The Travels and Aberrations of Serendipity
When I started to think about the book to which this blog serves as a preliminary publishing vehicle and testing ground for ideas, I thought I could use the notion of serendipity as a conceptual counterweight to the vacuous notion of creativity as it is currently used in policy making and management. Serendipity as accidental sagacity is a more methodologically definable term than ‘creativity’. It could potentially help to remind us of the truly disruptive – in the non-Californian sense of the term – dimension that has been lost in the contemporary discourse on creativity. Serendipity breaks with the assumption of harmony and smoothness by pointing to the inherent unruliness of what the Greeks referred to as poiesis, i.e., the process by which novelty enters into the world. And while I was certainly aware that the process of serendipity turning into a fad was well under way, I thought a rigorous treatment of the term in the context of the creative economy might help to counter this tendency.
Over the past few years, the situation has changed rather drastically. Serendipity has indeed become a fad and much faster than I thought this would happen. The Observer’s Aleks Krotoski is certainly right when referring to serendipity as “the latest holy grail in the Silicon Valley software zeitgeist.” Flanked by popular business publications such as John Hagel’s The Power of Pull or Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, serendipity has indeed become “an ill-defined buzzword” for all sorts of algorithmically assisted services. Eric Schmidt’s vision of an autonomous “digital serendipity engine” that searches for you even when you don’t has been with us for quite some time now and is increasingly materializing as well. And while it certainly makes the life of Google’s customers easier by linking services like email, flight schedules, calendars and so on, it has of course nothing to do with serendipity at all. The same goes for Spotify’s recently introduced serendipity function, an online map that displays a stream of coordinates when two users played the same song at the same time.
The serendipity hype is not confined to the world of digital West-Coast-fantasy though. We encounter the term increasingly in fashionable urban development projects – where the creative city tends to mutate into its ‘smart’ successor – as well as in the corridors of public administration in general. The most sustained and by some measure also quite sensible use of the notion of serendipity over the last few years could be observed in so-called coworking spaces. These are collaborative workspaces offering individual clients desks to rent on flexible terms, usually in an open space with an explicitly relaxed and informal work atmosphere. The first proper coworking spaces popped up in San Francisco, New York, Berlin and London in the early years of the new Millennium. They were born out of a dissatisfaction with the confined office environment and reflected the growth of an increasingly independent workforce trying to turn their economic precarity into a neo-Bohemian entrepreneurialism. This project necessitated a new spatiality that the old business culture was unable to provide. At least for the European context, it is fair to say that the early coworking spaces were built by the ‘members’ of the Bohemian precariat themselves. They often came in the form of start-up businesses but tended to subscribe to a somewhat anti-business(-as-usual) ideology. Among the digital bohemians, one would also find anarchists, hippies and all sorts of people who wanted ‘something different’ to happen in these coworking spaces. It was this mixture of diverse people and motivations that gave the coworking movement its edge, producing successful businesses as well as providing a space where strategies against precarity were plotted and developed.
Coworking as Serendipitous Practice
From the start, serendipity was an important reference for the coworking multitude: coworking spaces needed to provide their users with an environment offering a high probability of serendipitous encounters as a way of compensating for the freelancers’ lack of organisational support structure. The groups and communities spurring the first generation coworking spaces intended to generate an imperfect yet more exciting replacement of the conventional organisation: they were supposed to generate ideas and opportunities for business but also had a political ambition in the sense of strengthening the position of the precarious entrepreneur vis-a-vis potential clients through exchange of knowledge and skills and a general practice of mutual generosity. It is easy, too easy perhaps, to dismiss the alter-entrepreneurial euphoria of the early Millennium as a pale copy of the Californian ideology that is now holding the startup scene firmly in its grip. It is certainly true that the West-Coast form of expression with its endemic combination of infantile pathos and cliché was an early visitor to the coworking community as well. Yet, underneath the silly ‘awesomeness’ there was indeed an awareness that it wasn’t all fun an games. I remember long critical discussions on the politics of coworking with people running spaces such as Berlin’s betahaus or Paris’ Mutinerie. One of their key concerns was to help prevent the ‘multitude’ of independent producers from sinking into what Byung Chul Han has recently called the ‘solitude’ of self-exploiting neoliberal subjects. Here, serendipity, i.e., the accidental sagacity that emerges when people with different mind and skill sets encounter each other, was really part and parcel of the story. It turned these coworking spaces into third spaces that seemed to enable an ambivalent kind of social innovation: one that was necessary for the functioning of neoliberal capitalism but also had the ambition of going beyond it. One of the ‘values’ the early coworkers were keen on was ‘community’ and back then this meant something more than the marketing catch phrase it has become of late. The coworking movement – or at least a substantial part of it – really thought it was possible to rewrite the rules of the neoliberal economy. The widespread attitude was: If you want us to be entrepreneurs of ourselves, we are going to do this on our terms!
Coworking Goes Mainstream
Today, coworking as a politically and culturally interesting phenomenon is all but history. Sure, there remain a few determined parties and spaces that don’t tire to try and find ways to politically organize networks of freelancers and coworkers. Berlin’s Supermarkt is certainly one of them and we have also recently seen the emergence of union-like networks such as the European Freelancers Movement. However, the phenomenal spread of flex-work spaces throughout the world has very little to do with the idealistic motivations of the first generation coworking spaces. Coworking has mutated into the massive provision of infrastructure for independent professionals and corporate nomads and as such, it has become big business. While the rhetoric of ‘community’ and ‘values’ persists as marketing strategy toward the growing client-base of independent workers and entrepreneurs in need of affordable workspace, its practical articulation has been taken over by professional hosts and community managers.
There is, of course, nothing wrong per se with such a professionalisation of coworking. People still need affordable work space and flex-work spaces tend to provide exactly that. Yet, in the hands of the likes of Regus, Liquid Spaces or, indeed, Marriott, coworking has pretty much lost its political, utopian impetus. If this would be all there was to it, one might bemoan it as a lost opportunity for the much-vaunted ‘change’ or simply write it off as the usual course of a fringe phenomenon maturing into business, losing its more exciting, socially progressive elements on the way.
Yet, something else is happening to the coworking phenomenon that is perhaps not very surprising but worrying nonetheless. Driven by the managerial hype around serendipity, a growing number of smart organisation consultants have discovered coworking as a template upon which they can market their services to corporations as the new generation of change management. Again, nothing would be wrong in trying to inject the treadmill of the office with some of the energy one sometimes encounters in coworking spaces. In fact, one should welcome this effort if it was intended as a way of humanising the corporate workspace. Let’s make these environments less depressing, if people become more productive in the process because the new environments cater more appropriately to their professional needs, that’s fine as well! However, one of the obvious problems here is that coworking culture – or whatever is left of the libertarian spirit of the early digital bohemians – is very hard to decree into being in a corporate context. Employees who have experienced one of those attempts in recent years can tell a thing or two about the strange results they tend to bear. For everyone else, there exist now a number of cinematic documents reporting on the often tragic-comical outcomes of these efforts, such as Harun Farocki’s the excellent documentary A New Product or Carmen Losman’s piece of cynical realism Work Hard – Play Hard.
Killing me Smartly: Serendipity in the Hyper-Taylorist Office
What is distressing about the most recent wave of coworking-inspired office reform, is that it’s proponents seem to have something in mind that goes way beyond these clumsy ‘intrapreneurial’ simulations. In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, three coworking visionaries/consultants are kicking off their marketing campaign for corporate coworking as a call to smart digital metrics in the name of increased ‘performance’ and innovation. Ben Waber, Jennifer Magnolfi and Greg Lindsay are convinced that the positive effects of coworking can be realised in corporate environments if managers resort to a radically quantified understanding of serendipity:
Few companies measure whether a space’s design helps or hurts performance, but they should. They have the means. The same sensors, activity trackers, smartphones, and social networks that they eagerly foist on customers to reveal their habits and behavior can be turned inward, on employees in their work environments, to learn whether it’s true that getting engineers and salespeople talking actually works.
Instead of a substantial reflection on what collaboration, or, indeed, self-determination might entail from an employee’s point of view – which is exactly what drove the early experiments in coworking – what our consultants are interested in is the measurability of performance. And of course they have to approach the topic in such a way as they are trying to convince managers of the necessity of their serendipity generating services. If one wants to land with the managerial class, one has to think like a manager. And our consultants are perfectly able to do this:
We’ve already begun to collect this kind of performance data using a variety of tools, from simple network analytics to sociometric badges that capture interaction, communication, and location information. After deploying thousands of badges in workplaces ranging from pharmaceuticals, finance, and software companies to hospitals, we’ve begun to unlock the secrets of good office design in terms of density, proximity of people, and social nature. We’ve learned, for example, that face-to-face interactions are by far the most important activity in an office. … [O]ur data suggest that creating collisions—chance encounters and unplanned interactions between knowledge workers, both inside and outside the organization—improves performance.
While the importance of face-to-face interactions is of course anything but a secret of office design, the real innovative suggestion of our consultants here is that smart technology should be deployed to measure its impact on employee performance. What they have in mind is an office environment where a plethora of wearable technology, sensors and so on keep constant track of employees’ social behaviour. The collected data are then run against employee ‘performance’ data. What a fantastic idea! This opens up possibilities for a radically new office culture. Taylorism on digital steroids! Or am I missing the point here? Well, apparently not:
More than a century ago, Frederick Winslow Taylor brought his stopwatch and principles of scientific management to the office, instilling efficiency as the highest calling in what was then a factory for processing paperwork. Today we have the means to measure the performance of modern idea factories. Even these early insights suggest a future in which we must aggressively change the definition of what workspace is, from where work is done to how it’s done, and then design spaces—physical and digital—around that.
And while we’re at it, why not instantly visualise the social performance data!? Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde could develop a serendipity garment that changes colour according to the number of creative collisions an employee had during a specific time period.The monthly pay cheque could become a function of the colour of your work-wear. Why not? After all we are talking about “modern idea factories,” are we not!
Monitored Social Life or Disruptive Serendipity?
Call me naive but I seriously doubt that a wired-up workforce under permanent, meticulous surveillance is going to be a hotbed of serendipity. One really needs to have an absurdly naive understanding of technology to assume that the massive deployment of smart technology won’t have a detrimental impact on the casual social climate everyone knows to be vital for serendipitous encounters since the invention of the water cooler. But this is merely a technical point. The real scandal here lies in the exploitation of the image of coworking for the purpose of selling the idea of the office as digital Stasi-headquarters for high-performance social interaction. A taste of things to come is offered by Las Vegas’ Downtown Project, where Zappos is investing $350 million in the area around the company’s new headquarters, which is the former city hall (see above photo). Cocreated by one of our coworking visionaries, it has turned part of Las Vegas inner city area into a pseudo-coworking area that looks like a humongous McDonald’s playground. The punch line here is that Zappos turned this part of the city into a large scale social experiment, controlled by the newly invented metric of “collisionable hours.” Their goal is “to reach 100.000 collisionable hours per acre in the neighbourhood – about 2.3 per square foot per year.
Of course, city dwellers, employees and entrepreneurs have to decide for themselves whether of not to take part in projects of this kind. Sometimes, like in Las Vegas, urban desperation may run as high that there isn’t really much of a decision to take. What I am wondering though, is, how the coworking scene is going to react to these arrogant attempts to turn their initially quite progressive idea – to create a more humane, social and exciting work environment – into a marketing tool for hyper-Taylorist behaviour control. Doesn’t this merit some kind of reaction?
As I am writing these notes, the international coworking scene is assembling in Lisbon for their annual conference. The motto emerging from the gathering seems to be “Make Serendipity Desirable!”. I honestly hope the coworking movement is going to achieve this somehow, though the odds, I think this has become clear, are against them. If there is indeed a desire to revitalise coworking as a disruptively serendipitous practice, such a project would have to start, I think, from taking a strong position against the pushers of quantified serendipity surveillance, whose vision of the office of the future makes Dave Eggers’ Circle look like a holiday camp.