“Create a vision, design a process around it, and then collect a team to execute it.“
Seeing Ed Thomas from The Collective talk about co-living at the Co-Liv summit in Paris last year was indeed inspiring. Ed has a true passion to make co-living the future of housing. But that bold statement, clear and sharp, made me move in my chair uncomfortably. That is not what I know about collectives…
Ed is the head of community experience in the world’s biggest co-living space as of today. The collective is 550 residents sharing a big modernist building in one of London’s old industrial areas that is transforming into a real estate gold mine.
After 3 years leading the new trend of co-living, it seems this experiment is a success. The company behind the project is expanding its reach to other locations in London and outside of England, and it doesn’t look like it is about to slow down.
The term ‘Collective’ is usually associated with a communist/marxist way of thought and describes a non-hierarchical collaborative effort, usually not based on profit, to reach a common goal. In the context of the housing sector, collectives are usually run by their own residents and everyone are involved in decision making.
The Collective in London is far from that reality. In its adaptation to our current market economic system, the communal effort has been replaced by services and the house to a real estate investment. Yet, it answers successfully on the market needs.
It presents a great solution to Y generation’s frantic lifestyle and their upsurge into world cities. It is described as the answer not only to those ‘expats’ material needs (housing, interior, bureaucracy, etc.) but also to their emotional struggles in finding a sense of belonging and friendships in the big city.
The Collective describes itself as “a way of living; focused on a genuine sense of community, using shared spaces and facilities to create a more convenient and fulfilling lifestyle. That — for those who are willing to invest in experiences versus material possessions.”
It is indeed a feasible solution to London’s acute housing shortage, reducing living spaces to 12 sqm per person, without decreasing residents’ happiness. But does it really deliver a sustainable way of living?
I set down with Ed to a fascinating conversation with some difficult questions and here are some of our insights:
The Collective as a co-living space takes the essence of the term ‘collective’ and turns it upside down. The community is curated and cared for rather than a collaborative effort. This approach is very much embodied in the design process you described in the presentation. What do you think will happen if we reverse this design thinking and allow the community to shape a vision and follow up on it?
“It depends on your business goals I guess and what kind of community experience you want to curate.” Ed answers, seeming to be missing my point.
“Some communities don’t require too much contribution and participation like WeLive and some ask for full engagement. We at The Collective are trying to be somewhere in the middle. We want to deliver a certain service, and if there is a high involvement of the community in that process we might not be able to deliver eventually, so we try to find the right balance.” Now it was my turn to be challenged.
“I lived in a community in San Francisco where residents had chores and duties and that was wonderful, but not always convenient. We try to give our clients that convenience where they can choose between engagement and buying a service.”
“Our genuine objective is to create authentic community but we also know that we have to fulfill other requirements that the community might not be able to do itself. In the scale of what we’re building, it takes a lot of effort to help in creating ‘self-serving community’. My vision is that our buildings will be run by themselves, this is where we want to get to, but at this stage we’re not there yet.”
You are dealing with the biggest co-living community. Did you ever encounter some sort of resistance to the curated experience you designed for the residents?
Ed took a pause to think; “Our proposition is quite bland. We never aimed to be a conscious intentional community, so people are not coming with that expectation. They come because they want to be a part of a bigger group of people, so the only expectation is for them to communicate with one another, nothing else.”
“The idea is to allow the community to develop organically from that point while guiding and facilitating them to achieve more out of the experience. We nudge members and try to get information from them on what works and what not and pick up on that. We say to them ‘this is what we think is important, this is what we observe, and we really want to help you at achieving that.’”
“The Collective is not an intentional community. Even though I love those communities which try to be as self sufficient as possible and get around certain values and goals, I don’t think it’s a sustainable way of living. What works for me for the long run is some of those elements combined with some services. This in turn, will make my experience more comfortable and allow me to focus on my own path.”
“We give our members the joy of communal living but we take away that additional pain in the ass…”
Without the intention there might not be much commitment.
The Collective deals with what most “curated communities” are dealing with and that is a high retention rate. The customers seeing co-living as a product, a stop on the way to something more stable and not necessary the end goal.
The location and urban features of the building communicate exactly that. The Collective infrastructure includes a massive building, which seems to have been landed like an alien in the midst of a low density industrial area in far West London. This resembles an airport hotel more than a vibrant urban community.
The Collective Old Oak in London
Ed agrees that the housing shortage in London is one of the main reasons that pushed them to invest in this relatively remote area. The location and size also allows them to charge competitive rent as compared to London’s standards with all the amenities that regular flatmates can just dream of in their central, yet decaying, apartment.
“Our next development in Canary Wharf is even bigger. We’re still exploring, trying to understand what will work better and what not. For me a lot of great things come at scale. One of them is an accessible price compared to London standards, another one is the diversity of people. In such a big community you’re more likely to find like minded people that share similar interests to you, no matter how niche they are. We invest in platforms for people to find each other according to interests and also in wonderful big events that bring people together. Imagine coming home from work and there’s a world class comedian performing in your living room and you can choose if you want to watch it or not. The more options we create, the more choices there are for users.”
This sounds wonderful but also can be quite overwhelming to some, don’t you think?
“Another advantage of scale is that in a house of 500 people you can also hide when you want. There is a certain degree of anonymity that allows you to be yourself and not engage when you don’t feel that calling. In smaller houses you are constantly seen and that can be indeed overwhelming for some.”
“We encourage people to connect yet we also make sure they have the choice to do so.“
“Surprisingly we discovered that people who have the tendency to become lonely are the people who made the most out of the experience we offer. You would expect extroverts to thrive right? But the introverts, in their own turn, break through much faster.”
The picture Ed draws is well refined and appealing. It resembles the urban pace of human interaction of our age. We agree that such living experience can be exactly what our cities and restless millennials need, but there is one element to it we didn’t touch yet.
Considering the hostile urbanity outside The Collective’s doorstep and lack of connection to the urban fabric and other communities, there is a risk that this experiment and other co-living spaces will become an urban bubble or a gated community.
What if The Collective is the perfect place to live in? What if all your needs are cared for within the building and you find the magic balance that fits your personality? Will you ever… leave the house?
Ed seemed a bit puzzled. But as a true community leader, he immediately came to his senses and focuses on the positive side.
“We have the chance to help people attune to better values and to themselves. living together means you’re exposed to different ideas and exporting those thoughts into impact driven actions. Those actions in return will affect the bigger society when our residents eventually do step outside the doors of the building.”
About The Author - Moving between continents, perspectives, and dimensions, Yoav Goldwein is a multidisciplinary Urbanist, community specialist, anthropologist, writer, impact-driven restless nomad, peacemaker and lover. In the last few years Yoav have been exploring communities with focus on the co-living industry and is here to share his key insights from interviews and connections around the world.
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