Coworking Core Values 1 of 5: Sustainability

This post is part 1 of a 5 part series exploring the 5 core values of coworking: Collaboration, Openness, CommunityAccessibility, and Sustainability.

As a reminder, the coworking community rallied and bought so that we’d have a place that tied the word “coworking” to the core values of coworking. These values originated with CitizenSpace, and have been interpreted by dozens of coworking spaces around the world.

I’m noticing that coworking core values aren’t even on the radar of most of the newest coworking spaces opening around the world, so I’m hoping that by taking some time to riff on each one, they might get some visibility and be considered an important element to keeping the movement alive as more than a trend.

This first post focuses on the value of sustainability. Sustainability is a loaded word, with lots of connotations.

The most obvious are the “green” effects of coworking. Resource sharing is inherently green, as is commute reduction. While I consider these elements relatively superficial, that’s not to downplay their importance. But the reality is that, in a modern society, does “being a responsible eco-citizen” belong in the list of top line core values? Efficiency is a benefit, but not a core value. Striving for efficiency is a good goal, but it’s not a core value.

That is to say: if you’re NOT considering the environment you inhabit, the other effects and values really don’t matter that much.

So if sustainability doesn’t mean “going green”, what does it mean?

Sustainability, in my mind, is about making sure that whatever you’re doing can be done for as long as it needs to be done. In less vague terms: are you building your community, your coworking space, your infrastructure, and your business models in a way that they aren’t dependent on outside resources to persist, to grow, and to flourish.

A Farmer Once Told Me

I had the pleasure of seeing Joel Salatin speak at TEDxMidAtlantic in 2009, and remember being struck by what this farmer had to say. I highly recommend his 15 minute talk.

A community that can feed itself is free. A community that cannot feed itself is not. It's that simple.
Joel Salatin

In the early days of Indy Hall, Geoff and I were talking about how to take the momentum we’d built and turn it into the coworking space that everybody wanted. One of the important insights Geoff drove home was to make sure that we’d be able to sustain ourselves – our membership should be able to cover our costs as well as provide room for growth – or else it wasn’t worth building the infrastructure to help that community grow.

We looked at for profit and non-profit models, and determined that in order for us to persist, for us to be sustainable, being a for-profit business provided for us most efficiently. We could stay lightweight and agile, but still remain benevolent and community focused. Most importantly, we would grow in a way that was dependent on no one except for the people who benefitted from the resources we could rally.

This is a perfect balance for us, and continues to be as we’ve grown over nearly 4 years.

As long as they need us, we’re sustainable and independent. When they no longer need us as we exist today, we’ve either already morphed into what they need, or the business ends. And that’s okay.

Joel’s tweet above is about food. But if you read past the fact that he’s talking about food, what he’s really talking about is nourishment.

A community that isn’t able to nourish itself lives in dependency of whomever is providing for it, and therefore is not only not free, but not sustainable.

The end of life is dependent on the source more than on the needs of the community.

Conversely, a community that is able to provide for itself doesn’t exclude itself from external sources of nourishment – but it is free, sustainable, and independent.

The people and businesses we support will live as our reflections

I firmly believe that the longer a coworking space is able to do what it does best, the healthier the people and businesses who work from it will be.

These are all things that are necessary to “heal the world”, just as much as the elements of “going green” are.

If we’re healing the planet for people who aren’t living and working sustainably, what’s the point?

Want more? Here are my other essays on the core values: CollaborationOpennessCommunityAccessibility, and Sustainability

To the comments!

This is my perspective on sustainability as it pertains to coworking. What’s yours? Leave a comment below.


  • Tony Bacigalupo

    Sustainability is a wonderfully ambiguous word in this context. It embodies a general shift in society’s mindset away from the unlimited expansion and consumption that characterized the 20th century (cars, highways, suburbs, plastic, credit cards, etc) and toward thinking of everything in terms of real social value.

    A coworking space, like any other new and important thing we build in this century, must be both self-sustaining and must play well with the rest of the universe.

    Coworking would not be very useful or meaningful if it were not built to last, nor would it be very good if it destroyed the planet as it scaled.

  • Tony Bacigalupo

    In fact, I might argue that all of coworking’s core values are aligned with general shifts in the way our societies are starting to think.

    That’s a head asploder.

  • Anonymous

    Focussing on business sustainability has been one of the best decisions we made. We did not get hung up on proft vs. non-profit or other structural concerns. We started with the idea that Indy Hall has the best chance of doing good by staying in business.

    Great post on the topic, Alex.

  • Frank

    Really good perspective here, Alex. Gotta live to be successful.

  • Shenoa Lawrence

    Excellent commentary! I’m hoping we find a space soon so we can concentrate on how to implement this type of thinking into our coworking group. Looking forward to the rest of the series!

  • Jesse Taggert

    Looking forward to the other posts as well. And a good reminder about staying true to what is most genuine about coworking.

  • timwiseman

    Fantastic start! (IMO) You did capture the true meaning of sustainability… as well, the big idea behind working ‘together’ – and why it’s important.  If we are so miserable that we can’t work together, and we can’t share our ideas – then why try to save anything?

    Some initiatives can go on for ever, and some have an end date.  The true entrepreneur will understand from the very beginning the lifespan of their brainchild, and realize that meeting the goal, can and may mean it’s no longer needed.

    Unfortunately, this is barely understood.  We have seen BILLIONS of dollars spent to try and save ideas, corps that are no longer needed, or wanted.  In the natural world, the end of life is necessary, it makes room for, AND fertilizes new growth.

    Gordon’s Re-Animator shows us the grisly effects of keeping something alive that shouldn’t be. It’s unnatural, and very dangerous.  We should take note.Coworking is a brilliant concept, and from what I have seen accepted and successful in many communities. I am looking forward to the rest of this series. Thanks Alex.

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