Building Community

Gareth I. Jones
6 min readApr 28, 2023

If we were all a little better connected, we would be richer for it.

If we were all a little better connected, we would be richer for it.

What I care about with my work at TownSq is not buildings, interior design or fancy furniture. It’s the people inside.

I think this is why I’m a bit more relaxed about my career path and less focused on achieving an exit anytime soon (apologies again to those who thought this post was me forewarning of an imminent departure!)

A lot of entrepreneurs talk about doing what they care about when they sell up, make their money and buy their freedom.

I’m more inclined to recommend focussing on building a now that you enjoy and a business that can help you to be immersed in something you really care about.

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Giving It a Label

There’s a real problem in being in an “industry” like coworking.

Coworking isn’t a good label, and it doesn’t come close to describing what we’re hoping to build. But it’s the best we have for now.

In the book Billy No-Mates, Max Dickins talks about the platform Rent a Friend, a website where you can literally rent a “friend” for an afternoon or occasion. In an interview with its founder, Scott Rosenbaum, they talk about how although it is called Rent a Friend, it isn’t really a friend you’re renting, it’s just that friend is the closest term that they use to help understand the concept.

Coworking is a bit like that. It might help people understand, but it doesn’t even start to tell the whole story.

I wrote more about this in the post on Wework’s impact on our world.

We need these terms to help people quickly understand, but we might equally lose the meaning and value in the rush to make a good first impression.

What we’re trying to build is a TownSq, a modern town square.

These convening places where we start to rebuild the fabric of society that isn’t given much thread right now — community.

One day, this might have its own name. It might be known as a town square, or it might become something else.

The gathering place where you make authentic relationships and learn more about what really matters to us all as human beings.

Somewhere to learn about what this modern economy is all about, and how we find a valuable role to play in it.

Right now, this is through entrepreneurship and business, and for some this might not be starting up themselves but finding a fulfilling career or vocation.

The people we spend time with alter the way we see the world, how hopeful we are, and can create or close off opportunities.

Social Physics

There are two great examples of this in Social Physics by Alex Pentland. The first is the story of the Bell Stars study.

Bell Labs hired the best of the best but found that only a small group were fulfilling their potential.

The Bell Stars study in 1985 tried to work out why this was the case.

What they found was simple: those who did fulfil their potential were better connected to diverse networks. They weren’t limited to the narrow field they were already in.

These relationships and networks created new pathways for future support, but also offered a more diverse perspective on problems which led to more creative solutions. It also helped to familiarise them with gatekeepers before they came knocking. The lower performers tended to have a narrower or singular viewpoint.

The second example was the return on investments eToro customers saw dependent on how many people they were connected to on their social media platform.

Those with the fewest connections saw returns of around 80% of the average, and those in echo chambers who followed blindly hovered at around 120%. Those in the middle had returns of from 120% up to 150%.

The flow of ideas can influence successful outcomes, but equally you can lose value by being too stuck in an echo chamber or by sticking to a narrow field of perspectives.

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Serendipity

My belief, and it has been validated over and over, is that this serendipitous environment is vital for helping people to find and participate in good work.

The connections that we have, the visibility by being present, and the perspectives and angles you can appreciate through exposure are like a passive knowledge income.

For freelancers and solo professionals this is especially important.

In the current technological and economic era, you don’t survive by being productive 100% of the time.

If you’re productive 100% of the time, you keep doing what you’ve always done.

You need to create space for growth, developing new skills or edges to what you do. You need the horizon scanning to see opportunities and threats. You need to sell, to find your future sources of demand and revenue. You need to find collaborators and partners to increase resource and capacity. You need to do admin, life admin, or just invoicing clients and keeping your CRM tidy.

How you use this % of unproductive time can have a big impact on what comes next for you.

We all learn in different ways, but nowadays you can’t stand still for a decade at a time. Even the pioneers need to keep abreast of the latest developments to stay ahead of the game. Part of that is the thrill, but it’s a different culture to that which previous generations might be familiar with, which is why it isn’t a good idea to ask your Nan for career advice.

Working Together For The Sake Of It

But this is not just a dry exercise in economic growth. The reason I don’t think this is just coworking is because we need more. We need more excuses to meet with people in our communities and learn more about people that we otherwise might never encounter.

Social media gives us a platform to connect and communicate, but it is a poor excuse for socialising.

Our society does not have those public convening spaces that we once did. We don’t have town halls that pull us together regularly.

The traditional social clubs, working men’s clubs, and political clubs don’t have the same role that they once had.

Our markets are no longer where we do the majority of our grocery shopping. We go to a big white box on the edge of town and don’t engage with any other people. You can do your whole shop without having to greet another person, which some people love but it isn’t conducive to a connected community.

You might not want to start going back into your local market or greengrocers, assuming you even still have that option, but just take a look at where you would meet people in your community.

My hope is that one day we understand this better, and we demand these common spaces in our communities. I believe we will, but I don’t think it will just happen on its own.

There are many systems that are broken which are responsible for this. There’s no recognition of how important it is to do something about these things, because we don’t know what we’re missing.

But we keep seeing reasons to build this norm. And the more we do the more we will fight to create spaces and reasons for people to bump into interesting people and understand the world that little bit better.

Whatever that new word is to describe what’s missing, it has to sum up all of these things, and we haven’t seen anything so disruptive in that way since the advent of the libraries. You might not imagine an institution like that proliferating in this era, but I really think it’s crucial.

Town Squares

If we can crack this idea, I think we will overcome a lot of our social ills. Environmentalism at a local level, loneliness in communities, economic exclusion and disparity, town centre rebirth and the sense of local pride it creates, and the virus that is conspiracy theories and general mistrust.

We have an opportunity to redefine community for future generations. It won’t happen on its own.

That’s why I do what I do.

Where do you see community at its strongest? Do you feel a sense of community in your life and place?

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*I don’t normally write so directly about my work, but a conversation with Karl from Revolancer really got me thinking about what matters. Forgive me!

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Gareth I. Jones

Founder of TownSq, focused on building communities of entrepreneurs, supporting startups and B Corps - businesses that are better for the planet.