based, cohousing projects of the past, co-living companies are also offering something on a far less personal scale. The Collective, for example, has a giant 550- bed tower in Old Oak, west London, while the New York-based company WeLive is building a 36-storey skyscraper in Seattle.

The price and size of the rooms they offer, and the professional, millennial demographic they target has left many questioning the social value that big co-living developments claim to offer. For some, it’s little more than student housing for grown-ups.

“A lot of these new co-living companies are basically looking at ways to make as much money as possible,” says Caspersen. “They offer people as few square metres as they can and then just throw in some shared facilities. And it is not even affordable. I visited some of the big ones in New York and I was surprised that people would pay that amount of money.”

But developer-driven projects are by no means the only co-living concepts that exist. Around the word there are many co-operative and community land trusts offering genuinely affordable housing that brings together residents from different walks of life who are committed to collectivist values.

Driven by technology

To help propel these bottom-up approaches into the mainstream, co-living researchers say the industry must start to leverage the power of new digital platforms and devices such as blockchain and 3D printing.

“Technology is going to be a key driver,” says Caspersen. While digital technologies have fundamentally changed the way architects are able to design and construct buildings, rarely have they considered the way we occupy our cities.

As Benjamin Bratton, director of the Center for Design at the University of California, San Diego, recently said: they have not helped us “design the systems to which those forms give function”.

But technology that helps people leverage collective buying power could change this approach. Casperson offers the example of a platform that enables people interested in living together to coinvest in land and property. No longer would the risk of investment lie with a small number of trailblazers, who purchase space and then hope others will join them later on. “It is a very simple way where technology could help,” says Caspersen.

Buying with blockhain

DOMA, a platform co-operative that enables crowd-buying of urban properties is an example of this system in practice. The organisational structure is jointly run and owned by its members, whose resources are pooled so that their ‘collective buying power is leveraged’.

Using blockchain technology, the platform issues DOMA tokens that are sold to its users, providing them with equity shares and monthly dividends. Money raised through these tokens is then spent to purchase more apartments in different areas of cities where DOMA is operating.

“We are using the significant power of the market to play it against itself,” says Maksym Rokmaniko, who is part of the DOMA team. “By establishing this financial infrastructure, we are capable of engaging with a world where everything is financialised and commodified but still trying within that to find an alternative for architecture. Our main objective is to show a precedent of a sustainable community that can be built on principles of cooperation, collaboration and hosting the interests of different people.”

Ease of access

An investment platform that uses secure blockchain technology could also enable people to join and leave a co-living space with far greater ease, adds Christian Pagh, culture director at Urgent.Agency.

“I may have a social inclination to live together with other people, but not forever,” he says. “So how do I get in and how do I get out? What about my investment in the market if I am only renting for five years? With a blockchain ledger it would be less complicated every time a new person goes in or out because everybody knows the value of the shared investment accords to a particular logic.”

Shares and shared living

While many say today’s younger generation is not interested in owning property, let alone shared property, research by Space10 has shown the opposite. “We did a survey where we asked people from 150 countries how they would like to colive and the majority actually wanted a stake in their shared-living space,” says Casperson.

With a blockchain-powered energy platform, co-living residents could even take charge of their own energy system: producing and trading sustainable electricity in a micro-grid.

“Shared living is not just a way of enabling strangers to live together in a shared facility,” says Casperson. “It is a way of empowering people within a community where everybody benefits in terms of pooling resources.”

Of course, living in a shared community has its drawbacks, particularly when it comes to everyday responsibilities: Who does the dishes? Who takes out the trash? Who handles the electricity bills?

Here again technology could be useful, with some of the bigger coliving spaces already experimenting with mobile applications that present digital representations of shared communities and the various tasks that need doing. “You can see tools that make it much easier to co-exist on a much bigger scale, facilitating structures and all of these things that it requires to live together,” says Pagh.

Other, more ambitious technologies that could be used to benefit shared living include 3D printing, which allows custom-made and local forms of production, and virtual-reality tools that could help facilitate a more collaborative process to designing shared facilities and spaces.

Ca for support

Aside from new technology, bottom-up shared-living projects are likely to need wider political support if they are to challenge the mainstream developer and profitdriven co-living companies.

“Handling the pressure on the property market in bigger cities is, of course, not something that shared living can solve on its own,” says Pagh. “This is a political question and, above all, a question of the legal framework with which we manage this insane capitalist pressure on the market.”

At a planning level, Pagh suggests governments could force new developments to invest in social housing strategies that experiment with co-living concepts, and work with new types of developers that specialise in non-profit, collective organisational models.

“Rather than stopping the developer-driven projects I think it is about being able to develop a new market,” he says. “And we will need much more ambitious political goals on social justice and equal opportunities in the urban fabric to do that.”

For Caspersen what is needed is a wider public debate, not about building more houses but about the kinds of houses and cities we want to live in.

“Today we have a housing market with one product on the shelves, where everything is designed for the nuclear family,” he says. “What we need is a market that allows people to experiment with new ways of living.

A common area in WeWork’s Sanlitun building in Beijing, China.
WeLive is building a 36-storey skyscraper co-living development in Seattle, US.
Fixed desk shared work spaces at The Exchange, one of The Collective’s buildings in London, UK.

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