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WeWork founder says we've lost community

Selling the intangibles of emotional intelligence and mood music (WeWork).

WeWork, the $20 billion office leasing startup, announced a push into the think-tank space today — a partnership with Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson and the tony Aspen Institute for a series of studies on the future of work and cities.

Like Uber and Airbnb, WeWork has attained an astronomical valuation while changing and defining how many people live and work in cities around the world. With the move into public policy, co-founder Adam Neumann seeks to better understand — and, if he can, influence — what happens next in those cities.

Adding it up: Data is said to be the new oil, and artificial intelligence to have a future as big as electricity. But WeWork reflects today's reality in American startups, whose splashiest members start with something wholly different — the intangibles of emotional intelligence and mood music.

Here's how it works: WeWork leases out multiple, sprawling floors in office buildings in the world's biggest cities in 18 countries and counting, and decks them out with working and relaxing spaces big and small. Those are then rented to individual workers, startups and established companies at rates averaging $650 a month per person. While definitely working spaces, they are more akin in feel and appearance to upscale boutique hotels, meticulously designed and managed (check out the images here). On giant screens at headquarters on West 18th Street in New York, executives and technicians monitor the empire, including what type of maintenance has been requested in each building, and whether it's been done; month-by-month going into next year, what deals and what office developments are coming next; and how precisely its spaces are used.

  • Given that WeWork offices currently host about 150,000 workers (whom it calls "members,"), that is substantial cash flow. In August, a $4.4 billion investment from Japan's SoftBank lifted WeWork's valuation to $20 billion, which elevated it into a tie for sixth place among the world's most-valuable startups.
  • There are copycats, but WeWork seems to set the pace, selling an incredibly energetic atmosphere and the convenience of someone else taking care of everything — you just walk in and start working, probably with a latte at your fingertips.
  • The model demonstrates yet again that people — investors, anyway — will pay handsomely for the equivalent of mood music along with a quality product.

The culture starts here: Neumann and co-founder Miguel McKelvey have been the recipients of years of fawning media coverage. Most of these articles and videos point out their fondness for new-agey language (like this 2015 appearance in which, it was noted, Neumann said the word community "at least a dozen times"), and the 6-foot-5 Neumann's looks ("he resembles a rock star," one writer said flatly).

And it's true that Neumann is well situated — a billionaire at 38, No. 12 on Fortune's list of 40 under 40; his portrait on the current cover of Forbes; married to a cousin of Gwyneth Paltrow.

Enter emotional intelligence: Neumann clearly wants to add substance to WeWork's public persona — for lack of better phrase, to show that he is not just a pretty face. He is making no quiet thing out of his leap into public policy — the company is doing a big rollout of the partnership with Aspen.

The research: With the reams of data collected and collated on its work spaces every day, WeWork has the unusual makings of a comprehensive understanding of how work is really done today around the world. The relationship with Aspen intends to help cities understand the economic impact of innovation clusters, with research into these concentrations of startups and surveys of WeWork's far-flung membership (Isaacson is leaving Aspen at the end of the year for a professorship at Tulane University).

On a ride with him to Battery Park (taken, how else, by Lyft), I asked why the high-profile leap. He points to his t-shirt, which says, "We are human." When he and McKelvey began the company seven years ago, he says, "it was always about the future of work, the future of 'we.'" It's high concept. "We were promised that through technology, we would all come together. But instead it feels that people are more disconnected than ever."

Lostness is what ails us: Neumann, with WeWork — and a slowly developing urban residential offering called WeLive — said he hopes to help re-establish some of the lost community (there is that word again). Going back centuries, the residents of urban areas were glued together in part through town halls, gatherings in taverns, cafes and open spaces to hash out the subjects of the day. "We would like to try to be that now," Neumann tells me.

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