There is something disturbing in the trending term “Curated communities”. In the new wave of “co-businesses” (co-living, co-working, etc.), this term means “a community of like-minded people”, carefully selected to fit the company’s vision and the customer’s needs.
It symbolizes quite well the dissonance standing in the base of this rapidly growing industry which market itself through buzz words like community and diversity.
Curated community is actually effortless and organic while reaching real diversity is hard work.
Richard Florida identified this urban phenomenon “the rise of the creative class” already in 2002. The creative class are entrepreneurs, artists, professors, developers and other creatives, who cluster geographically in key cities, to share ideas, find opportunities or hunt for marriage material.
Those clusters cluster even more in today’s co-living and co-working spaces. They draw knowledge, talent, business connections (and ego) to form a tight community of like-minded / like-status people. Elite.
The ‘magic’ created in these human laboratories stay inside this ‘bubble’ and shared less with the outside world (which might benefit from it). Simultaneously, these bubbles miss some “reality feedback” from those who think differently or live differently and thus perpetuate the already increasing inequality and division of our age.
This phenomenon is very much in line with our human nature to maximize the conditions to accumulate wealth and power, but some business, even in the ultra capitalist co-living industry, manage to put the values of equality and inclusion in the base of their pyramid.
Coconat, a workation retreat in the German countryside, is one of those wonders.
“Our main goal is to have a positive impact on people’s lives, both our guests and those who live in the area.” Says Julianne Becker, co-founder of Coconat. Like most of the team, Julianne is a former resident of Berlin and today a happy rural dweller.
“We came up with the idea six years ago, to address the needs of many Berliners to move to the countryside or at least, if they are bound to their city jobs, spend more time out in a quieter natural environment where they can feel more relaxed and productive. The relative silence here, the fields and the forest, allow them to come and work in a different pace.”
Coconat is located on the outskirts of a small village, 100 kilometers south-west of Berlin city center. What used to be an abandoned rural hotel, have been renovated by a dedicated team, and is now a new species in the hospitality business. A hybrid between a co-living and co-working space.
The space has a few different types of bedrooms, meeting rooms, seminar rooms, a yoga studio, a restaurant, and a small cafe. Its backyard, which stretches up until a small forest, includes a natural pool, tipi tents, a fireplace and even a big pebbled square used for regional events. A local entrepreneur is about to open a small cafe and a shop for locals and visitors in what used to be an old barn, and more empty buildings around the square are waiting to be transformed.
The space is not just a business, it is also provides a public space, a third space, a place where everyone is welcome, not just in festivals and special events.
“When the municipality put it out for sale they required the potential buyers to build a hospitality business that will stay somehow open for the public. That’s why the price tag stayed quite low. Almost the price of a Berlin apt.” says Julianne.
With good internet connection (a rare gig in Germany) and excellent public transport services, the property was an opportunity not to be missed.
But the reason to build Coconat was much more profound. Germany, as other countries in Europe, deal with an increasing economic and political divide. The last European elections saw a rise in the power of radical and populist parties, and inequality is on the rise.
These disturbing trends translate to an urban-rural divide, leaving most of the rural areas to lag behind the cities in job opportunities, technological developments and eventually in progressive inclusive thinking.
Coconat was set to make a difference and to try and bridge those gaps.
“If you look at the map of the last voting, the rural areas of former East Germany showed an increase in the power of the radical right parties. In the regions east from Berlin they even got the majority vote. This is something that we hoped to change with Coconat when we came here two years ago.”
How can a business like a workation retreat attempt to make such an impact?
“Coconat, in collaboration with local organisations, take part in few programs aiming to support better living conditions in the countryside. One of the main examples is “smart village”, a project developed by the regional government to bring new technologies and new opportunities to rural areas.
We provide more than just services for digital nomads and consider ourselves a social business which work with other small businesses, local government and individuals to develop the area, bring more life into it and fight conservatism.”
The locals don’t always accept change with open arms, and treat even this initiative with some suspicion.
“The newcomers, those who moved here since the unification in the early 90’s, are those that are easy for us to bring here to participate.” Say Julianne. “They are relatively open minded, appreciate a little bit more action around and understand better what we’re trying to achieve here. Regarding everyone else: the elderly, conservatives, immigrants and refugees, it’s a more difficult nut to crack. But we never thought it would be easy so it doesn’t let us down. We have to look at this project in a broader perspective and give it time. Step by step.”
You present Coconat as an inclusive space. Beside the access locals have to the property, what makes it inclusive as a co-working/co-living community?
“Me and my co-founders never believed in being exclusive in any way. I can tell you an anecdote, in the process of establishing this project we visited a lot of other similar projects in rural areas. We noticed that many people who started such projects, usually with the desire to live and work together, ended up erecting walls around themselves to create a bubble.
We are very conscious about this tendency, and we do whatever we can to avoid separating ourselves from our environment. Everyone is welcome, even if you had less opportunities in your life and you don’t necessarily fit into the type of crowd that come to work at our place.”
Janosch Dietrich and Julianne Becker, co-founders of Coconat, receive the award “Demographics Example of the Month” by the State of Brandenburg
One way to access the programs and facilities without financial resources is to volunteer as a community manager. Work exchange is a popular concept in many rural projects but a community manager is a broad and sometimes vague term that doesn’t seem to fit a place where the average stay is 1–2 weeks.
“Yes, we do have a fast turnover so there is a lot of work in on-boarding and preparing the house for new guests. Despite the temporarity in it, this is still a community and we expect our guests to eat together and be an integral part of the house. Catalysing such integration is what we expect our volunteers to do.
There are also exceptions, like in the case of Muhammad. Muhammad came from Egypt as a refugee and is now learning German in a near bye university. He cannot work in community management due to communication issues so he is helping with more handy work of fixing and gardening. Everyone is welcome to help and we can find something that works for everybody.’’
Does it make sense to make an effort to invest in a “community” with such short stay?
“The base is short stay but there is a possibility to stay as long as you want. Gradually we see people who choose to come for longer periods and perhaps even stay and live here. One member has been here for 6 months now and decided recently she wants to stay and live here and take an active role in helping others to stay here longer. The attic is now being renovated to host those who seek to stay as co-livers and other developments are on their way.”
“This project is growing and we believe the community will grow with it.”
The garden area include a big pool surrounded by hummocks and docks for sunbathing. According to the local legend, since the property stood unused for many years, the villagers came to this pool with their fish pets when they wanted to get rid of them. And indeed, between the water lilies, hundreds of gold fishes are swimming peacefully. The water is clean and despite their greenish shade, many guests and random hikers have been using this pool for swimming. Julianne have not been convinced yet to dip in. “It’s perhaps too natural” she laughs.
As we walk around the house I notice many small patches of herbs and flowers.
Are you planning to embrace the agricultural nature of the land and install a veggie garden?
“No…” Julianne chuckles, “This is our third summer here. In the last two summers we had few different groups coming with some ideas on how to develop the garden. They all started working on something but had to leave before finishing it, or without setting a system to maintain it. Permaculture course, creativity and drive is not enough to grow a garden. Being a farmer is a pretty difficult job and requires a long term commitment.”
In our time and age, commitment is a real challenge. Those who visit Coconat, will take some rest from the fast pace of the city, get inspired and perhaps contribute with a small creation. But very few will commit to this forgotten piece of land like Julianne and her team did.
Coconat long term objectives will manifest only with the help of more wonderful committed people, locals or visitors, that together will take the next steps. If it works, it might be the early bird of the next sub-urban revolution. If you ask veteran Berliners who lived through the rapid change their city went through, these days might be much closer than we think.
Commitment, solidarity and purpose create communities, and communities, have more power to make big dreams come true. Adding diversity and inclusion to this solid foundation of values will make sure that one’s dream will not turn into somebody else’s nightmare.
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