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When the university semester comes to an end, and the students depart for their summer break, what can be done with all those empty campus buildings? The University of North Carolina has a great suggestion – open a pop-up coworking space for entrepreneurial students. The temporary space, called H4, will operate until school resumes, and maybe for longer, if it proves successful.
By Julianne Becker - Thursday, 09 June 2011

As the coworking movement spreads, the benefits of it are proliferating to new environments. For instance in a small town in the southern state of North Carolina, where a summer experiment is under way. Chapel Hill, part of what has become known as the research triangle – comprised of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill - is quite liberal and progressive. Add this to the aesthetic of southern hospitality. A new coworking space is born.

Gary Alan Miller, Assistant Director for Social Media and Innovation University Career Services, began the new initiative, H4, this summer. The idea came about as a new way to give space to groups already working within the university system, encourage collaboration and interaction, as well as nurture professional development in the student body. The new space falls within the career development offices. Miller said the initiative would help to “redefine our mission”. Rather than just serving as a conduit to internships and employment, the careers office wants to push students into direct interaction.

The programme as of now is a sort of summer experiment, but the successes already seen will most likely propel it to a more permanent status at the university. It was seen as a way to help the smaller number of summer enrollees connect through direct contact, as well as giving a space for already-formed groups to work.

Miller was able to consult with other coworking spaces in the area, of which there are about five, to see what elements to include to enable the success of the programme. For the moment the initiative is made up of one large room that can hold about 25 people at a time, with optional smaller offices for meetings. H4 has also held cross-project introductions and organized more social activities to encourage more collaboration within.

There is an assemblage of 11 core groups alternately using H4, including a wide range of socially-based organizations with community-related output, as well as more entrepreneurial groups. All groups include at least one enrolled student, and about 75% are comprised solely of UNC students. The programme was easily promoted as these groups were already working in some context related to the university.

When ask if the groups were collaborating, Miller said the groups are having some difficulties with this. One of the main challenges to managing interaction is scheduling. People have differing courses, and groups tend to use the space for just a few hours at a time, as opposed to the usual coworking structures. Miller is addressing these issues by further consulting with other spaces, and has already found similarities in the situation and will continue efforts to fill the gaps.

All that being said, H4 has only been running for a matter of weeks and the initial findings are that it is indeed a success. The groups working within had to find their own space before, and so are making full use of the opportunity. And although H4 will need to vacate the location at the end of the summer, Miller is vigilantly searching for a new home. On the horizon is perhaps an even better space which is currently underutilized on campus, with 24 hour facilities that may help to bridge some people’s schedules and foster more connectivity within.

H4 is not the only coworking facility located on a university campus. Converge Coworking is attached to Kean University in New Jersey, while Old Broadcasting House sits inside the Northern Technology Institute, part of Leeds Metropolitan University. And possibilties for coworking in other shared workspaces also already exist for longer, such as the business incubators of the New York University, which allow to breed start-ups of students and external people.

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