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Coworking gets political power

Simon Kowalewski (right)

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Coworking spaces often invite local politicians to meet their members. In Berlin, the flow of power has been reversed – a coworking space has sent one if its members to parliament! Marking the first time coworking has attained political power, Simon Kowalewski from Yorck52 coworking space was voted into the Berlin parliament as a member of the Pirate Party in the recent city-state elections. We spoke to him about what experience he will bring into the parliament as a coworking space operator.

2011 has been the year of global demonstrations calling for genuine citizen participation and democratic decisions. In Berlin, voters joined this wave of sentiment by voting for the Pirate Party, a grouping of independents who offered nothing other than a a new operating system for more democratic participation and transperancy in all deciscion-making processes. They voiced their annoyance at politicians who smile away the real concerns of citizens with kitschy photos with pets and children, and trust their PR agencies more than their members and voters.

The Pirates won 15 of 152 seats in the Berlin city-state senate. It’s a huge step forward for the worldwide movement which began in Sweden nearly six years ago (the same time coworking got its name).

The majority of the German and European media has dismissed the success of the Pirate Party as a local protest action, supported by naïve laptop nerds.  However, some recent polls show that one in eleven voters in Germany (Europe’s biggest country) now support the Pirates.

One of the fifteen Pirate Party parliamentarians who will take their seats at the end of this month is Simon Kowalewski, who up until now has run the Yorck52 coworking space. Deskmag caught up with Simon to ask about politics and coworking:

How were the last two weeks has for you? Has the excitement died down?

Not really. We are just starting a new party, with all that that entails. We meet daily to sort out our organizational structure and select our speakers and representatives. The press is still chasing us. So it’s still very busy.

What distinguishes the Pirate Party from other political parties?

We don’t see ourselves simply as a party that has a different program to other parties. We see ourselves as a method of bringing a whole new operating system to change the parliament from the inside out.

We want the citizens to be part of the decision making process at all levels, local and national, on all topics that interest them, from the first phase on. We call it “Liquid Democracy”. We have developed tools that allow citizens to submit applications at any time. These applications must reach a certain quoroum of the population who have registered on this topic.

The decision process isn’t controlled by moderation. It runs automatically through the application process, where citizens can submit additional proposals or counter-proposals, and in the end it comes to a vote where the application with the most support wins.

Currently, this tool is only open to the members of the Pirate Party and not all citizens. This is to ensure that everyone has only one account and one vote, or else everyone might influence the vote with multiple accounts, or paying people to run accounts. Our next goal is that every citizen of Berlin has their own account – but only one. One citizen, one vote.

Coworking is working well as a new operating system for the way we work. What are your views on coworking and the connections to your politcal work?

Coworking is a liquid system. I do not have a fixed desk, but work where it suits me. I can sit with the people, or work with the infrastructure that I need for just one project. This is the same way we work in the Pirate Party up to the European level.

What would you like to carry over from your experiences as a coworking space operator into your future work in the Berlin parliament?

Many of us come from this new work environment. As a coworking space operator, I have very specialized experience in flexible networks and organizations, and putting people together for joint work projects, which I will bring with me.

Could the Berlin parliament work in the future a bit more like a coworking space?

We have already set down targets in that direction. These include, for example, the right of every member to have a laptop. Not just a computer for a desk, but specifically a laptop they can bring with them everywhere, so they can work outside of parliament.

Additionally, we are aiming at a more flexible seating arrangements in parliament. As a member, you often work on different topics with different people across party lines. It would obviously be more useful if the parliamentary seating arrangement could be composed by topic or project, and not a rigid seating order according to party.

Furthermore, each member is entitled to use a small office. We are currently trying to pool our space allocation into one large room which mulitple people can use, and not small offices for just two or three people. Unfortunately the building isn’t yet aligned for this use, except for the meeting rooms.

Can you move things around for your own party so you can work together, by converting your offices or meeting rooms into large working areas?

We go even further than that, because our members can also participate in decisions from outside the parliament. Each MP can work on issues on a wiki page, regardless of their location, by using a wiki signature, and voting yes, no, or absenting. Decisions don’t have to be made in a fixed meeting at a fixed time. We try to be more flexible than other parties were before.

Is coworking more political than other ‘industries’?

Yes, I think so. I know many people in the Berlin coworking scene who are politically engaged, working for political parties, or have a membership in a particular party. If you want to change things, you have to be out in the public. You have to understand the basic conditions of society to find a better way of harmonizing working and living situations. In our society, these changes are really only possible within the political system.

How do you feel about the Pirate Party being labelled in the media as just a protest party?

The election campaign showed how all other parties have become divided amongst themselves, and that people wanted an alternative. Despite who they voted for, the mayor would remain the same. It wasn’t a regular election campaign, with certain topics, or parties with defined positions.

And we had incredible support from Pirates from all over Germany and abroad. And now we’re back to the topic of coworking. They helped us in recent weeks with campaigning on the road, and ensured that many people knew who the Pirates are and what they want.

Many Pirates realized that if we could get elected anywhere, then Berlin would be the first place.

It was a test run for an unbelievably powerful campaign in Germany and Europe. And it succeeded. Now we have about nine percent in the nationwide polls.

Last question. What will happen to your coworking space?

Yorck52 will have to close because I simply have no time to keep it going. We looked for people to take it over. We also played with the idea of using the space as the campaign or district office of the Pirates, but that wasn’t allowed by the landlord who doesn’t approve of us.

Parliamentary membership is officially a part-time job. It would be nice if one could continue working their old jobs and stay connected to it, but that’s not realistic. Everyone is really under pressure and must concentrate on political work. It’s basically a full time job. We’re trying to find other ways – such as our Liquid Democracy project – to keep our feet on the ground.

Thanks for the interview!

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