The revolution of the “third place”: working, sharing and collaborating

In 2016, members of the hackerspace DataPaulette, a collaborative space in Paris that combines textile art, scientific research and digital technology, participated in Schmiede, a collective residency in Austria that brings together artists, hackers and entrepreneurs from all over Europe. (DataPaulette/Schmiede)

“It’s an opportunity to meet other women who are starting businesses, to help and to motivate one another,” says clothing and accessories designer Chona Djaura. Along with many other budding entrepreneurs, the 33-year-old works at Chez Basile, a “third place” in Saint-Denis, a city near Paris.

“Third places” refer to social spaces that are distinct from the traditional categories of “home” and “workplace”. They are both places to work and places to meet up. Third spaces are characterised by a collective approach, both in terms of organisation and philosophy. Still largely unknown to the larger public, this trend has seen significant growth throughout the world in recent years. According to a report published in 2018, there are 1,800 third places in France alone.

The most visible face of this new trend is coworking spaces, which have multiplied over the last few years. Coworking entails both the idea of a shared workspace, as well as the creation of a network that promotes the sharing of skills and knowledge. Part of the larger sharing economy, coworking spaces are seen as fertile ground for creativity and cooperation among professionals.

Created in 2016 by a consultant in strategic foresight with a passion for gardening, Chez Basile is a unique coworking space located in an old house with an urban micro-farm. It costs €120 ((US $135) to set up a part-time professional activity or €12 (US $13) for the day.

“I got tired of working at home and I was never happy with the atmosphere at other coworking spaces in Paris,” says Marie Paniez, founder of Chez Basile. Like Chona Djaura, Myriam Coulibaly, a 39-year-old masseuse, became enamoured. “It’s a unique place. From the moment you walk in the door you feel like you’re no longer in the city,” she says. “The garden allows you to unplug,” says Nathalie Bontemps, 41, a literary translator from Arabic to French, and also a member of Chez Basile.

Another type of third place are fab labs, short for “fabrication laboratory”. These production workshops comply with a very specific charter developed by the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US. Entrepreneurs of all kind, designers and artists, as well as students looking to experiment, can go to fab labs to work with computer-controlled machine tools such as 3D printers and laser cutters.

Some fab labs are linked to universities, such as LabBoîte at Cergy-Pontoise, or to Centres de culture scientifique, technique et industrielle (CCSTI), scientific mediation centres aimed at the larger public, such as the 127° de Cap Sciences in Bordeaux, or the le Fab Lab de la Casemate in Grenoble. Members typically pay between €5 (US $5.60) and €35 (US $39) for monthly membership.

“It’s the best place in the world. It’s got everything you need to tinker around”

Similar to fab labs in their configuration, hackerspaces don’t follow the MIT charter to the letter. “It’s a place and means for sharing knowledge, not an end in itself. What matters most is the community,” explains Coline Babut, a “fabmanager” at Electrolab, a hackerspace housed in a 1,500 m² warehouse in Nanterre in the Paris region. The idea behind hackerspaces is to “subvert the intended use of an object to make something new out of it,” she says.

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For a monthly fee of €20 (US $23), members have access to electron microscopes, CNC-controlled milling machines, cast iron sewing machines and aluminium foundries – something for every taste and need. The result is a diverse group of people ranging from aeronautical engineers to entrepreneurs to DIY enthusiasts. “It’s the best place in the world. It’s got everything you need to tinker around,” says Agnès Darmon, an optician and member of Electrolab for the past two years. Having qualified for the craft worker competition Meilleur Ouvrier de France, she is currently working on a prototype for glasses.

Other third places that combine these different models use the more generic term “makerspaces.”

Another example of third places, living labs are intended to bring together local initiatives, public and private actors, companies and associations in order to promote innovative services, tools and methods, primarily in the area of information and digital technologies. Launched in 2006 by the Finnish Presidency of the European Community, living labs must apply for certification from the ENoLL (European Network of Living Labs) association. One such living lab is Brie’Nov, located in Doue, Île-De-France. In recent months, Brie’Nov has encouraged and lobbied local elected officials for the development of Diabète 2.0, a social healthcare network designed to facilitate the follow-up and care of patients with diabetes.

Reducing costs, increasing exchange

Several factors are responsible for the recent explosion of third places. One is the rise of self-employment and teleworking, which is tied to the revolution in new technologies. By pooling space and equipment, third places make it possible for costs to be shared. “Finding a workspace is very complicated for people who are self-employed. Renting a private space would have required too big an investment,” says Nathalie. The same is true at Electrolab, a hackerspace that “provides access to industrial tools that you could never acquire yourself or even install at home or in your garage.”

In addition to material sharing, human collaboration is another important aspect. Third places are an opportunity for self-employed entrepreneurs to break out of their isolation. “It’s easier to stay motivated when there’s two of you,” agree Marie Paniez and Myriam Coulibaly, who are currently preparing to approach companies together to offer a combination of gardening and massage services.

“People are constantly emulating one another. We meet, we exchange ideas with one another, and little by little new ideas emerge,” says Martin de Bie, a teacher at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs de Paris and member of the hackerspaceDataPaulette, which specialises in textiles and digital technologies.

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According to de Bie, another key factor is the ever-increasing need to be trained in new skills and technologies and attain new qualifications over the course of one’s professional life.

“All of these places provide opportunities for acquiring additional skills. For me personally, it’s become my test laboratory,” he says.

Recycling, lending, de-mobility (i.e. reducing commuting) and energy efficiency – third places are also an expression of a growing interest in ecological transition. Built using almost 80 per cent recycled materials, Electrolab in Nanterre is a model in this regard. “Members take care of the maintenance and repair of the machines themselves on a voluntary basis,” adds Coline Babut.

Downsides to this trend are hard to find, even though certain members admit that its accompanying philosophy isn’t necessarily suited to everyone. “From the outside, third places can seem somewhat closed off,” says Martin de Bie. According to him, people interested in joining such spaces should abide by two golden rules: “don’t be in a hurry,” and “don’t expect other people to do anything for you.”

Finding funding to support projects

In his report, Patrick Levy-Waitz encourages public authorities to support and protect these third places, which can culturally and economically enrich communities at the local level. “Since last year, we’ve received a grant from the city of Nanterre, but the amount is just enough to complete our one-time investments and doesn’t cover our operating costs,” says Coline Babut.

In many cases, financial support isn’t enough. Like many other third places, Electrolabfaces the challenge of professionalisation. To cover its costs, it is considering developing training and apprenticeship programmes that would require employing new people. Levy-Waitz proposes that the state set up continuing education programmes in order to recognise such “third place facilitators.”

According to figures published by Deskmag magazine, by 2017, more than 10,000 coworking spaces claiming to be community, mixed or “other” already existed throughout the world, counting more than 1 million members.

This figure might reach 1,7 million in early 2019. The Asia/Pacific/India region leads the world with more than 4,000 third places, followed by the United States with 3,200 and Europe at around 3,000.

Faced with this new ecosystem, the involvement of states and local public authorities seems minimal for the moment. In 2011, Belgium launched the Creative Walloniaprogramme, which has provided support for the creation of eight third places. Another example is the municipality of Tel Aviv, which has fully funded and coordinates two third places, including a kind of startup incubator.

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