Big art at [freespace], a collaborative working space in San Francisco's SOMA district. Image via Ewan McIntosh of Flickr
Big art at [freespace], a collaborative working space in San Francisco’s SOMA district. (Image via Ewan McIntosh at Flickr)
On a few blocks in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood (SOMA), the emergent sharing economy is thriving. On a stretch of Mission Street where multi-tenant housing residents, a homeless population, and employees of the hulking Federal building tensely coexist, a “civic hack” is transforming a vacant building. The two-month [freespace] experiment undertaken by social entrepreneurs, artists, activists, techies, and locals is changing the neighborhood.
A few blocks away, more techies, makers, artists, and entrepreneurs take advantage of classes and shared machinery at TechShop. In a nearby co-working space, The Hub, freelancers, social entrepreneurs, and other creatives collaborate and share operational support. Four blocks south, The NWBLK provides a design/fabrication workshop, co-working studios, and retail and event space for high-end designers of unique and bespoke apparel and home objects in an art gallery atmosphere.
The truth is that sharing space can be difficult. The quiet, well-equipped home office or garage workshop outfitted with your own sharp tools seems safer and easier, albeit less dynamic.
But collaborative spaces offer clear benefits: serendipitous connections spark ideas, learning, and opportunities to tackle larger challenges. And their success can be a model for staid institutions looking to spark innovation.
Basic needs-—for space, tools, colleagues, an audience, and customers-—drive many independent workers in SOMA to endure the messiness and headaches of shared space. But in a dense urban setting, the fortunate byproduct is a new physical platform for learning, discovery, and serendipitous encounters with diverse ideas and relevant expertise—all the characteristics we extol for creation spaces and scalable learning. This explains, in part, why cities are such fertile sources of creativity and collaboration.
Another need that transcends all those, however, has implications for how companies engage with their employees and customers: the deep human need to participate in process and a community of creation. In addition, the impulse to wrap a “story” around a product or service, explaining where it came from and who worked on it, is contributing significantly to this new movement.
Access to technology hasn’t diminished the desire to create and share. In fact, it is spawning new institutional models that blur the lines between school and storefront, community and factory. Witness the surging popularity of Maker Faires and the TechShop-style maker spaces. While advances such as 3-D printing create an opening for entrepreneurs to invent new physical products and then prototype and scale them with minimal investment, the driving force of the Maker movement is creative, not economic. The creations may or may not be better at meeting a user’s needs than a commercially available product. The makers pursue projects to learn new skills, to create an item with a story they are part of, and to share their creative process with others. Virtual platforms—Etsy, Make: Projects, and Instructables—share creativity more broadly but tend to lack the rich transfer of tacit knowledge that spurs learning in a physical environment.
In the case of [freespace], artists and landscape architects—professional and amateur—devote hours creating murals and mobiles and gardens as a gift to the community. That the endeavor is temporary indicates that participants are motivated by the love of creation, the opportunity to be part of the story told about the piece, and the larger story about the place.
NWBLK invites consumers to learn the story behind an item’s creation, its creator, and the collaboration that produced it. Designers there benefit from interacting directly with consumers, other artisans, and the small businesses that occupy offices in the building.
The Hub offers more than a workspace. With taglines like “Where change goes to work” and “We’re humans taking collaborative action for a better world,” it invites members to create a community and possibly a movement. It’s a compelling vision for freelancers and young entrepreneurs who lack colleagues and an organizing principle.
The Creative Worker
It’s not just urban freelancers and artists who have a basic need to participate in the process of building something. Corporate employees feel this desire too. For some, being part of building a company is enough. But most organizations have an opportunity to make more room for employees to express their creative, participatory instincts in the workplace. Doing so may engage their passions and spark new relationships that lead to better performance and innovation within the business. Ignore the need and you risk losing the interest and best work of employees.
Companies can foster employee creativity outside of the core business, too, through volunteer work, providing time for “independent” projects, or encouraging modification in personal workspaces. But this misses the larger point: tapping into this creative instinct may not only keep employees happier and more engaged, it can be crucial for the success of companies that will need innovation and passion to navigate a rapidly changing world.
The real challenge is how to do this within the work; anything else is just buying time. What can companies do to engage employees’ need to create and be creative in their work?

  • Reconsider the need for restrictions that seek to standardize the work environment
  • Let employees participate upstream and downstream from their functional role, to interact and share ideas with others they may never otherwise encounter
  • Look for opportunities to create physical spaces within the workplace for people to be creative
  • Consider what stories your organization has to share and invite others to help create them

There’s a reason smaller companies and social ventures are better than large companies at inviting employees to create and to participate in a creative story: Our institutions are scripted, built around processes optimized for efficiency and repeatability; they’ve evolved to marginalize the creative instinct. Allowing our employees to be creative shouldn’t be so difficult.
John Hagel III, director in Deloitte Consulting LLP, is the co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge based in Silicon Valley.  John Seely Brown is the independent co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge.