Theseus’ Ship and the global coworking movement

Having had 1000s of discussions with newcomers, rising stars, the old guard and observers of the global coworking movement; I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the different reactions to changes within and around the movement with the age-old debates around Theseus’ Ship.

Whilst trying not to dive too far into the philosophical abyss, I’ll quickly introduce the concept, draw some quick parallels to how the coworking movement is evolving and then leave it up to you to decide (and hopefully share) what you believe is happening and what’s next.

Quick overview of Theseus’ Ship

I realise that not everyone was brought up hearing about Greek mythology non-stop, so let me quickly introduce you to Theseus’ Ship; which is based on a ship that was sailed by a mythological hero and became the basis for many many philosophical debates, discussed in western philosophy since as far back as ca. 500-400 BC.

The short backstory is this: a famous and culturally significant ship was maintained at a port as a museum piece for a very long time, where rotting wooden planks were replaced with new pieces as they were needed.

Theseus' Ship Illustrative Animation
Theseus’ Ship Illustrative Animation

The debate is whether at some point, the ship ever stops being Theseus’ Ship, as it would be made up of more new wood than pieces of wood from its original build. The counter argument is that the ship itself has its own ‘being’, and will still be Theseus’ Ship regardless of the pieces that change within it. This is likened to how a human being doesn’t become ‘something else’ as their body grows.

It has also been argued that the Ship is actually a process, and its constant changing state is what makes it unique and thus always is Theseus’ Ship throughout the ages.

And there’s hundreds more arguments around this debate, but let’s circle back to how it relates to coworking and the global movement. If you’d love a longer listen about Theseus’ Ship here’s a good podcast for you.

The Parallel With Coworking

Over 14 years ago the first coworking spaces launched, focussing (in varying ratios) on combining and building communities and shared workspaces.

With its increasing popularity – due to things like the collapse of some European banking systems, a global recession, the shift to more self employment, remote working being enabled by technology and changes to some accounting rules regarding lease liabilities (to name a few) – the coworking movement has grown rapidly since then.

Now 20,000+ physical locations around the world have ‘some kind’ of coworking offering.

And as you guessed, that’s where we can start exploring the the philosophical parallels with the Theseus’ Ship thought experiment.

We’ve seen, and are seeing, new ‘pieces’ being introduced into the sector to try and enhance, improve or maintain the concept of coworking.

These new pieces take many forms, from new technology designed to improve efficiencies; to new thought leaders who for example collect and index the whole sectors research; to new events and mediums of cooperation. There are also drastic changes with regards to business models, contract structures, venture funding and lease partnerships since 2005.

It’s obviously worth noting that not all new pieces will eventually fit, contribute, be embraced or even accepted by the movement. Just like when maintaining a ship I’d guess, I’m not nearly experienced enough in woodworking to know for sure.

As coworking is adopted by, and adapted for, 100s of new local economies every month; we don’t see the addition of new pieces slowing down.

Understandably many of the pioneers of the industry have felt that the today’s movement bears little (if any) resemblance to what was started way back when.

Others see coworking as a process, one that absorbs these new pieces as it maintains its course to being a movement that empowers humans through both community and shared workspaces.

Turning back to the Ship reference one last time, regardless of whether you believe it was the exact same ship or not, it was still a ship that could do its core task of carrying humans above water, whilst also carrying with it its story and cultural significance.

The question on sailing on.

So, maybe the question really isn’t really about whether coworking is still coworking, but how those who actively participate in the movement will collectively steer its momentum moving forward.

What do you think? Is it still the same movement? Have we become something new, different, better or worse? Does it matter!? Let me know in the comments below, in a tweet or via email.

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Hey, I'm Hector 👋

I lead strategic initiatives for people, brands, and projects at the intersection of tech & work

I’m part web dev, part guerrilla marketer, and all geek.

I love working on interesting ways to build campaigns, implement tech, elevate voices, and drive revenues for market-defining personalities, brands, and platforms.

In 1999, I hit upload on my first “website”, and 12-year-old me was immediately hooked on the ways the internet would become a force multiplier for people, brands, and ideas.

Since then I’ve worked on over 850 strategic initiatives across media, advertising, non-profits, proptech, e-commerce, marketplaces, productized services, and more.

I’m currently a co-founder of and curate the This Week In Coworking newsletter.

Previously I founded and led the growth of the global perks network to 700+ communities, supporting over 133,000 members and businesses.

In my blog and on stage I share thoughts, observations, and undercurrent trends at the intersection of workspaces and technology.

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6 Responses

  1. Great points, Hector. Since joining the movement I have envisioned coworking as a powerful tool for change and for doing good. I embrace the new waves, just like I embrace Coworking Day, even with it’s America-first roots. The first coworking spaces didn’t start in San Francisco in 2005, they actually started in Toronto in 2004. But the narrative of Brad Neuberg inventing coworking in SF has stuck, even as our awareness of each other and connections with each other have evolved over the years and we’ve learned that coworking has been happening longer. As long as the goal is human connection and empowerment of communities the form is not the main concern.

    1. That’s actually really interesting about the 2004 start, got any links I could look at and try point folks to at the next International Coworking Day?

      > “As long as the goal is human connection and empowerment of communities the form is not the main concern.”


  2. My thoughts as well, Hector!
    For me coworking is a process of change that (fortunately) doesn’t stop and then crusts like the structures that hinder/impossible innovation in other contexts.
    When I think about how much change I have experienced in people (and their organizations), when they come into contact with the coworking scene, it is sensationally more than in my professional decades before. In 2020 I celebrate 30 years working (+ years as a working student), of which 10 years and a few months in the coworking environment.
    Regards from Spain,

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