The Third Place as an Open Network of Skills and Mutual Aid on the Territory

By Lisadie Dutillieux

INTERVIEW with Simon Laurent on the exploration of A Thousand Places (5/8). Simon Laurent is the coordinator and development manager of Tiers-Lieu Les Riverains in Auxerre. For him, the emergence of Third Places testifies to a change in mentalities and professional practices, but also to a new vision of public action.

How did the Les Riverains project start? Can you tell us more about the history of this place?

Simon Laurent: With a team of 25 people, we created an associative fablab about 5 years ago called L’Atelier des Beaux Boulons. This fablab was very independent, our first premises were funded by crowdfunding. We discovered that there was a great macgyver community in Auxerre: in fact, there were already lots of fablabs in people’s garages! When it was created, L’Atelier des Beaux Boulons therefore above all gave these DIY enthusiasts the opportunity to make projects together, to meet and discuss their practices. ‍

Gradually people no longer came to the fablab to make, but to discuss, meet and work … It became a little wild coworking. Even by renting an office next door, it was not enough to meet the needs. It was at this time that I discovered the concept of Third Place. At the same time, local politicians and elected officials also heard about this concept. There has been an alignment of planets; between me who was available as a project leader and who wanted to develop the Atelier des Beaux Boulons project, and the agglomeration which wished to launch an innovative device on the territory. I did a tour of France of TRUCS (Third Urban, Rural and Collaborative Places); then a prefiguration study with a 5-year development plan and I presented the Riverains project to the agglomeration community of Auxerrois.

Gradually people no longer came to the fablab to make, but to discuss, meet and work … It became a little wild coworking.

About the Riverains

Les Riverains is an open-source Third Place dedicated to the experimentation and appropriation of new citizen digital uses and eco-responsible uses. The Tiers-Lieu, a hybrid space, acts as a pre-incubator for projects in the territory of the Auxerroise agglomeration. Today located in a space of around 300 m2 in Auxerre station, it hosts a fablab, a medialab and a makerspace, a recycling-resource center, a coworking space, an associative bar, a creation studio, offices and a shared garden. In 2018, around 1,200 visitors took part in activities and workshops for local residents. ‍

For the future development of local residents, you are committed to the search for financial independence: what does this represent for you? Can you tell us more about the economic model of the place and its relations with public institutions?
S.

L. Any funding, whether public or private, implies some funders of takeover on the device. In my opinion, the risk is to limit the freedoms that could be taken by the users and to limit their feeling of appropriation of the place. Because it is very important that people feel great freedom of action, feel at home in a Third Place: that they feel free to move furniture if they need to, to paint a wall, to arrange space according to their needs. It is also what allows a certain autonomy of people in the place, to which we are very attached.

Today, the agglomeration finances Les Riverains at more than 80%. Despite the fact that they accepted a principle of independence, it is a permanent negotiation. I defended at the beginning of the project the duty of experimentation for a territory like that of Auxerre. For our part, we also had to adapt and make concessions. It’s a real collaboration because we have to learn each other’s codes for the project to be functional. This is above all based on good communication with public authorities.

Any funding, whether public or private, implies a certain takeover of the funders over the system. (…) I defended at the beginning of the project the duty of experimentation for a territory like that of Auxerre.

Can you tell us more about the relationship you have with local communities? How do you perceive today their interest in a project like Les Riverains?

SL: I notice a change in local institutions, both in their own functioning and in their methods of helping to carry projects. A few years ago, the support systems were, in my opinion, quite rigid, based solely on results with figures. Elected officials bought turnkey devices, saying “if it works there, it will work here”. This is what we have experienced with EPNs (Digital Public Establishments) and other socio-cultural structures, which have never taken hold on our territories.

Today, elected officials feel that they must release doing and experimenting if they want to see projects emerge on their territory. The economic pole of the agglomeration, which is our main interlocutor, makes the effort not always to see things only through the prism of economic development. Even if I provide figures on the activity of the Third Place, I have the feeling that this is not what is being looked at. I am asked to tell what happens there every day, to describe the interactions and meetings that take place there.

We manage to find gaps in a priori rigid regulations and practices, through quality interpersonal relationships. Cabinet directors and pole directors are very accessible, we don’t have to go up the whole decision chain to obtain information. People of our generation are arriving today in the agglomeration services: like us, they are thirsty for renewal in the regions, for agility in carrying projects, and they are not comfortable before the ‘old scheme, classic in medium-sized cities; where everything had to go through the chosen one, who is then a kind of local “baron”.

A few years ago, the support systems were quite rigid, based solely on results in figures. (…) Today, elected officials feel that they must liberate doing and experimenting if they want to see projects emerge on their territory.

About Simon Laurent

Coordinator and development manager of Tiers-Lieu Les Riverains, since 2018 he has also chaired the French Fablab Network (RFFLabs), which brings together fablabs that democratize access to digital manufacturing across the country.

‍‍

Beyond what they reveal about the changing practice of local authorities, which can be according to you the effects of a Third Place on its territory?

SL: Le Tiers-Lieu is a project initiator or support for carrying projects with social or economic value on the territory. With la Recyclerie, which is located in the Riverains, we are at the origin of the repair-café, the greening of the city center, at the origin of the incredible edible project on the city, of the open-hack-camp, … We have helped a lot of associations to structure themselves, to improve their communication, to find the right interlocutors in local private and public networks. Even if all this is very informal and difficult to quantify, it is a tangible reality: we have created an open network of skills and mutual aid, between people who, although neighbors, did not necessarily speak to each other.

The Third Place also brings into the public debate issues that have so far been seen as subjects of specialists, such as the use of digital technology, eco-design, or even CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility). When an entrepreneur comes here, we discuss with him the environmental and social impact of his project, because this must be considered from the design.

Le Tiers-Lieu is a project initiator (…). We have created an open network of skills and mutual aid, between people who, although neighbors, did not necessarily speak to each other.

In the context of the recent publication of the Coworking mission report, how do you see the future of Third Places?

SL: The report of the coworking mission is above all a symbol of the success of our actions, as promoters of Third-Place projects: we have managed to be sufficiently agitated to attract the attention of public authorities on a national scale. The publication of this report, however, reinforces certain concerns that we have: there is a risk of institutionalizing our structures. Central governments and other institutions have to question how they work if they want to work with us. Third-places cannot be labeled, they are not franchises that can be duplicated. They cannot, in any case, be tools for territorial promotion, even fewer tools for promoting local elected representatives…

There is however a stake today that the Third Places are supported, even if I am not yet convinced of the relevance of the national level for this. Today, our contacts are on a regional scale and it works very well. The regions set up, each in their own way, mechanisms to help Third Places and fablabs to emerge, to find their economic and governance models. In my opinion, what has been implemented in the New Aquitaine region is exemplary. The Coopérative des Tiers-Lieu has a governance model acceptable to promoters of Third-Place projects because it is much closer to the ground than an administration can be. The cooperative offers free services, assistance in setting up a project, support and promotion.let know. The Cooperative of Third Places is a good model because they value the work of Third Places and know the right communication tools with elected officials.

We need to be helped to set up the ERDF files, respond to calls for projects, expressions of interest … This requires some experience, technical know-how that often we do not have in the Third Parties- Places. The reality of project leaders is that we often get hung up on the task. Even if it is an exciting job, we need to feel supported and considered.

There is a stake today that the Third Places be supported, even if I am not yet convinced of the relevance of the national level for this. Today, our contacts are on a regional scale and it works very well.

In your opinion, is there a lack of recognition of the specific skills linked to the management and animation of a Third Place project?

SL: There are several essential roles in a Third Place: an administrative role which is often underestimated, which is a full-time position; a role of concierge, which is sometimes that of the fabmanager; and a role of white knight or responsible for the development, which promotes the place outside. These roles must be recognized, at their true value. Minimum wages must be put in place. For example, a good fabmanager must have very high technical skills, which correspond to a bac + 5 as a general engineer, and social science skills of the same level.

You have to create job descriptions for these roles, otherwise, people do everything and anything. At the beginning of the Riverains, this is what I experienced: it’s funny because it’s new, we feel very useful … then after 3 years, the situation is no longer tenable because it generates too much fatigue. Often, fabmanagers are also community managers, managers and animators. They do the housework, tidying up and cuddling those who love it. It’s a lot of work!

We must also offer more solid training than what exists today. This is all taking place. The new trades that are emerging in Third Places are also witness to a generation phenomenon: people want their work to have a utility, which is not just that of earning a living. I meet a lot of people who have left their jobs between 25 and 45 years old to look for a job that makes sense. They turn quite instinctively towards the animation trades, in fablabs and Third Parties.

There are several essential roles in a Third Place [which] must be recognized, at their true value. Often, fabmanagers are also community managers, managers and animators. They do the housework, tidying up and cuddling those who love it. It’s a lot of work!

Beyond the individuals and their skills, we feel in the residents a very strong feeling of belonging to a community. How does it bring the place to life?

SL: The good functioning of the community is largely due to choices of governance. At the beginning of the project, we started with a very idealistic mode of operation, with collective decision-making, a lot of horizontality in the management of the place. With the scaling up and the use of public money, we had to set up a decision chain, establish responsibilities. We all had to adapt to these principles.

As coordinator and development manager of the place, I am mainly supposed to animate the community, guarantee the link between people, and make sure of their motivation. The hard core of our community is rather made up of quarantineers, with life issues different from those of 20-30 year olds who undoubtedly make up most of the Third Places in metropolitan centers. Here, people have a well-established rhythm of life and are difficult to mobilize on weekends. It is an ongoing job to keep this community active. But the challenge is mainly to regulate the community. We must constantly mediate, be attentive to the moods of each other on a daily basis. Relationships between people are calmed and this prevents a number of conflicts from escalating.

The community balance that exists in the residents is very much due to the principle of benevolence and listening that we have implemented.

This article is the fifth in a series of eight interviews conducted as part of the Thousand Places exploration, available online at the following link: https://www.le-lab.org/exploration-mille-lieux

This work aims to objectify the impact of third places beyond the only economic prism, to better understand and enhance what is at stake in and around these spaces. It teaches us many things, often surprising, sometimes against the tide of what is said and read on third places … so good immersion!

This post was previously published on OuiShare.net where the content of the website is licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 France.

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