Co-working is the new watchword of the creative young. An affordable lifestyle and low rents make Berlin their preferred destination.Shonali Muthalaly

“This is your life. Do what you love, and do it often. If you don't like something, change it. If you don't like your job, quit…”.

(The Holstee Manifesto created by three entrepreneurs who quit the corporate world to make t-shirts.)

This is the age of the “digital boheme”. A few years ago they were seen as hip intelligentsia working from gleaming Macbooks over lattes at coffee shops. Now, with high-speed Internet access, incessantly connected smartphones and cloud-based computing they're evolving into a significant, influential, networked community.

As more and more highly skilled young professionals choose to define their own work hours, rebelling against the daily commute, tyrannical bosses and inflexible work spaces, there's an entire industry growing around them to support their choices. Hence, “co-working spaces,” offering essential facilities of an office along with a host of perks, from tax consultants to masseurs. Berlin, with its low rents and affordable lifestyle, is becoming a dynamic catalyst of the movement, drawing creative people from all over the world.

At Betahaus, Thursday breakfast is a weekly networking opportunity. One of Berlin's most popular co-working spaces, Betahaus is described as a “combination of a Vienna-style coffee house, a library, a home office and a university campus.” At breakfast, software developers, artists and entrepreneurs introduce themselves across a long table loaded with breadbaskets, cheeses and jams.

There's Nico, who's looking for a co-working space to settle at and has seen about ten so far, priced between € 200 and € 400 for a month. While places like Betahaus offer free internet connectivity for everyone, you need a membership to access the workspace upstairs with more facilities. Joining a co-working space, he says, is far more practical than renting an office. “We are just two people — and we're looking for a place to sit one or two days a week. At an office, you end up paying at least € 500 to € 700 for rent. Plus paying for internet, electricity, printers… Over here the infrastructure is ready. If you quit, you can just walk out. No losses.”

Betahaus offers the option of paying for a one day ticket (€12). Or, like Erika Riesenkampff, who runs “Reign of Art”, a virtual art gallery, you can opt to pay for 12 days a month (€ 79). “We needed to get out of the house,” she says, adding that co-working is inspiring. “We network. Exchange ideas. So you're not living in your own little bubble. You're seeing what's happening around you.”

At breakfast, Madeline Mahl, one of the founders of Betahaus, encourages everyone to introduce themselves. This venue is a crucible for all kinds of imaginative ideas. Andreas Stammnitz explains his “puzzle maps.” There's “FigureRunning”, a sport that maps a figure such as a rabbit on your GPS-enabled device so you can run it. “Up Cycle It” encourages people to creatively recycle waste. Ecological awareness tends to be a part of the co-working experience. “Cut out the daily commute,” says Dagmar Gester, freelance photographer, talking of how driving to the office is wasteful and unnecessary in this age of computing.

No real walls

Oliver Stark runs his website with three colleagues from a fixed “team room” at Betahaus (€800). “It's not that much cheaper than an office, honestly,” he says. “But it gets a lot of press. And that is worth so much.” He quit his job with Puma to move here one-and-a-half years ago and start Doonited, combining two global trends — social networking and social responsibility. “I don't want to sit in an office. There are no real walls here.”

“In 2009 I was studying History and Literature in Berlin. I was also working in a student agency — getting young people interested in politics. In the process we worked with a lot of creative people,” Madeline says, talking about how she got inspired. “We started with six people and no money. People had to bring their own desks. We had an ugly café automat,” she laughs. “In one month it was packed. People were looking for offices like this. The crisis had started. People lost their jobs. They needed this infrastructure.” She adds thoughtfully, “We were the winners of the economic crisis.”

Though there are about 200 active users, most people don't come in everyday. “That's why we offer a membership for five and 12 days a month — one third of the people use that.” They've expanded into Hamburg, Cologne and Barcelona, but she says Berlin will always be home. “There are lots of creative people here. Space is cheap. There are new ideas all the time. It's an easy playground.”

Unemployment is still high in Berlin, and freelancers are finding it increasingly hard to find work. “This month has been hard. People have paused memberships. We try to find them investors, advisors. Offer meetings with computer guys, lawyers, tax advice.” The most important thing they do, however, is provide a platform for networking.

High quality value, they maintain, is no longer created in classic offices. It comes from changing teams and locations. From digitally networked workspaces set in collaborative environments. Hence programs like “Deskswap” where clients of Betahaus can exchange workspaces with clients of Startup garage, East Africa's largest co working space, set in Nairobi, Kenya.

For people who want something more personal, there are intimate neighbourhood spaces like The Wostel. “We are work travellers,” says Chuente Noufena, who runs it with Marie Jacobi. “One month we work from France, the next month Germany. Instead of luggage, we carry laptops.” The Wostel is small, and they like it that way. “We get together for a drink every two months. Talk. Make contacts…” They also make money by renting out the cosy vintage space for seminars. “Nokia and E Bay hired it. They say it's a nice change from hotels with their white blank walls.”

Designer space

Chic, bustling Sankt Oberholz, set in the heart of Berlin, has a café filled with writers, designers and programmers through the day. Upstairs, Ansgar Oberholz is putting the finishing touches on his new designer co-working space, with a host of bells and whistles for clients, including a key for 24/7 entry. “Berlin is a city of freelancers and we are in the centre of the city,” he says, explaining their popularity. St. Oberholz was one of the first cafes that supported work, with free wifi, extra plug points and sympathetic staff. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, we first had that idea at your place.' The Amen people for instance.” Amen, popularly referred to by the international press as “That mysterious Berlin startup” was so successful they got backing from Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary (Madonna's Manager) besides about $2 million from Index Ventures. Sound Cloud, which reportedly has more than seven million users, also has St. Oberholz roots. Stories of rocketing success like this are what fuel the co-working movement.

“We started six years ago, and became known as a place people could come to with their laptops. Sure, there are some bad guys who take advantage of this — they buy an espresso and work here all day, plugging in their laptop and mobile to charge — and end up costing us money. But most people understand. They meet people, have business breakfasts. Some stay through breakfast, lunch and dinner,” says Ansgar. “It's somewhere between an office and home.”

He cautions against seeing freelancing as a romantic lifestyle. “You have to set targets and fulfil them yourself. Everyone's fighting for jobs. And what kind of jobs? Translating a catalogue of 200 spare screws: That's also a freelancer's job.”

Yet, there are a group of people who insist on doing work they enjoy, regardless of the financial risks. “If you are young and well educated in Western Europe, if you really want work, you get it. It's not an economic crisis. It's just that people don't want those jobs anymore. They want self fulfilling work, work that makes them feel good and free. That's more important that financial security.”

The writer was in Berlin as part of Goethe-Institut's Nahaufnahme journalist exchange programme funded by the Robert Bosch Foundation.