The Third Places, Last Bastions of Meetings and Cooperation Between Individuals

By Samuel Roumeau

INTERVIEW with Simon Sarazin and Sébastien Plihon on the exploration of A Thousand Places (2/8). “Today, we have to pay for a coffee with the postman. For Simon Sarazin and Sébastien Plihon, the DNA of the Third Place is made of openness and commonality. Faced with the fragility of the models, these strong principles should make it possible to pool the resources of Third Parties and to structure them into networks.

For Sophie Ricard, a Third Place is above all a place of welcome and hospitality. And you, what do you put behind this concept?

Simon Sarazin: In my opinion, we are Third Place when we are both open and shared. These spaces are part of a logic of commons: governance, economic value, as well as land, cannot be closed and owned in a Third Place.

Sébastien Plihon: With the Compagnie des Tiers-Lieux in Lille, we went further. We have identified a series of criteria that bring together and define Third Parties, which constitutes their common DNA. In addition to openness (to different types of professional categories) and accessibility (in terms of cost but also image), we have added the documentation and the duplicability of Third Parties. We also put the anchor on territory and the fact that the Third Places are centered around the needs of their users. Another essential element that has been identified, and not least, is economic balance.

You say that openness is a fundamental component of the Third Place. But if we open up the community too much, don’t we run the risk of diluting it?

SS: On the contrary, I would say that it is because we are open that we make the community. Openness is the condition of the permanence of a strong and lively community, which continues to enrich itself. Conversely, when a place is closed, its community becomes poorer; it is gradually losing its members and is destined to disappear. This is exactly what we observed at Coroutine. At one point, many people left, which put the place in danger. By re-opening the community, we managed to attract new contributors and avoid closure. We must find the right balance between these opening and closing cycles to ensure the permanence of the place and the community.

Simon Sarazin, Serial convinced contributor

Simon is interested in the economy around free software and the contributory economy. It is dedicated to initiatives thought of as “commons” allowing the development of places (for example La Coroutine in Lille), learning communities (Collectif Catalyst in Lille, the network of third places), currencies (Duniter), knowledge ( wikiversity, wikibooks, movilab). Part of its activities are remunerated on the basis of co-remuneration models by contributing to several of these open and shared projects.

Openness is the condition of the permanence of a strong and lively community, which continues to enrich itself.

How to manage the cyclical nature of the life of the place and the community? Is there a procedure to follow, good practices?

SS: There is no good recipe, but the documentation, when it takes the form of a monograph, keeps track of the history of the place and the dynamics of its community. This allows new entrants to better understand the essence of the place and its way of working, and therefore to be able to manage these delicate situations if they arise. And even to move the place to redo it elsewhere with the community, if the initial space were to disappear. This possibility to “copy/paste” a Third Place, inspired by the free software communities, remains very theoretical…

SP: Indeed, the needs of territory are unique and it would be illusory to think of remaking an identical place in a different place. That said, there are many invariants in the way of setting up and operating a Third Place. This is also what shared documentation is for. When you want to open the Third Place, you ask yourself a lot of questions: do I fully open governance? Which economic model do I choose? Do I pay someone for the animation of the place? It is on the basis of this observation that with the Company of the Third Places, we listed all the needs of the Third Places being structured. The idea is not to tell them to do it like this or do it like that. It is to give them appropriate and compostable tools in other territories.

Sébastien Plihon, Organizer of the Tiers Locations de Hauts de France network

Passed by the European Metropolis of Lille, Sébastien is now a consultant on questions of social and digital innovation, collaborative practices and the creation of Commons. Being particularly interested in Third Places, he was at the initiative of the founding of the Company of Third Places, the network which gathers and animates the Third Places of Hauts de France.

To document is to give examples that can be appropriated by others and compostable in other territories.

You say that sharing is the other strong principle of the Third Places. Is pooling just documentation, or does it go further?

SS: Very often, the logic of mutual aid between places stops at documentation … Our networks do not know how to pool. This is quite worrying: how can we be credible as a territorial network of Third Places if we cannot even co-finance our resources? This is why we started to think about a tool that would facilitate this mutualization. We first thought of two shared tools: one for managing reservations, the other for accounting. But the approach remained at the local level, we wanted to push the reflection a little further and move to the national level with Cobudget.

The advantage when we co-finance our tools is that it costs a lot less individually. It is also a way to guarantee the opening of Third Places: by pooling our tools and our documentation, we lower the barriers to entry for all those who would like to get started.

How can we be credible as a territorial network of Third Places if we cannot even co-finance our resources?

Co-funding resources and tools sound like the miracle solution to the fragility of the Third Place model…

SP: Obviously, once we said that, everything remains to be done! The tool is only a tiny part of the solution. For it to work, the community must be alive, which presupposes a network that animates it and identifies its needs. But more often than not, this essential layer of community infrastructure is not funded. You spend a lot of money to design tools that will not even be used. While the challenge is to create a new profession: coordinator of commons for the territories.

The challenge is to create a new profession: coordinator of commons for the territories.

The other great fragility of Third Places is the mastery of their land. What can the commons do when facing these challenges?

SS: To better understand all the questions and issues related to land, the documentation is infinitely precious, once again. When Plateau UrbainVillages Vivants, the Etic real estate company or Terre de Liens share their experience, any newcomer who asks the question of their real estate is better equipped to get started. He saves time and energy on these technical but crucial questions.

SP: The documentation is useful, I agree, but I think that we have arrived at a situation where the only way out of the rut of the land remains the regulatory constraint. There are so many vacant spaces in the city center, it is not possible! This is a situation that the director of Public Condition in Roubaix knows well. Next to its place, in one of the poorest districts of France, there are several abandoned buildings, very degraded and threatening to collapse. However much he may have projects and money, the community does not want to give them to him. She should be forced to open the doors for him.

The public actor plays a key role vis-à-vis the Third Places, sometimes a financier, sometimes a landowner… What if he played a role of animation and national structuring of the Third Places? What if we created a National Council of Third Places, as recommended by the Coworking Mission?

SS: It is not up to the State to create this kind of body. If there is a centralizing structure, it must come from the premises. For that, it would be necessary to organize the Estates-General of the Third Place … which the Mission Coworking did not do. Focused on coworking from the start, this consultation was very far from the approach and vision that drive the Third Place. Today, we, therefore, have two options: either we build an instance from actors who are real Third Places, or we enter into negotiations with people who have a different vision of what Third Places are, with at least a public actor who will not understand what is at stake …

Under what conditions could we create this instance which comes from below, authentic Third Places?

SS: Already, third-party networks should be funded. Without funding, nobody can spend time there, necessarily.

SP: Then you need people. A Third-Party network leader is not a Third Party leader! These are other skills. I did not set up any Third Place, for example. On the other hand, I contributed a lot to the animation of the network of Tiers Lieux en Hauts de France. Conversely, those who invest to set up their Third Place in their territory will not want to make representation and influence in Paris, for sure. What brings us together, ultimately, is the production of commons. This is what gives everyone the legitimacy to act at their level, to set up places as well as to animate the network.

Another recommendation of the Mission Coworking consists of creating 300 factories of territories. What do you think?

SS: What exactly do we mean by “territorial factories”? Support physical places? Or support a community? If it is to support physical places, these factories will be only yet another window of call for projects. They will feed a destructive competitive logic for many places which have few means to compete with the big ones … On the other hand, if these factories support communities on the basis of the pooling of resources, that seems very promising to me. This could help consolidate the network dynamics emerging in the regions.

Pôle Emploi and CAF agents should come directly to Third Parties to offer their services

Finally, share this field observation within the framework of Thousand Places: the Third Places constitute a kind of new counters in the territories, alongside the CAF, Pôle Emploi, the MSAP …

SS: It is true that the public authorities are pushing Third Parties to play this role of one-stop-shop, especially at a time when everything is dematerialized. We put a CAF terminal in the place, we train the facilitator in this or that approach, we grant an envelope for delegation of public service … and we hope that the Third Places will make up for the deficiencies of the State! There is a real resistance in the Third Places with regard to this movement: we do not want to be instrumentalized by the State.

SP: Rather than training, and poorly training, the organizers of Third Parties to operate a support service on behalf of CAF or Pôle Emploi… Pôle Emploi and CAF agents should come directly to Third Parties Places to offer their services. But even in this case, this “window” philosophy creates tension in places: that of reinventing public action while providing for the needs of members of the place. On the one hand, we have a very service-oriented approach and, on the other, spaces for contribution and cooperation. Places in which people will first meet, exchange and eventually invent services together to meet their needs.

SS: In fact, this trend towards all software implements the current inability to create living spaces. There are less and less spaces where we meet, where we simply exchange. Today, we have to pay to have a coffee with the postman. And we buy our stamps from a machine … The Third Places appear as the last bastions of meetings, exchanges and cooperation between individuals.

Today, we have to pay to have a coffee with the postman. And we buy our stamps from a machine … The Third Places appear as the last bastions of meetings, exchanges and cooperation between individuals.

This article is the result of teamwork with Solène Manouvrier. This is the second in a series of eight interviews carried out as part of the Mille Places exploration, available online at the following link:

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 where the content of the website is licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 France.

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