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From co-working to co-living: The need for regulation that works

The rise of the ‘sharing economy’ and the move from ‘ownership’ to ‘service-based’ consumption models – Netflix and Spotify being the most commonly understood exemplars – is increasing the demand for flexibility and new ways of using space, says Connected Places Catapult Senior Urbanist Justin Kliger, who looks at the implications for planners and regulators in our latest PlanTech blog.

The emergence of the Space-as-a-Service (SPaaS) sector has seen the transformation of traditional ways of living and working, shopping and recreation. Co-working has introduced new opportunities to work independently or collaboratively in shared office spaces. Co-living has introduced new self-contained communities with shared common spaces.

Meanwhile spaces‘ are bringing vacant sites back into social, commercial and cultural uses, albeit temporarily while peer-to-peer house-sharing platforms like Airbnb are disrupting the short-term residential tenancy, hotels and holiday market.

Models like Desana are even starting to combine these different innovations to create new iterations in the space. And, as well as offering new more flexible and cheaper ways to access space, they are also impacting on the shape and operation of our cities.

But, while co-working might have primarily become associated with WeWork and its recent crisis, it’s still fair to say that regardless of WeWork’s fate, the trend of more flexible, service-centred and data-informed office space will continue to evolve. There is clearly a market for it and the technology to deliver it is ever more available.

So, WeWork aside, for architects, planners and public policymakers, the need remains to understand the medium- and long-term impact of not just how these purposefully fluid and flexible buildings and spaces are designed, built and occupied, but also how they are changing the way we plan and indeed the very fabric of the places we plan for.

Planning for shared spaces

Urbanists at Connected Places Catapult – who in previous roles as public sector planners and urban designers sat across the table from co-living and co-working applicants – have reviewed their schemes and know all too well the challenges the planning system presents for these kinds of developers and developments for planners and policymakers. All too often, when the system fails to fit a square peg into a round hole, it eventually tries to just ram that peg in.

In their defence, however, there is still ambiguity around the role and function of these shared spaces within the built environment. For example, is a co-living scheme purely residential or, by virtue of its ability to offer a range of communal spaces and social activities, something else? And if so, what?

The lion’s share of the blame for this ambiguity could be levelled on the current use class orders. These came into force in 1987 as a little more than a revision of those from 1972, and so it should come as no surprise that they don’t really reflect the way our cities are developing in 2019. Therefore, regulators and providers alike can’t be blamed for the grey zone in whether or not to apply standard planning controls like minimum space standards for room sizes and the requirement to provide affordable housing as part of its offer apply. And, if not, what regulations should?

Regulating Space-as-a-Service

This is why cities such as Barcelona have sought to regulate Airbnb after seeing the impact on property prices and tourist taxes. It’s also why Connected Places Catapult has been looking at this issue in some depth exploring ways to bridge the gap between SPaaS providers and regulators.

At the moment, the SPaaS world is still quite fragmented – co-living, co-working, meanwhile spaces, peer-to-peer house-sharing and who knows what next? – and yet no one has brought all the players together to openly plan their own futures, let alone how they might align those futures with the regulators. There has been little recognition of the fact that they are in fact part of one sector – a single community with shared challenges.

So let’s do that now. If SPaaS is indeed a sector – and a rapidly growing one at that – that is posing challenges, and has no intention of simply going away, then those challenges need to be faced head-on. Only then might the regulatory system evolve the flexibility and adaptability needed to not just handle these trends, but to actively nourish and nurture them.

Building a community of SPaaS providers and regulators

Connected Places Catapult is convening and building a community of providers and regulators to progress this dialogue and deep-diving into the issues and challenges each face when dealing with planning for these new uses of space. As part of this work, a shared set of recommendations and ideas needed to provoke the change is being developed. This will encourage planning for and regulation of these new uses of space, without fettering their development.

Cities will always change, so we need to find ways to adapt to and nurture innovations. But to do so, we need everyone at the table, and so far co-workers haven’t taken their seat. This might be because the current regulatory system isn’t so problematic for them. Or perhaps it’s simply assumed the regulatory system is painful by default and the idea that it could be changed simply hasn’t yet been entertained.

Are we really so accustomed now to stormy waters in the planning system that leaning in for the long-haul is a default position? Does the impact an in-house, rooftop bar or cafe on the local food and beverage landscape not make councils nervous? Are providers simply resigned to the challenges around communicating the quality of their offer? Surely co-working providers could benefit just as much as other SPaaS stakeholders from co-authoring the regulations that will ultimately govern the future of their own businesses?

What’s next?

Nonetheless, the work continues. Intelligence is being gathered from those in the know, with probing questions about the challenges SPaaS poses and experiences being asked, while regulation, co-living and space provision leaders have also provided critical insights. Together their ideas on how to innovate in this area and collaborate on developing potential solutions to these challenges are beginning to drive changes – even without the contributions of the co-working community.

Connected Places Catapult’s strong relationships with central and local government place us well to build an effective lobby for the SPaaS sector and to deliver changes to how the sector and regulatory system work together. As has been the case all along, there remains a seat at the table for the co-working community – if you are a co-working provider willing to take their place at the table, we’d love to hear from you. Get in touch with us plantech@cp.catapult.org.uk.

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