The Serendipity Machine

I met Sebastian Olma of Serendipity Lab through my friend Joe Pine. Yes, you can orchestrate serendipity!! Sebastian, an organization hacker, is the author of The Serendipity Machine - the inspiring story of the highly innovative, international coworking network Sebastian and his partner Yulia Kryazheva travelled to many of the company’s locations worldwide (85+) to talk to stakeholders involved in the mesh on which the company is thriving.  This is a fabulous story - let's make it work here!

Transforming your Business into a Serendipity Machine: The Case of

Sebastian Olma

Step 1: Opening up

About 5 years ago, a then rather traditional Dutch meeting business started to scan its environment for innovation stimuli when it noticed a new group of professionals the company had never really dealt with before: independent professionals, aka knowmads, digital bohemians, free agents and so on. Mariëlle Sijgers and Ronald van den Hoff, owners of the company that was to become, knew instantly that they wanted this dynamic new breed of professionals within their company but weren’t entirely sure how they should go about it. So they did something that is actually against the law of business: they put a table into their lounge and invited them in free of charge. Van den Hoff recalls:

“In the beginning, we had this one table with 20 seats. I mean, we thought that would be the size of this thing, the number of people we could perhaps expect. And we didn’t want to register them or anything, or make them pay for their lunch. We just thought it would be great to have this new group of independent professionals around, give them some space to work and connect, and get some liveliness into those otherwise empty spaces in return… But we were literally overrun by them.”

By opening its lounge to the growing network of independent professionals, began to build an interface between its business and the wealth of social networks. The company understood that having 100 people sitting in your lounge tweeting, posting, texting and emailing about how great your space is is priceless. The power of viral marketing makes it sensible for to provide workspaces without asking for financial compensation.

Of course, this strategy only works because also offers a premium service: its meeting and office spaces. In the flagship location in Utrecht, for instance, the viral buzz in the open lounge leads to an average 95 per cent utilization of the meeting spaces. So formally, has created a freemium model that enables it to share a substantial portion of its physical assets with the growing number of independent professionals on a noncommercial basis. In return, they were able to get rid of their marketing department.

Step 2: Inventing a Currency

The next step was to use to find a way of formalizing the exchange taking place in the lounge. So invented a currency for nonmonetary, nontransactional exchange, aptly calling it social capital. What accepts as a payment for the use of its open lounges is simply the adoption of a particular attitude. It is an attitude of openness and sharing that anyone operating within a social network needs to have anyway.

For this purpose, requires its users to register via its app or website before they book a workspace. Each prospective user is asked to include a photo (or a hookup with his or her Twitter and/or LinkedIn account) and specify his or her particular skills and expertise. Every time a user books a workspace, he or she signs an agreement stating:

“As you are not paying with money for your workspace, we expect you to pay with social capital: to be open to unexpected and valuable encounters and to share your knowledge and talents!”

Clearly, paying with social capital doesn’t exclusively mean paying It also means paying tribute to the social network physically present at the location by contributing to its strength and purpose. At, they have a term for this: “serendipity.” In the context, serendipity means the increased likelihood of an encounter that will add value to a user’s entrepreneurial activity. The company understands it as the fabric out of which value is created in the network economy. Serendipity is fed by the constant exchange of social capital. makes an enormous effort to develop the best technology available to support this serendipity. This is why it asks users to sign in to the system: doing so allows them to see the current state of the social network.

This is done via a real-time community dashboard, which lists the registered users and organizes their skills in a cloud. This enables the user to decide on the best location based on the skills of people available at each. A dashboard screen on the wall is also an integral part of every location, giving users the opportunity to always see who is present at every site. A web designer we met in the workspace at Utrecht railway station says, “This is a great tool! I always use it to Google who’s around before I start working.” For other users, it serves as a contingency tool, something they can use “to always find an accountant or a developer in case of emergency.”

Whatever its different modes of application might be, the dashboard screen visualizes the network at any given time, turning the open lounge into a veritable serendipity machine. As soon as one enters a open lounge, one is able to see the skills and competencies of everyone present at the push of a button.

Step 3: Building a Mesh 

By combining the traditional logic of money capital with the new logic of social capital has not just created a mutually beneficial interface between those worlds. The company has also created a platform for new kinds of value networks that together are co-creating a new economic playing field. There is indeed a “mesh” that has formed around, i.e., a constellation of networks of professionals forming a dynamic collective intelligence to which everyone contributes meaningfully in his or her own way. The mesh dynamically connects networks, raising their capacity exponentially. This is not your relatively static Facebook or LinkedIn group: people come and go all the time; networks connect, disconnect, and reconnect. Yet the mesh as an ecosphere remains intrinsically stable; it evolves, and this is the condition for its survival.

In mesh networks, people act as sovereign “nodes,” deciding for themselves whether or not to share information with other networks. Therefore, the networks themselves become extraordinarily dynamic and flow into each other, forming a mesh. This makes it difficult to determine the exact place of value creation within the mesh. It no longer happens between four walls under a single roof in a building with the company’s name on it. The actual site of value creation has, in fact, become a non-space, a mesh of distributed relations waiting to be engaged by an organization in order to do what the mesh does best: create value.

The future will belong to organizations that embed themselves within their “own” mesh. You cannot, of course, own or control a mesh. However, it is possible for an organization to turn itself into a serendipity machine by connecting to and sharing resources with potential stakeholders. This is the way to co-create a mesh, and the only way to construct a resilient guarantor of future value creation.



Power in Innovation Networks

A few weeks ago, I was driving by an abandoned Ford plant in Lorain, OH.   The plant, a key regional employer closed in 2005.  What

struck me were the parking lots.  Some of them were fields!  You couldn’t even see any concrete.  Others were still in the process of re-fielding.  In 6 years, the force of nature was powerful enough to break through concrete and asphalt, not just in cracks made from wear and tear but also in solid concrete.  Do you know how much power and strength that takes?  So I thought I’d find out. Two of my ‘learnings’ really hit me:

  1. The Network: since plants need light and water (remember osmosis and photosynthesis?), all it takes is 1 plant sprouting up between a crack to ‘distribute’ the energy and nutrients of light and water throughout its underground root system causing others to grow and push through.
  2. The Chemistry: the cellulose, starch and lignin in the plant cells creates electrical charges when wet – like water (2H are +, 1O is -).  The water permeates these natural polymers creating a chemical bond (hydrogen bonding) that makes the cell contents and wall swell exponentially, which creates tremendous pressure - pressure strong enough to break through concrete and asphalt.

The Network.  Nature has an incredible under-on-over-ground network that I believe is indestructible – not that we can’t damage it a lot.  Man has a lot of hubris to think we are powerful enough to fully destroy what existed long before us.  We have a lot to learn from nature’s powerful networks. Networks increase strength, resilience, diversity, and adaptation, which facilitate growth and innovation.  We can use networks to create these same traits in society, in communities and even our companies: to solve wicked problems facing our world; to tell, share and create stories that transform; even to just have fun. We need to get over our hubris of our individual power and knowledge, just like our hubris with the planet, and realize its “The Network, Stupid”.   We – as companies, organizations, people - need to stop fearing the network (e.g., twitter, Facebook, etc.) and embracing it – it is a key to survival.

The Chemistry. Have you ever met someone and you just clicked? The same strength of physical chemical bonds between atoms happens between people.  These can’t be commanded or coerced, they happen (or don’t) naturally.  It’s the power of these bonds between people that create, sustain and grow networks.  That’s why networks, which are collaborative are great at innovation – whether in sustainability or other areas.  When atoms collide, they create energy and new structures.  When people collide, they create energy and new ideas, solutions.

So, look at the parking lot again.  What can you learn from the power of nature, from its underlying extending network and adaptive evolving chemistry?  How can this apply to your company, project, initiatives and people? You don’t have to start at some grand scale.  All it takes is one small stalk sticking up through a crack in the seemingly impermeable concrete (your culture?) to spread.