Empty Chinese Shopping Malls Become Co-Working Hubs

As the boom of e-commerce platforms in China is driving shopping mall retailers out of business, co-working is there to fill the gap in consumers’ paradises. The Chinese startup scene is expected to grow vastly in the next years due to the government’s announcement calling for “mass entrepreneurship”.

China e-commerce is one of the fastest-growing in the world, where online shoppers make up to 36% of the population. Tech companies such as Alibaba have been boosting this development, that we are now starting to see the consequences of it. Offline retailers are closing their branches in shopping malls, especially in the upper floors, where customers do not seem to bother going anymore. Once attracting mostly families, landlords needed to think of a new target group for their many square meters.

SOHO 3Q co-working space by AIM Architecture in Beijing, China

There comes the generation of millennials, that prefer to work in shared office spaces. The Chinese co-working company SOHO 3Q was one of the first ones to transform a shopping mall in Beijing into a freelancer’s paradise, with flexible desks, meeting rooms and loads of open space. Where once elevators have been taking shoppers upstairs, co-working members can now lounge on a wide staircase, that doubles as seating space, called “theater”.

Whilst some malls have been converted fully into office buildings, some still host retail stores, cafés, and restaurants. They are thriving from this new crowd of consumers, who are shopping during working hours on weekdays, which are usually the least profitable for businesses. Co-working space providers know that millennials not only value proximity to shops and flexible renting contracts but also an aesthetic space to spend their time in. Consequently, interior design firms are getting hired to turn the empty stores into stylish co-working spaces, which in China skipped the former early stage of being improvised in former industrial buildings.

The worldwide share of co-working spaces in the corporate real estate sector is expected to rise until 2030 from 5 to 30%. China is predicted to quickly catch up with the US, who is currently leading in the number of shared office spaces nationwide. This development is not only driven by millennials, but also by the ambitions of the Chinese government. Their goal is to transform the economy with new industries and services, supporting startups and establishing innovation incubators throughout the country.

Apparently, co-working has still undiscovered potential to make use of spatial and temporal gaps in urban space. On Pop-Up City, we have been observing this trend for quite a while: Spacious in New York is renting out restaurants outside of business hours, AndCo turns London’s cafés into flexible workspaces, and freelancers in San Francisco are working on parking lots raising the question of ownership for the shrinking amount of space in cities.