Shenzhen, China – Assuming an attitude more reminiscent of a design hotel than the shoestring ‘office factory’ of yesteryear, X+Living’s flamboyant Unova Co-Working Space marks the coming of age of co-working in China. With its playful and design-led scheme, the 8,800-sq-m facility, located in the business hotspot of Shenzhen, reflects China’s desire to transform itself from the factory of the world into a global centre for creative innovation. It’s an ambition that dates from 2015, when the Chinese government called for ‘mass entrepreneurship’. An unprecedented surge in start-ups followed: over six million were registered in 2017 alone. Naturally, the demand for flexible mini-office spaces boomed along with them.
‘Co-working is extremely popular in China right now,’ said design office X+Living’s Li Xiang. The new Unova space, she says, is occupied mainly by ‘advertising agencies, art firms, start-ups and freelancers’. One of its four floors is reserved for larger companies in search of a more creative environment. This was the suggestion of the designers, who pointed out that ‘relatively mature companies will be helpful to our brand owners as more stable tenants’.
With many tenants working in the creative industries that China aims to excel in, the design of Unova incorporates the unexpected, including art-world references and surreally humorous details. ‘We wanted to use an interesting concept to make a stylistic breakthrough,’ said Li Xiang. ‘We used famous art works, sports equipment and others elements as design highlights, integrating them into the functional parts of the space.’ In the washrooms, for example, are details culled from paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and Van Gogh; elsewhere, a frying pan becomes a mirror, and a plunge pool is transformed into a meeting space.
The quirkiness of the design expresses the changing aspirations of workers, said Li Xiang: ‘More and more, people are beginning to value the spiritual satisfaction the office environment can bring to their employees and customers,’ she says. ‘The concept of “sharing” has become very popular, too; we also see it in shared bicycles and shared battery chargers.’
Younger generations tend to have their own ideas and to prefer new things, so interesting working environments can really attract their attention
Whereas Chinese workers were once motivated by money, now they are likely to be looking for fun and ‘family’ – elements that co-working spaces like Unova promise to provide. ‘The younger generations tend to have their own ideas and to prefer new things, so interesting working environments can really attract their attention,’ said Li Xiang. Many of them are highly present on the internet, too, and need ‘good-looking designs’ to be Instagram-ready – especially in their own offices.
China is already home to the highest concentration (and total valuation) of start-ups globally. According to a report by China Money Network, more venture capital was invested in Chinese businesses in 2018 than in American ones.