Repurposing Public Spaces For the Knowledge Economy

Jeff  Carter
Posted: May 31, 2012 12:01 AM

Entrepreneurs solve pain points. On very rare occasions, there are chances for government to actively support entrepreneurship with physical structural support. Usually they can only provide moral, regulatory, tax, or purchasing support. Even then, the accounting demons chalk that up as a loss when it might in fact be an economic gain.

Currently, in cities across America, many segments of the population are hurting. We have a nation with a large amount of unemployed people. We have a lot of skilled labor that is going to lose their unemployment benefits soon. Instead of re-upping and writing out government checks adding to the deficit, why not give them incentives and places to start businesses?

Use the public library system.

Public libraries all over America are moot. It’s wasted real estate in the knowledge economy. We can find practically anything we need on the internet. No one needs a library for research like we used to. Libraries traditionally have been storehouses of knowledge where Americans could improve themselves. Why not repurpose them so America can improve itself again? Andrew Carnegie would wholeheartedly endorse this idea.

This idea capitalizes on a variety of long term trends that are strengthening over time.

America is transitioning to a “gig” economy. Small entrepreneurial businesses can be bootstrapped cheaply. Data and information can be stored in the cloud for as cheap as $40 per month. Niche market opportunities can be filled quickly. Businesses can form, make money, then disband or pivot to the next solvable problem. Many people are becoming consultants that transition from project to project rather than the traditional “company man” job our parents had. The problem many of these people have is that it’s tough to find cheap space for people to meet, or collaborate, to build these businesses. They wind up scattered all over coffee shops.

The public library system can easily be transitioned into an economic engine for entrepreneurs.

Think about it. It’s cheap to install wireless. People from different neighborhoods and backgrounds can safely meet at the library. If they need a conference room, they can sign up for one virtually. Most libraries have small rooms that could install whiteboards. If they need study carrels, or meeting tables, they are available. If you travel from place to place, the public library system can subscribe to a service like Desktime to manage all the logistics. Libraries aren’t exclusive, and they are a lot nicer and less cramped than a lot of places entrepreneurs are currently meeting. Many times they are closer to your residence than other meeting places. Often, they are close to public transportation. All people have to do is show up with an idea and a laptop/tablet to work on.

We could encourage independent coffee shops to establish themselves in public libraries, not big chains. That allows small businesspeople a chance to set up a “lemonade stand” inside the library and earn a paycheck rather than collect government subsistence. Implementing this idea could spark an entrepreneurial renaissance in urban and suburban neighborhoods around the US.

For cleaning services, you could use existing government employees or you could hire independent cleaning agencies from the neighborhood. Imagine all the start up support businesses that might locate around the library to help the entrepreneurs that are building businesses inside it.

Libraries are an asset that sits on the balance sheet of governments that are under performing. What does a private company do with underperforming assets that don’t give it return on investment? They either sell it, repurpose it or use it for salvage. In this case, selling is an option. However, the real estate market is at a low. Why sell at a bottom? Why not retool and reinvigorate an underperforming asset using simple software and wireless?

Your taxes support libraries. You’d be providing free office space for some start up companies. Once they formed and were operational, they’d leave the library and rent actual office space in the community. A library isn’t a great place to run an ongoing concern. But, it’s a great place to start one up. Wouldn’t you have more peace of mind spending your tax dollars on something that might create more production than some white elephant that is an aggregator of nothingness?

This is actually a good public/private partnership that would encourage positive results. Most of them are just goodwill marketing expenses for companies. It’s a cheap to retrofit them. This partnership could build companies that would create jobs. People would drop off government payrolls. Lord knows we need that in this dismal economy.

Tip of the hat to my wife who has a lot of good ideas. This one isn’t mine.