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The Spaces We Work In: The Rust Belt’s New Hangouts

   /   Sep 29th, 2013Design, Midwest, National, Opinion


The spaces we work in.

In Omaha, a warehouse for fruit and veg is now a creative hub.   A former storage unit for Nebraska’s famous crops has transformed into the city’s epicenter for arts, tech, and collaboration.  Housed in a turn-of-the-century building, KANEKO, named after a celebrated ceramic artist, has become a playground for innovation and creativity.

Yes, in Omaha – a town known for big money and big ag.

As you enter, a modern library, sleek in design but equipped with the classics, greets you.  Then you wander through the stark white space- a blank canvas for the venue’s many art exhibits, musical events, and cultural evenings.

KANEKO’s tag line is “open space for open mind.”   Your mind needs to breathe.  And this is the space to let it breathe freely.

Given its modern feel, sharp corners, and bright splashes of color, KANEKO stands out in historic Omaha, surrounded by red-brick buildings and old world charm.  It’s indicative of a trend that even historic quarters of the US are forward-thinking and keen to explore new territories.

While co-working spaces are a dime a dozen in San Francisco, occupied by yuppie technologists, coding and typing furiously, they’re less of a commodity in places that were defined by manufacturing and manual labor.  Omaha’s KANEKO hosts the Silicon Prairie News conference every year. Silicon Prairie News (a play on words for Silicon Valley) catalogs the rise of tech-driven entrepreneurship in the Midwest: a nod to the spike in capital for entrepreneurship in the region.

But the KANEKO organizers will tell you that they don’t want to lose “soul” for numbers.  They want to harbor the intimacy of the environment, stay closer to the roots of Big Omaha, than turn into a 10,000 person conference for tech.

Of the many co-working spaces we visited on our cross country train trip, aboard the Millennial Train, KANEKO stood out: for its story, for its roots, and for its aspirations.  A fine balance of America’s past and her future.

KANEKO, however, is part of a movement in the Midwest to revive entrepreneurship – be it through the arts, technology or manufacturing.  Chicago, the hub of the Midwest, and the largest of its cities, is cultivating its own tech community. 1871 is the center point.  A 50,000 square-foot co-working space, 1871 is much more reminiscent of the tech hubs in Silicon Valley and San Francisco.  Home to designers, engineers, and entrepreneurs, it’s a mecca for the growing tech community in Chicago.

Here you don’t get just a table, a plug point, and a white wall to “think.”  1871 brings in mentors, facilitates events, holds workshops. It’s not just a place to come work.  Dean DiBiase, one of the co-founders of the space and a tech veteran, says that 1871 is just the beginning of a tech-based tide in Chicago – an ecosystem in the making.

And that’s evident when you walk into the space.   Dozens, if not hundreds of people occupy the crooks and crannies of the space, hidden in sound-proof rooms, chatting over meals, and collaborating.  It’s a “madhouse,” as one of the participants joked.   In reality, though, it’s the new face of a city defined by history and manufacturing.

Likewise, Pittsburgh, known for its steel plants, has “TechShop”- another co-working space that’s more than just a collection of table and chairs.  Instead of laptops, here entrepreneurs bring their working gloves and tool box.  At TechShop, a work tables comes with 115-volt outlets and compressed air.  Here entrepreneurs come to do wood working, welding, and automative or electronic projects.

Given that this equipment can be expensive to buy, a monthly (or yearly) memberships makes it affordable for folks to come in, use as needed, and pay a fraction of the cost.  Businesses that require construction of hardware, not a tech-based service or product, are capital intensive.  TechShop breaks down the cost.

It’s ideal for Pittsburgh – not too far from its roots, and yet a modern approach to co-working.

These co-working spaces have a story to tell.  They’re more than just offices on a budget.  They’re inspired, unique to their hometowns, and part of a growing movement to collaborate, abandoning the cubicle for co-creation.

This originally appeared in the Ventura County Star.  

Photo Courtesy of Esha Chhabra.

5 Responses

  1. Steve says:

    Surprised you didn’t mention Bench (, a metal- and woodworking coworking space in Omaha in the same vein as TechShop. This article makes me jealous I don’t live in that area (full disclosure: I live in DC and have no affiliation with Bench, so this isn’t some disguised PR ploy or anything, honest!).

    • EshaC says:

      Steve, thanks for reading – and making me aware of Bench. Certainly, along the lines of TechShop. Appreciate it!

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