I was walking with my ladyfriend along M Street in Georgetown at night and we saw an illuminated office space that consisted of an open floor with lots of desks and no walls. This sort of environment promotes openness, instant communication, and a team that can transmit new information faster amongst themselves.
So then we started talking about internet cafes in the rest of the world — while the model has pretty much failed in the US (we have to buy expensive plans through AT&T or T-Mobile just to use internet at Starbucks), internet cafes in other countries are immensely successful, particularly in Asia. I remember watching a PBS Frontline special on Chinese youth and it had a young entrepreneur who was opening a new Internet cafe. This wasn’t just a small room with banks of computers for people to use. It was a MASSIVE space with hundreds of computers and a large UFO (I think) in the middle with lots of fancy lighting. It was immediately full upon opening and the guy was planning to open another one.
I mentioned to my ladyfriend that I’d heard more about companies offering business space to start-ups to come work and plan their new businesses on common desks and tables and furniture.
Perhaps this is not sustainable yet, but the idea now has some currency for a business in the US: a large common space that offers coffee, some snacks, some internet terminals, but mainly a wireless, open, group-focused office area that lets groups come together to play MMORPGs or come up with business strategies or just collaborate. I think people would be willing to pay for this now.
I also think that the business should encourage the place to be used as a meeting spot. In Howard Rheingold’s “Smart Mobs”, he talks about certain locations around cities that people tend to gather at to meet up and synchronize and then move on. So small clusters of people form at, say, Dupont Circle in DC, and then quickly move out, disappearing again. These places are like clocks where people get on the same time and then disperse. An internet commons could be this place. Perks inside the space would encourage this behavior. It would have to be centrally located and serve multiple functions, which essentially means the place would be expensive to maintain. It might even need municipal subsidizing.
But it’d be hugely important — like squares or parks or circles, but wired for the internet lifestyle.