#3 Mastermind: The potential of self-sustaining communities

In a recent session of the Community Manager Mastermind Series, organized by Co-Liv and powered by Sowebuild, Jonathan Andersson, Coliving consultant, Head of Community at Proptech Sweden, community Developer at Tech Farm K9 and Nordic ambassador at Co-Liv shared his research and experience regarding self-organizing communities.

Laura Henke
Coliving Events Insights

Jonathan described that community had somehow always been part of his life in the sense of enjoying being engaged in all things extracurricular during college and that he had especially been intrigued by genuine connections between people. Soon he was introduced to the concept of coliving by a friend, which is why he found K9 and became passionate about it in an instant:

“I loved the concept of introducing personal development, community and living together and doing it as a business. It was all the three things I was looking for in my life at that point and it still is.” -Jonathan Andersson

Both living in and working for K9 has resulted in Jonathan being able to take a deeper look at the different types of approaches in organizing communities in coliving and why a self-organizing community can be a beautiful goal to work towards. It’s not only his practical experience that he shared with the 35 industry experts in the 3rd Mastermind session, but also the takeaways from his theoretical research on system models in coliving:

“K9 is a self-organized community and through my research about different types of community constellations, I see the immense value that it [self-organization] can have on a community and its inhabitants.” - Jonathan Anderson  

1. What is a self-organized community?

In order to explain the above term it is necessary to mention that Jonathan equates the chosen system model with the one of system model community, which is a word coined by community expert Gui Perdrix (Director Co-Liv and Founder Art of Co). In Jonathan’s research his term for self-organizing community matches with Gui’s system model community definition or an approach that is also described as design centric leadership.  

Self-organizing communities naturally have a tendency to go in and create a framework for higher social value, which is more or less further economic, social and environmental sustainability. Next to that for the theoretical definition it is handy to include the learnings from I/O Psychology, so industrial and organisational psychology in the workplace. Jonathan uses this as a framework to add theory to lean on for his design centric leadership approach, because there's lots of research done on that.

But why not stay with the classic top-down approach? What makes a self-organized community different from the facilitator-approach or the Do-it-yourself-approach? Jonathan explains that with K9 they went from a top-down approach to a more bottom-up approach or to what he calls design centric leadership, where you promote, incentivize and empower people to actually be more self organized in a way. This approach has proven itself especially in the software development world and within tech companies as successful, because they need a lot of creativity to grow and reinvent themselves regularly. So high social value and wellbeing are very important factors within the company culture. I/O Psychology and the design centric leadership has resulted in high wellbeing and overall satisfaction in a workplace compared to the past:

“The correlation between IO psychology and coliving gives us a sense of where we're going, because we see a lot of top-down approaches in coliving out there and we ask ourselves why isn't there more engagement in our communities? So if we look at the development of IO Psychology over the last 100 years we can probably see the development of coliving change in the near future.” - Jonathan Andersson

So according to research coliving experiences that are self-organized / self-sustainable produce higher social value as well as a higher well being of both residents and operators. They show higher engagement rates and responsibility for the places people live in. So, could creating self-organized / self-sustainable coliving communities mean creating a Coliving 3.0?  

What does self-organisation really mean?

“The term self-organisation refers to the process by which individuals organise their communal behaviour to create global order by interactions amongst themselves rather than through external intervention or instruction” - Willshaw, 2006

In order to understand what self-organization means, we first have to take a quick look at the different approaches of coliving communities:

Es wurde kein Alt-Text für dieses Bild angegeben.

Do it yourself:

During Jonathan’s research, he found many student houses in Sweden that evolve around and work with the DIY-approach. It’s virtues: It can turn out to be an incredibly empowering and educational experience if the community takes all the responsibilities on themselves. The downside is, that you never really know where it goes. It can work very well, but it can also go incredibly wrong. Everything rises and falls with the people participating.  

Top-down: This is a leadership approach, in which operators don't really incentivise the residents and community members to interact with each other and create something for themselves, but rather service the community with e.g. events and different types of services.

Facilitator: This approach is similar to the top-down dynamic, except that operators will in fact incentivise the community and its members to instigate and make events themselves. In the Mastermind community it would apply like this:

Operator: What do you guys want to do?

Members: We want to create a Community Manager Mastermind Series to meet, engage and exchange knowledge with each other.

Operator: Okay, in order to do so, you should talk to this person or ask for advice from XY to get going.

Which pretty much comes down to: the facilitator might provide the resources and the money but they don't do it for you, they want the community to organise some things themselves.  

Systems: The system model approach equals the design centric leadership approach. In this case the operator creates a framework and onboards members on how to live in a community and how to handle day to day operations. There's only one big intervention in terms of the onboarding, but then you let your community go. People aren't facilitated by operators in this case, but do it themselves. Perhaps you get a house budget from the operator, but the community gets to decide what to do with that money. When the community takes on certain decisions and becomes more self-sustainable a heavy load of work and responsibility can eventually be lifted off the operators shoulders. On the community member’s side, this approach creates ownership, real community values and feelings. This is where Jonathan believes higher social value is created.

K9 is one example for this type of approach, but also Embassy Network and Cohousing can be:

Es wurde kein Alt-Text für dieses Bild angegeben.

Why use a system model community approach?

The simple answer is: a combination of higher social value and sincere cost savings compared to other approaches. But let’s get a little more into the details. The advantages of a higher social value are various. What does actually happen in a community that is incentivised to become more self-organized. On what levels does this create social sustainability of a community?

  1. Social sustainability principles:
  • Competence: The members give each other competences, they would not develop if they were simply being serviced by an operator. New learned and exchanged competences eventually help the community grow, thrive and become a place people enjoy staying in. And well it becomes more self-sustainable since more members will be able to take care of different aspects of coliving themselves.  
  • Wellbeing: One of the most important things for this approach. Wellbeing increases through creating bonds with other residents but also finding your own place within a community. Being accepted and appreciated for doing your part, no matter how big or small that might be.    
  • Influence: We do have influence on our surroundings. Simply because decisions are being made as a group, but also as individuals. Residents feel like their voice is being heard by the group. So it feels like becoming a valuable part of the community. This creates bonds and a good community feeling, which is important for authentic and successful coliving experiences.
  • Meaning: Is it meaningful to have close relationships with people you can put your trust in? “Hell yeah!” is Jonathan's simple but accurate answer.

What Jonathan describes as social value is pretty much the same as community feeling, which is very important for successful, authentic coliving experiences. Communities with the system model approach, regarding to research, seem to be communities with a strong and cherished community feeling:  

Es wurde kein Alt-Text für dieses Bild angegeben.

2. Costs and Savings

Let’s talk about numbers, which are way easier to measure than community feeling.

Es wurde kein Alt-Text für dieses Bild angegeben.

Within the system model approach, usually an onboarding takes place where an important framework and values are set for the community. This might also include day to day operations or how to handle certain situations as a community. Afterwards you can let it go, since they are well instructed enough to take over tasks themselves and become self-sustaining and organized. The question here is: How much do you want to invest in onboarding? At first the costs for an onboarding process might look like an investment, but that is exactly what it is: an investment in the future, which will surely save lots of costs in the long run. It already starts with the role of the facilitator or community manager. How many costs (and nerves) are saved, when you only need a community manager starting from a number of 200 residents instead of 30-50 community members?

“In our case at K9 we also don't do any marketing at all, we only have a roll of recruiters that get a low fee in order to stay on top of the market. But since we have created (and still do) a high community feeling, people who live in that community tend to attract more people to come in and people also stay as long as they can in the system” Jonathan Andersson states.  

Also, when you feel alone, especially now in Covid-19 times, you don't wanna leave that community feeling behind, you wanna stay. In K9’s case it's 26 months on average, that people stay ‘in the system’. The motivation for placing a large investment in onboarding is the following: “You're not onboarding to a community but you give the community a tool for personal growth and development, if that's not social value I don't know what else is” Jonathan Andersson continues.

How to implement this approach?

You as a top management design a framework for the community or communities you want to build, then onboard them with it, then let them take off and create value with the tools you’ve given to them:

Es wurde kein Alt-Text für dieses Bild angegeben.

One of the most popular examples is probably the one of Burning Man. It is organized by the founders / operators every year in one place: the desert where it all started. But there are small Burning Man communities all around the world with the same principles and thoughts about the festival and its culture. They have 10 principles on how you live, guide and interact within that specific Burning Man community, so a framework. The Burning Man approach was and still is to give the community a place (in the desert), some tools and these cultural principles, but then the participants are let go and are able to do whatever they want within those boundaries. They basically let them practice self-organizing abilities and at some point it will be self-perpetuating.

Another beautiful example using a centric leadership approach is Semco:

“At Semco we trust people to do what’s right. That’s why our employees set their own salaries.” Sinsley, 2016

This is bound to go wrong? Not in this case. Semco sets the framework for their members and then rewards ‘good behaviour’, which is why when their employees get to decide on their own salaries, their choices become very reasonable and not out of line.

The framework for system model in a coliving setting:

Es wurde kein Alt-Text für dieses Bild angegeben.

Strategy means you have a structure and a vision that you're going to implement into a self-organizing community. Strategy also includes a feedback loop of listening to your community and learning how to scale this feedback up into a larger global community. Let’s look at an example of a large-scale coliving space: the strategy here could be to implement smaller communities within the building itself and use this to create one identity and use the built environment to tie barriers between these types of communities within the large one. So it's a community where everyone is by themselves but still there could be an overarching value system that everyone has in common. That’s the overall idea of a centered leadership model in coliving then. The top management / operators in this case would take on the feedback loop and listen in on the different communities to align them to the overall community.

Es wurde kein Alt-Text für dieses Bild angegeben.

“In the Semco example they gave the people the opportunity to set their own salaries. They opened their books and educated them on how to read financial data. HR were giving them information and transparency on that matter so they could set their own salaries and then they used reinforcement to promote and incentivise good behaviour.” - Jonathan Andersson

This eventually led to not only reasonable behaviour within the community (or maybe company culture is the better word here), but also to a more self-organized and sustainable work culture at Semco, where their employees take on a lot of responsibilities themselves and trust flows both ways: bottom-up as well as top-down.  

Es wurde kein Alt-Text für dieses Bild angegeben.

How to build community?

Jonathan also shares his experience with a brand new community they are building in the Western part of Sweden. They used an onboarding program, which they designed together for the community. Then feedback meetings followed before the onboarding phase even started and currently feedback rounds are held again while they are onboarding. In these feedback rounds the community members are actively involved, answering questions like:

  • How do you want to do it?
  • What do you want to change?
  • What works well and what does not?

Those questions give them the idea that they're in charge and they can evolve however they want.

The recruitment site however keeps themselves busy with finding the right people for the community: “We don't need people who don’t want to participate. On the other hand we need people who like to do a lot of things and take on a lot of work. But we also need people who enjoy being more active from time to time but not always. We need people to actively carry the community but also people who just participate. Diversity of people is important. Which is why the people at K9 are actually involved in the recruiting process” Jonathan explains the recruitment process at K9.  

But how does the voting system work at K9 when 50 members have to make a collective decision? They started using a forum due to Covid-19:

“We set out a task force to look into different topics. Later on, they present their conclusions to the group within a scheduled house meeting. We want people to be heard and give them a sense of safety. So 4 floors were closed down due to corona safety. Though not everyone might have agreed, but everyone was part of the decision making process, it was fine anyways since they take responsibility for the community they live in. We always aim for consensus and if we don't, we need to address that and have a proper talk.” - Jonathan Andersson.


Sowebuild / Buildr Apps - We build thriving communities

Sowebuild is a community proptech consultancy, management and SaaS provider. We support building places where people live, work and play by developing a clear roadmap for our clients with our suite of products and partners. Get in touch to collaborate with us or request a demo version of our Buildr Apps.

More info on community building? Download our ebook ‘6 tips for building a thriving community’ to get started with the essentials for your place.