Alternate text for image
 Photo Credit: Heather McGrath

The origin story of Apple begins in a garage. In this narrative, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak toiled away in a place reserved for machines at rest, in disuse, to cobble together their grand idea. But before the garage, there was the Homebrew Computer Club, where, according to Wozniak, equally crucial work happened. “Without computer clubs,” he writes in Digital Deli, a history of early computing, “there would probably be no Apple computers.” At these gatherings, Jobs surrounded himself with engineers, hobbyists, pranksters and passionate misfits who met to trade electronic components and knowledge. While these educational/social functions took place at different venues, they always involved solving technical or sourcing problems for individual projects, including the fateful one in the garage.

Those legendary computer clubbers would feel right at home at the Artisan’s Asylum near Union Square, a 31,000-square-foot space cavernous enough to house a woodshop, welding area, computer lab and more than one hundred studios. Members zip by on skateboards and scooters. A pterodactyl sculpture from a workshop producing dinosaur models soars mid-flight over a neighboring team. Sounds from whirring machines carry from the machine shop, where a handful of aspiring carpenters are bent over planks. Being able to see people engrossed in their work, hear the buzz of construction and banter at semi-regular potlucks keeps the Artisans’ community motivated.

The value of community and serendipity is what’s driving the wild-fire emergence of hybrid workspaces in Boston, Cambridge and Somerville. In places like Artisan’s Asylum, experimentation and entrepreneurship intersect, engineers work next to artists and their collaborations fuel creativity.

“Each of the coworking spaces has its own flavor,” says Mimi Graney, executive director at Union Square Main Streets, an organization that promotes Somerville businesses and organizes events. “Some have continued to stay very tech-oriented.” Like Kendall Square’s Dogpatch Labs, for example, which is backed by a venture capital group hoping to foster the next Facebook. In exchange for first pickings of promising IPOs, Polaris Venture Partners gives startups necessities like desks, conference rooms, bandwidth and a street address, as well as amenities like free coffee, pizza, snacks and an open, relaxed work environment. Dogpatch knows its audience when it advertises itself as “sorta like frat houses for geeks.”

According to Graney, the first local wave of coworking spaces crested in the 2000s, starting in Cambridge. “Young guys would take over an apartment and make it into offices,” she says. “The standard thing would be pizza every Friday, beer on tap, loud parties, a lot of guys in their 20s and very tech-oriented.” These impromptu frat-houses became more professional as the downturn in the economy opened up new real estate for them to rent. Often a tech upstart would sublet from a bigger business that was downsizing, then take over the whole floor when the larger business capsized.

Entrepreneurs who aren’t lucky enough to catch the eye of a venture capital firm on their own can compete for MassChallenge’s annual one-million-dollar prize. The money is just a nominal motivator; the real rewards are the networking opportunities and office resources allocated to some 125 startups selected to share a 27,000-square-foot floor, donated by developer Joe Fallon, in a Fan Pier high-rise. Started in 2010 by business school graduates John Harthorne and Akhil Nigam, MassChallenge’s hodgepodge of startups gets mentors from partner organizations and rare access to top investors. The office is a beehive of activity, where finalists work alongside peers with projects in a range of high-growth industries. They have use of legal advice, office cubes and a whiteboard so massive it’s being certified by Guinness World Records. Collaborations range from a biotech developing treatments for blindness to a company that delivers artisanal wines to customers’ homes. And for motivation, the entrepreneurs just need to look out their floor-to-ceiling windows on the waterfront to imagine themselves as masters of the universe.

Academia, too, is seeing a new generation of workspaces, like the Harvard i-lab (Hi for short) in the Allston building that was formerly home to WGBH. Director Gordon Jones describes the i-lab, which opened last November, as a startup, an experiment in bringing together students and resources from schools across the university. Harvard students have access to the center’s classes and its experts, but retain rights to their own intellectual property. The center also hosts workshops like “Startup Secrets: Company Formation,” taught by venture capitalist Michael Skok, with some of the seats reserved for the public. A circular open-floor plan, exposed ceiling and IdeaPainted surfaces sprinkled with inspirational quotes evoke the dorm rooms and hacker spaces that might lure the next Mark Zuckerberg, and maybe even keep him from dropping out this time. 

“Part of what this is about,” Jones says, “even in the building design, is high modularity. It’s intentionally unfinished. This is about all of us building this place together.” Instead of an office, Jones sits in an approachable, small cubicle. The intermixing of people who wouldn’t have met in a traditional classroom pays off. For example, a biology graduate’s thoughts on natural selection influenced a business school student’s theories on company performance.

If the i-lab is equivalent to a giant dorm room, then the MIT Media Lab is a futuristic city of interlocking glass-cubed labs and offices. This high-tech incubator produces working models of ideas that might’ve been hallucinated by Philip K. Dick: clothes with electronics woven into the fabric, or an electric car that folds to a third of the size of a sedan and stacks into other cars like a shopping cart (the car will be manufactured by a Spanish firm in late 2013 or early 2014). Andrew Lippman, associate director of MIT Media Lab, credits these kinds of ideas to the atmosphere and design of the Media Lab itself. “It’s very much like the internet,” he says of the importance of giving free rein to designers, artists and scientists. “One of the reasons [the Web] worked out like it did was because it was designed with no grown-up supervision. There were no economics associated with it; it could be done as well as the people who were doing it wanted it to be.”

The Media Lab’s roots date back to the late ’60s, when computing was poised to directly impact people’s daily lives. Recalls Lippman, “There was a lot of personal cooperation in those days. The areas which we, the people who started the Media Lab, were concerned with were considered loosey-goosey concepts that didn’t have a legitimate scientific [name] yet, because they were just not mature. Like a human interface, computer graphics and speech.”

Renovated last year by Tokyo-based Maki and Associates, an addition brought the total space to 163,000 square feet housed in an aluminum and glass facade. Standing in the upper atrium, where a high-traffic ping-pong table sits next to a comfortable couch, Lippman and his colleagues can easily see into each other’s workspaces. “Most of what we do is right there,” he says, sweeping his eyes over the light-filled hub of interlocking laboratories and offices. “The hope and dream is to encourage people to engage themselves in what everybody else is doing. You want to open it to all your friends and colleagues.”

Whereas Cambridge’s coworking spaces, both academic and industry, tend to be tech-oriented, Somerville’s workspaces are more community-driven. “It’s not about making millions of dollars,” Graney says. She started the Design Annex, a 1,400-foot center housed in Union Square’s former police station, so that designers of all stripes, who would normally work out of their home, would have 24/7 access to a place free from domestic interruptions. Since the Annex is part of a global network, members, for the price of a monthly gym membership, can use workspaces or conference rooms to conduct meetings anywhere in the world.

While Annexers tend to be designers already established in their careers, another building houses a panoply of fledgling businesses. Located in a 4,400-square-foot warehouse set back from the street, Fringe comprises 20 people and 16 companies—ranging from cult brewery Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project to a roof-garden business, Recover Green Roofs. There are coworking days when Fringe opens its brightly colored conference room to people looking for a place to work, and even provides them with free coffee. Businesses pay for space per square foot, and they can partition and decorate their offices to any taste. Custom-bike builders have a utilitarian shop next to a space shared by a video producer and studio photographer, which is overseen by a salvaged piece of Shepard Fairey street art depicting Andre the Giant. Every business is deliberately different, as meticulously curated as if it were part of an art exhibition.

The lack of overlapping competition at Fringe means that skills and services are routinely shared. Mechanical and electrical engineer Aaron Panone, who works independently and at Tangible Design, credits his Fringe colleagues for bringing to market his and Joshua Resnikoff’s Cuppow. It’s a drinking lid that turns canning jars into portable cups. “Since we’re not walled off from each other,” Panone explains, “it’s easier to source other people’s skills.” His neighbor, Natalya Zahn, an illustrator, designed Cuppow’s packaging, and Fringe operation Repeat Press printed it. The small run of Cuppows they distributed sold out in two days. “The more that this space grows and matures, the more obvious the advantages of working here,” Panone says. “Being in this space is one of the best things that ever happened to not only my process, but also my career.”

The exact dimensions of that career are as open-ended as Fringe’s physical space itself. “We’re finding our bread and butter: what we’re happiest doing and what pays the bills best. But since we’re able to do so many different things on different projects, we’re able to naturally find what that is. It’s like we’re all in school right now; a lot of these projects are equivalent to a master’s thesis. It’s for fun.”

Back at the Artisan’s Asylum, workers heft welding equipment, run lathes and screenprinters, and tinker in the computer lab. Students swing by for classes on costume building or bookbinding, or how to eat fire. With 40 studios recently added, 120 members, from engineers to woodworkers, share eye-level cubicles. “It was important to us to not have rabbit warrens of studios,” says Molly Rubenstein, director of operations. “We’re trying to take out all the stops between having a creative idea and executing it. And one of the things that gets in the way is simply not having the ongoing motivation. Having the attention of a community, someone who notices when progress isn’t made on a project, or alternatively, seeing inspiration. All of these things are crucial to the energy of the Asylum.”

In such a stimulating environment, it’s almost impossible not to feel inspired, claims Brandon Stafford. Stafford uses his Asylum studio to manufacture the Rascal, an open-source computer that people can customize to control things remotely, like their thermostat, through the Web. He was chatting with fellow member Dan Sternof Beyer, who was working on interactive art for the Greenway, when they realized how complementary their interests were. So they decided to collaborate on a piece which would allow visitors to change the light pattern of a large installation with their smartphones. Says Stafford bemusedly, “It’s almost creepy the way collaboration happens here.”