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The initiators of an entire movement

Da città dormitoria a modello per altri comuni colpiti dal cambiamento strutturale: la cittadina di Lichtensteig nel Toggenburg. Foto: John Patrick Walder
Da città dormitoria a modello per altri comuni colpiti dal cambiamento strutturale: la cittadina di Lichtensteig nel Toggenburg. Foto: John Patrick Walder

VillageOffice is creating a nation-wide network of coworking spaces, at the same time reducing the flow of commuters. But that’s not all. The cooperative is increasingly being sought after as a consultant for regional planning groups and location promoters on their way to increased prosperity. An example: Lichtensteig, a small town in Toggenburg.

Things are happening in Lichtensteig! The old Kalberhalle has turned into an event venue, city hall will soon be a centre for young artists, the empty Krone is now a pop-up restaurant and in the abandoned post office, a coworking space is currently being developed in cooperation with VillageOffice. In front of and behind the old counters, young entrepreneurs are working at desks that are still somewhat makeshift. A copier and an espresso machine complete the coworking space. It’s all quite a bold move, say some of the town’s inhabitants. “At least our mayor is making an effort,” says an older passerby in the centre of town. With its 2000 inhabitants, the charming Toggenburg town has indeed come down in the world since its 1980s heyday: tradition textile companies, once responsible for the region’s golden era, moved their manufacturing abroad or gave up entirely; changes in consumer behaviour forced local restaurants and shops to close; the vacancy rate spread as many young people moved away. 

From a sleepy municipality to a model for other communities affected by structural change: the little town of Lichtensteig in Toggenburg. Photo: John Patrick Walder

From a sleepy municipality to a model for other communities affected by structural change: the little town of Lichtensteig in Toggenburg. Photo: John Patrick Walder

Fresh ideas for vacant spaces

Hope returned in 2013, when a young visionary was elected mayor – the then 30-year-old Mathias Müller. In the meantime, Lichtensteig has become a model for other communities affected by structural change. But Müller himself remains humble: “The responsibility for the town’s transformation lies not with me – but with the progressive citizens.” In order to develop the “Mini.Stadt 2025” strategy after his election, he organised a conference for the future – made up of 140 residents, who split off into 10 workgroups to develop projects that would make Lichtensteig more attractive. Müller describes the situation of his small town like this: “We have very limited funds for promoting our location – but we have a good network and a lot of unused space that we can provide cheaply.”

Bringing momentum to the small town: Mayor Mathias Müller wants his citizens to be able to work in the town where their emotional roots are. Photo: John Patrick Walder

Bringing momentum to the small town: Mayor Mathias Müller wants his citizens to be able to work in the town where their emotional roots are. Photo: John Patrick Walder

It all started with a newspaper article

His attention was drawn to VillageOffice in the summer of 2016: while reading newspapers during the holidays, he noticed an article about a start-up that aimed to build up a nation-wide network of coworking spaces throughout Switzerland, thus reducing the flow of commuters and counteracting rural flight. “They will be able to help us,” thought Mathias Müller. As a graduate of urban and regional development studies, he knew the uplifting effect of creative melting pots, which include coworking spaces. He learned more about VillageOffice, finding out the young company has strong partners behind it with the Engagement Migros development fund and COMO, the Coordination Office for Sustainable Mobility. “This made them even more trustworthy to me,” the mayor says. Finally, he picked up the phone and called Remo Rusca at VillageOffice: this was the beginning of a mutually beneficial collaboration.
 

Coworking at the post office

Remo Rusca, himself from eastern Switzerland, is pleased with the current developments in Lichtensteig. VillageOffice has supported Mathias Müller in the decision-making process, offering him arguments – also on a political level – in favour of setting up a coworking space and its corresponding community. He received advice on the organisation of a pilot project, which was launched in November 2017: a handful of coworkers living in the region are initially using the post office on three half-days – for the moment free of charge, with a cash box for voluntary donations on hand.

“There’s no need for a boss, just for hosts with good people skills.”

The VillageOffice cooperative also offers itself up as a spokesperson of the coworking movement, hosting informative events, at which representatives of other outlying areas can report on their experience with coworking spaces and hubs, and help to place ads for a community manager. “Many people think we need a strict boss. But then we explain that this is exactly what we don’t need. What we do need is a host with good people skills,” explains Remo Rusca, adding: “In this way, we and our coworking partners are creating new job descriptions.” 

Coworking at the post office: the pilot project of Lichtensteig’s coworking space has been running since November 2017. Photo: John Patrick Walder
Coworking at the post office: the pilot project of Lichtensteig’s coworking space has been running since November 2017. Photo: John Patrick Walder

Feasibility studies and coaching

His expertise and that of other VillageOffice partners are currently not just highly sought after in Lichtensteig: many groups and representatives that deal with federally supported NRP (New Regional Policy) projects and are searching for innovative, entrepreneurial initiatives, are seeking out the young company for feasibility studies and coaching. 

As a first step, VillageOffice is examining whether the success factors for a coworking movement are in place, for example in Konolfingen and Schwarzenburg for the Bern-Mittelland regional conference, but also in the municipalities of Bischofszell, Münchwilen, Erlen, Sulgen, Zihlschlacht-Sitterdorf and Romanshorn in Thurgau, as well as in the regional planning groups Frauenfeld (e.g. Pfyn) and Oberthurgau. This means: by questioning opinion leaders and involving the public, VillageOffice is analysing whether there are suitable venues and people willing to use and set up a coworking space. Equally important: supporting factors such as a day-care centre, a meeting place for all generations, as well as services. Once the prerequisites are met and a coworking space is planned, coaching in community building follows. “The focus is on why,” explains Rusca. “Simply making workspace available is not enough. Participants must be clear in what they wish to achieve – including how they wish to emotionally connect with people in and around the community.”

For Mathias Müller, the long-term goal is clear: he wants to offer his citizens – in a way that makes sense – a place to work in the place where they have their emotional roots. The unconventional mayor knows what he’s talking about. At lunchtime, he walks home to his wife and two small children. Why commute when you can work where you live?