Here are five lessons on the future of co-living

A co-living building, The Collective Old Oak, in north west London. Image: Getty.

In a new report from the Royal Society of the Arts, we asked a range of thinkers and practitioners to explore the concept of co-living – a form of housing that combines private living space with shared communal facilities. Unlike flatshares and the like, co-living is explicitly designed to encourage communal interaction and build community. Although it accounts for a very small proportion of the overall housing stock, it is growing.

In this article, RSA researcher Atif Shafique summarises the findings of that report.

Sometimes described as the hipster’s answer to the commune, co-living may actually represent more than just a trendy throwback to the utopian communities of the past. Its growing appeal is in fact linked to very modern challenges, that some claim it can meet better than more ‘mainstream’ (and less affordable) forms of housing. Issues ranging from rising loneliness and ageing to changing patterns of work, consumption and living are compelling us to think differently about the sorts of homes we need or desire.

Some of this is forced upon us because of the crisis of affordability in cities such as London. But it’s also driven by a desire to get something different out of a housing system that tends to provide little in the way of affordability, quality and choice. Younger generations are bearing the brunt of this, especially as housing tenure shifts dramatically from owner occupation to private renting (60 per cent of Londoners are predicted to be renting by 2025) – a tenure which generally is less secure and of lower quality.

Squeezed out of fast-shrinking social housing and unable to get onto the housing ladder until they’re middle-aged, millennials understandably feel they have few options available to them. Only 17 per cent consider social housing an option, while only 23 per cent have looked at shared ownership schemes. Meanwhile, demand for flatsharing is ballooning, especially in London. (As a side note, use this brilliant interactive heatmap by splittable.co to see how much of London is affordable for living on your own versus sharing. Spoiler: if you’re on a modest income, not very much of it.)

Oh dear. Click to expand. Image: Splittable.

Can co-living provide a higher quality alternative? One that provides flexibility and security, but also builds social capital amid rising loneliness and growing turbulence in the economy and labour market? Can it become a key option in efforts to meet the housing challenge?

The collection of essays provide a range of perspectives on these questions. Below I provide five key take-always from the publication.

1. A lack of housing supply isn’t the only issue we face

So much of the housing debate is narrowly focused on finding ways to build more homes. As important as this is, we also need to think hard about challenges relating to housing quality, security, choice, space standards and design. The types of homes we build matter.

In his essay, Rohan Silva, a former adviser to David Cameron, argues that our housing system is too slow to respond to the twin forces of globalisation and technological change that are transforming our lives. With more innovation in our approach to planning and the built environment, new models of housing (including co-living) could flourish and better meet our needs and ambitions.

2. Community isn’t a commodity that can be manufactured

The unique selling point of co-living is that it can foster a lasting sense of community among diverse residents. But as co-living developers are discovering, this isn’t easy – and especially not ‘at scale’ in a commercial setting, without a ready-made community' of driven and likeminded individuals.

Jess Steele’s essay points to possible solutions using the Heart of Hastings (HoH) Community Land Trust project as an example. Using a combination of methods drawn from social enterprise, neighbourhood development and community-led housing, HoH shows how diverse communities can be brought together with initiatives that build their sense of ownership and capacity to make decisions, promote self-help and encourage community enterprise.

Traditionally, co-living has been criticised for creating gated communities. But HoH shows that communities of place, and not just communities of (homogeneous) residents, can be built with the right approach.


3. Communal living isn’t alien to Britain

We tend to think of Britons as having an innate, unshakeable preference for privacy and private consumption. This is perhaps why co-living is sometimes written off as small-fry housing that won’t ever have ‘mainstream’ appeal, even though similar models are prevalent in other parts of Europe)

Nicholas Boys Smith traces the history of communal living and its policy context, and finds that this description lacks nuance. People value communality deeply, but also like to be able to retreat into the private.

It is this balance between privacy and social interaction that co-living tries to get right. The growth of the sharing economy and the rise of co-working, impact hubs and other forms of collaboration suggests there is an appetite for greater sharing and social engagement – and some would say co-living is part of this trend. As society ages, the need to live together differently (and more communally) will only grow.

4. Design can help us to re-imagine housing

The housing crisis is usually presented as a political or policy problem, rooted in dysfunctional decision-making structures. However, Manisha Patel argues that it is just as much a design challenge. If we are to tackle climate change and improve the quality of social connections in society, we may need to transform how we live and how we design our homes and our neighbourhoods.

The Low Impact Living Affordable Community (LILAC) in Leeds illustrates this with its community of eco-friendly homes. Manisha examines how design principles can be at the heart of co-living, and co-housing schemes in particular. She identifies how architecture can promote “social contact,” how new forms of design can enable intergenerational living among extended families (for example, the multi-generation house), and how processes such as modularisation can achieve energy efficiency at scale. 

5. Homes have become speculative assets, but we can redefine our relationship to them

Speculation is rife in the housing system. It isn’t just investors, banks and oligarchs that are involved: many of us engage in it. When people buy homes with the expectation that they will rise in value, that’s speculation.

Government has supported it too, because house price growth contributes to consumer spending and broadening home ownership enables wealth accumulation, premised on the cash (and borrowed cash) to be paid by future buyers. Despite the sheer amount of money that government has invested to get people on the housing ladder, the dominant home ownership model is clearly cracking and the dangers of housing speculation (not least recession and economic instability) are becoming increasingly clear. The financial crisis of 2007-8 was triggered in US housing markets, and the home ownership rate in the UK has fallen for at least the last decade. 

It doesn’t have to be like this. Jonathan Schifferes and I argue that it is possible to support a shift away from seeing homes as speculative assets to seeing them as sources of collective and community wealth.

Notions of wealth and equity in our housing system are understood far too narrowly: they tend to mean individual ownership of a financial asset, the value of which is determined by the market. It is possible to broaden this understanding to encompass the benefits of  having a stake (financial, social, personal) in the success of  the community in which one lives and contributes to. Co-living and more co-operative approaches to housing can support this: experience across Europe suggests that such models can become major parts of a mixed economy of housing.

Co-living isn’t a magic bullet solution for resolving the housing crisis; nor is it an approach without significant challenges itself. The essays pick up on the problems that co-living models often face, in particular their lack of diversity and occasional tendency to produce exclusive communities. In the for-profit private rental sector there is the added danger that they commodify community.

But as Matthew Taylor notes in his introduction to the essays, if it can overcome its challenges, at its root co-living offers new choices for those who see communality as part of how they want to live, work and thrive.

Atif Shafique is a senior researcher on inclusive growth at the Royal Society of Arts. He tweets at @atif_shafique. You can read the RSA’s co-living report here

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.