After our homes and workplaces, the social environments in which we spend time are referred to as third places. These are places for gathering, adventures – but at the same time, of safety, security and control. In the following article Müge Özman, Mélissa Boudes, Cynthia Srnec (FESP-MGEN), Nicolas Jullien and Cédric Gossart, members of IMT’s INESS idea lab, explore our relationship with third places and the challenges and opportunities of digital technology.
“Space is a common symbol of freedom in the Western world. Space lies open; it suggests the future and invites action[…]. To be open and free is to be exposed and vulnerable […] Compared to space, place is a calm center of established values. Human beings require both space and place. Human lives are a dialectical movement between shelter and venture, attachment and freedom.”
Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place, 1980
Observing that humans clearly spent a lot of time in coffee shops, restaurants, libraries, bars and hair salons, Ray Oldenburg coined the expression “third places” to describe these places other than home or work. Although they are known by different names around the world, they always serve the same essential purpose of socialization, giving people a chance to take a break, exposing ourselves to open up to others, but in relative security. Who would have thought that a virus would suddenly deprive billions of humans of these local gathering places by turning them into areas of vulnerability?
For many humans, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to an extension of their virtual spaces by contracting physical space to the ultimate shelter: home. From streams of video conferences to “Zoom cocktail parties,” digital technology has helped maintain a sense of continuity in social interactions. Including, at times, strengthening relationships within an apartment building or neighborhood and exploring new forms of work. It has also shown that for many meetings, virtuality is enough, saving thousands of tons of CO2 in the process. The world of tomorrow is first and foremost one of sustainable human activity, and for such uses at least, digital technology has proven to be effective.
But at the same time, digital technology has also raised concerns about accessibility and exposing oneself to risks. Exploring these new spaces with peace of mind requires opportunities for refuge and control safeguards. Driven by the algorithms of globalized platforms, digital technology shapes our way of life in terms of communication, information and consumption, without necessarily providing an opportunity to express our attachment to a “place” and our need to shape it.
Between third place and virtuality
Between infinitely large digital spaces and the intimacy of home, will there be nothing else in this “world of tomorrow”? How can systems of refuge spaces such as third places flourish once again and plant the seeds of greater resilience to external shocks? Must we give up digital technologies to save our cherished third places? The success with which the reopening of bars and restaurants has been met shows that this need for in-person socialization has not gone away. But when it comes to communicating face-to-face with individuals outside of our local area, must we choose between physical travel, which is harmful to the planet, and digital interactions, which, controlled by global companies, are outside of individuals’ control and therefore lead to a heightened sense of vulnerability?
Luckily, our choices are not limited to this binary alternative. Many solutions seek to combine the effectiveness of digital technology with the dynamics of local communities. Take FabLabs for example. With nearly 400 active Fablabs in France, these “fabrication laboratories” make digital technology available in a collaborative way to solve concrete problems. Most of them are small-scale production units open to the general public, with a high degree of flexibility in order to adapt their production processes to the needs of their local communities. From the beginning of the lockdown, the French FabLab Network reorganized its members local activities in order to produce and distribute masks and face shields. In particular, they made plans and manufacturing guidelines available through open access and provided technical and logistical advice.
Other local initiatives based on digital platforms controlled by their users have increased their activity to provide services, share resource and help increase resilience in local communities. One such example is Pwiic, a mutual aid platform for neighbors to help one another procure food and medication during the lockdown period. Or the Open Food Network, which supports the organization of local food systems, and Coopcycle for the delivery of online purchases. This platform helps bicycle delivery workers organize through associations or cooperatives to obtain more dignified working conditions than those of other better-known platforms. Restrictions on travel and gatherings imposed by lockdown orders may benefit fair travel platforms such as Les Oiseaux de Passage, which combine human connections and tourism.
The digital tools that create such platforms can also be developed in a local way and/or by their users. The free software movement has led the way, but there are also initiatives to produce and host free tools locally. This is the aim of the Collective of Alternative, Transparent, Open, Neutral, Solidary Hosting Web Hosts (or CHATONS), another example of an organization that has been very active both before and during the crisis we are experiencing.
Even though they are digitally-based, platforms can have significant tangible effects on people and places, for example, the rise in housing prices driven by tourist rentals. How, then, can we preserve the vitality of our local places without giving up the benefits of digital technology?
The first French Forum on Cooperative Platforms highlighted the importance of partnerships between local authorities and digital platforms in order to develop new business models that are sustainable from a social and ecological point of view. As illustrated in the April 2020 presentation by Plateformes en Communs – (Commons Platforms), the French network of cooperative platforms – to the European Commission, such partnerships can help make local territories more resilient and autonomous by sharing resources through inclusive governance.
These solutions proposed by citizens, social economy organizations and public players represent alternatives to technologies that tend to be monopolistic. Because they offer governance that is closer to local needs – and more importantly, shared – they invent new virtual third places. By pooling time, digital technologies, knowledge and a variety of other resources for the benefit of other citizens and organizing the collective management of these resources, those behind such initiatives have opened the door to new digital “commons.”
Like physical commons, digital commons are based on co-management by a portion of the users of the (digital) resources so that as many people as possible may benefit. These commons, whether physical or digital, are always threatened by the breakdown of the collective and by competition from more appealing private solutions, at least in the short term. But the success of the initiatives we have cited, – and many others – their flexibility and resilience in this time of crisis, have proven their effectiveness. They are viable, resilient solutions, and are probably more sustainable in terms of the diffusion, appropriation and control of technologies and the digital space.
What digital technology and these initiatives have shown us is that place is not necessarily physical. It is that which is close, familiar, which we can influence and shape. Even under lockdown, places were not erased from the horizon of human activity and continued to organize and host collective action, in particular in virtual third places. The lockdown was primarily a period of exclusion of third places for leisure and the backdrop for locally-rooted social and digital innovation. The creation and renovation of commons – tangible, intangible and hybrid – initiated by cooperative platforms leads us to rethink the dimensions and potential of third places in the 21st century. But not what makes them so necessary: these are places for exploration, of course, but ones participants can control, places they can help shape and organize, in a word: govern.
 Müge Özman is a researcher at the Institut Mines-Télécom Business School.
 Mélissa Boudes is a researcher at the Institut Mines-Télécom Business School.
 Cynthia Srnec is a researcher at the MGEN Foundation for Public Health and an associate researcher at LITEM.
 Nicolas Jullien is a researcher at IMT Atlantique and a member of the GIS Marsouin Scientific Interest Group.
 Cédric Gossart is a researcher at the Institut Mines-Télécom Business School.