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Co-working Towards a More Sustainable Urban Future

  Published: 23 April 2018
  Theme: Future Economy

Technology is changing the way people work and where they work from. As innovations such as cloud computing and telecommunications provide business solutions at increasing capacity, speed and reliability, cities worldwide have begun witnessing the adoption of innovative modes of working in shared spaces that are premised on the decoupling of work from traditional office environments.

Co-working, as this style of work is called, is primarily seen as the “bottom-up” creation of a workspace by individuals looking to build collaborative professional networks and engender a sense of community1. While originally attracting freelancers and independent professionals, co-working spaces are also increasingly being used by companies ranging from start-ups to MNCs, who are attracted to co-working spaces’ flexible lease options and emphasis on innovation and collaboration2.

Reflecting co-working as a trend, a 2017 survey showed that the number of co-working locations in Asian cities with one million inhabitants or more increased almost twofold in 2017 from the past year3, with 73 percent of these spaces planning to expand4.

By examining case studies of innovative co-working spaces, urban planners can explore how the co-working model may be used to support various urban planning goals such as decentralisation and building stronger communities.

Facilitating Decentralisation Efforts through Co-Working Spaces

Co-working spaces have the potential to facilitate urban decentralisation efforts. Decentralisation involves the planning of accessible employment centres located away from a city’s core business district. The objective is to bring jobs closer to homes, and reduce traffic congestion arising from home-work commutes. In being flexible and easy to set up, co-working spaces could function as catalysts to the development of these non-core employment centres.

In Seoul, the South Korean government has been establishing the Smart Work Centre (SWC) network since 2010 for public sector employees, with co-working hubs located in residential districts throughout the capital5. The aim was to minimise home-work commuting times following the official decision to relocate 36 central government organisations from Seoul to Sejong — a city 120 kilometres away — as part of a decentralisation plan6.

According to an official report, SWCs that were located near transit hubs experienced the highest usage rates — an average of 1.5 to 2 users per desk every day7. The Korean National Information Society Agency estimated that for every year, each SWC accounted for US$140,670 (approximately S$190,000) in saved transportation costs and a 27-tonne reduction in carbon dioxide emissions8, demonstrating the synergies between co-working and decentralisation efforts.

In Singapore, a different iteration of the SWC has been implemented at four existing public libraries in town centres9. These privately-run SWCs cater to entrepreneurs, freelancers and full-time employees alike10 by providing amenities such as secured Wi-Fi, working stations, meeting rooms and video-conferencing facilities. Since launch, two of the SWCs have reported an 80 percent average uptake11. According to a 2015 survey, the top reason for using a library-based SWC was its proximity to the user’s home (61.5 percent) and reduced commuting time for professionals who are able to work remotely (52.3 percent)12. Despite its small scale of implementation, the survey results suggest the viability of situating co-working spaces away from the Central Business District, and the potential role that such spaces could play in aiding decentralisation efforts and bringing jobs closer to homes.

A library-based co-working spaces in Singapore that caters to different modes and styles of work with individual stations, shared desks and benches, and video-conferencing suites. Image credit: Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA)

A library-based co-working spaces in Singapore that caters to different modes and styles of work with individual stations, shared desks and benches, and video-conferencing suites. Image credit: Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA)

The South Korea and Singapore examples offer insights into the potential synergies between co-working and decentralisation efforts. At the same time, it should be noted that the promoting of the set-up and use of co-working spaces outside of a city’s existing core business district remains a challenge. For example, a significant proportion — almost one-third — of co-working spaces in Singapore remains located within the central business district13. The key, then, is to recognise these existing challenges and see co-working spaces as part of a larger, holistic strategy to help decentralisation take place.

Building Communities through Co-Working Spaces

Strong communities, with its accompanying social goods of trust, social capital, and belonging, are important goals for any city. Notably, co-working spaces have also focused their efforts on building communities through the curation of events, talks, and activities in their spaces, on top of providing the physical spaces for work. While the locus of community building has traditionally been residential neighbourhoods and public spaces, the advent of co-working spaces present another key platform for community building.

The Coworking Manifesto, an online document signed by more than 2300 individuals and co-working spaces, pledges to value “collaboration over competition”, “community over agendas” and “friendship over formality”14. Moreover, as a Harvard Business Review survey on co-working uncovers, one of the keys to thriving in co-working spaces is because people feel part of a community15. As the report further elaborates, the sense of community is not based on the amount of socialising that happens, but the knowledge that “there is the potential for interactions when [workers] desire or need them”.

Trehaus is an example of a co-working space in Singapore that is uniquely designed and programmed for working parents and children. It is segregated into three distinct zones; the largest of which is a co-working space out of bounds to children, an intermediate zone where the parents and children can interact with each other, and a childcare zone where trained staff will take care of the children. As Trehaus co-founder Elaine Kim explains, “The intermediate space provides opportunities for parent and child to naturally bond in a neutral environment.”

The children’s area at Trehaus, where activities and events for children are also held. Image credit: Trehaus

The children’s area at Trehaus, where activities and events for children are also held. Image credit: Trehaus

Through co-locating childcare with co-working, as well as offering programmes like cooking workshops and art events for both parents and children, Trehaus succeeds in building up a strong community where both personal and professional relationships form and strengthen in tandem16. Kim has observed that Trehaus members readily form micro-communities that offer mutual parenting support beyond the context of co-working. Moreover, she notes that many members return to use the shared workspace even after their children outgrow the facility, positing that their shared experiences have resulted in an attachment to the space.

As with Trehaus, other co-working spaces have the potential to transform the fundamental nature of work spaces to facilitate more than just work. By building vibrant and strong communities at work places, co-working spaces can be a meaningful addition to the strategies focused on building healthy communities in residential estates and public spaces.

Co-working and the Sustainable Future

Dense urban areas are confronted with challenges ranging from traffic congestion to social isolation. For a city-state like Singapore, the strategies of decentralisation and building strong communities are crucial for a sustainable future.

While majority of the co-working spaces in Singapore today are located within the CBD, it is important to recognize the potential value of the co-working model as applied to the town and neighbourhood scales. Co-working spaces that are based outside the CBD and within towns would create more workplace options closer to homes, which align with decentralization efforts to alleviate home-work traffic flows into the CBD. Moreover, through creative curation and programming, co-working spaces could deepen social ties amongst its users, building stronger workplace communities that would complement existing social and community bonds.

As the rise of the co-working model looks set to continue with technological advances and increasing demand for work flexibility, there are merits to further study how to facilitate the rise of co-working spaces beyond the CBD for a sustainable future.




  1. Bo Wang & Becky P. Y. Loo (2017) Hubs of Internet Entrepreneurs: The Emergence of Co-working Offices in Shanghai, China, Journal of Urban Technology, 24:3, 67-84, DOI: 10.1080/10630732.2017.1285124
  2. https://sg.finance.yahoo.com/news/evolution-co-working-space-010000472.html
  3. Page 3 of the Asian & Global Results of The 2017 Global Coworking Survey, CU Asia 2017, http://www.deskmag.com/en/coworking-statistics-all-results-of-the-global-coworking-survey-research-studies-948
  4. Page 13 of the Asian & Global Results of The 2017 Global Coworking Survey, CU Asia 2017, http://www.deskmag.com/en/coworking-statistics-all-results-of-the-global-coworking-survey-research-studies-948
  5. https://www.smartwork.go.kr/pot/swcOfficeUse/SwcCenterSearchList.do
  6. http://www.naacc.go.kr/english/main.jsp
  7. https://www.citylab.com/life/2014/06/is-this-office-the-future-of-government-work/373028/
  8. http://citiscope.org/story/2014/office-future-government-work
  9. http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/new-smart-work-centre-to-open-in-tampines-to-promote-work-life-balance
  10. https://www.imda.gov.sg/about/newsroom/media-releases/2016/fourth-smart-work-centre-to-open-in-revamped-tampines-regional-library
  11. Findings from URA internal study
  12. 2015 Regus survey of 109 participants
  13. http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/business/more-co-working-spaces-sprouting-up-in-cbd-as-demand-rises-8750804
  14. https://coworkingmanifesto.com
  15. https://hbr.org/2015/05/why-people-thrive-in-coworking-spaces
  16. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2016/09/14/third-places-as-community-builders/