Where’s my free lunch? I ask. 

“It never was free. You paid with social capital,” says Nynke Visser, manager of Seats2meet.com Utrecht CS (S2M030).

I don’t believe you. I’m suspicious by nature.

I recently came back from overseas – Australia via Thailand with a stint in Switzerland on my return to The Netherlands – you know the life of a digital nomad. My work moves with me and this is why I fell in love with S2M030 last time I was in Utrecht. It is a haven for freelancers, independent professionals, whatever we are called – at Seats2meet they say ZP’ers for short, which means Zelfstandig Professionals (Independent Professionals in English). You can share in the workspace, Wifi, all-you-can-drink tea and coffee, and of course the almighty lunch buffet. They said I paid for all this with my social capital – just by being me – but I secretly thought they must be harvesting our organs in a backroom or something, to justify all this.

But now the lunch buffet costs 5 euros?

“A monetary contribution helps in part to maintain the services, such as workspace, meeting areas, Wifi and beverages.”

I don’t have euros, only Swiss Francs and Australian dollars.

I’m only testing her, but the tall confident, curly-haired Nynke doesn’t flinch.

“That’s if you choose to contribute in a monetary way.”

You mean there’s another way? Like a kidney? I ask.

“You can provide social capital.”

There are those magic words again. But what do they mean?

What is this sorcery? How do I harness it?

“Well the most direct way is to volunteer for one of the jobs on the board next to the reception.”

Sign me up!

My Dutch is terrible, but I scan the list next to reception and guess that ‘Afwas’ is washing dishes – something I’m qualified to do. At midday I rock-up for my 30-minute job. In the kitchen I’m greeted by the bald-headed, bearded-grin of Ivo. Chefs are supposed to be grumpy and shouting but my time flew past laughing and learning Dutch. Apparently I need to remember something that rhymes with keuken? (Dutch for kitchen) I just nod politely and ask questions – I’m trying to find out how it all began, discover the origins of the social capital lunch.

“Well it all started a few years ago, right here,” explains Ivo. “Seats2meet.com Utrecht CS and Meeting Plaza Utrecht (the original locations of Seats2meet) had leftover food going to waste from their meeting spaces and function room clients. At the time, there were some ZP’ers working at a long table in the lounge (common area) and it was decided the leftovers could be divided amongst them. This abundance was shared. Probably the greatest thing to come out of this was the opportunity to meet and interact over a plate of food. Connections were made, social capital shared, it made life better for everyone.”

So it wasn’t just about the food? There was something else I could be gaining from Seats2meet. I could benefit from other people’s social capital too. Before I leave the kitchen I need to ask what Ivo thinks.

If it was working so well before, why do you think they started to charge 5 euros for the buffet?

“The amount of people in the shared workspaces got so large that we were needing to make so much more extra food to provide for them. So what went from a way to stop food-waste, actually started creating it’s own waste and left-overs. Beside this, there is no abundance anymore and in a world where not all people have enough food, we could not accept that we would be giving food away and create even more food waste because of it.”

I hang up my apron and Ivo hands me a grey coin for the buffet (Grey coins are earned through social capital – and Green coins through monetary payment – both can then be traded for lunch). The buffet looks amazing and I’m excited, having just witnessed the preparation of the fresh, healthy ingredients in the kitchen. The new style buffet is also designed to minimise waste. You can select what you need – from breads, cheeses, meats, and super-lekker (Dutch for yum) organic spreads. You can even create your own salad – with great vegan-friendly ingredients and revolutionary dressings! Since it’s getting colder these days I also take a hot soup and join the others at the communal tables for a munch ‘n a chat (Australian for eating and talking).

Of course I start asking people about the new arrangement for lunch.

Martijn, a freelance App designer, felt the changes were expected. “Some people were arriving just before lunch and leaving right after. It was obvious they weren’t there to offer social capital, or to contribute. I think it works well now. It helps people see this as a community.”

This community he spoke of chatted excitedly around me over lunch about what they were working on. At S2M030 it is actually an ecosystem with people from immensely diverse backgrounds. They offered opinions, advice and introductions to further each other’s work. You could even see where the ZP’ers’ skills overlapped or complemented each other and where future co-productions would develop. The work was inspiring and wide-ranging. I met Drs. Geraldus Horlings, who is finishing up a book to help those who live with people suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder. Ronald Haverman is working on delivering open-share bike locker systems to train stations across The Netherlands. He was introduced to me by Jurjen de Vries from the Permanent Future Lab located at S2M030. I also had a chat with Ton van Son, whose daughter was travelling to Australia, where I’m from, and I was more than happy to offer my help for her trip.

I was starting to see how it all worked – how Seats2meet was an ecosystem moving toward Society 3.0. I am a writer and every person I was meeting g[ave me great ideas for my stories. I was benefitting exponentially from my interactions. Also, there were things I could offer them in return – exchanges or future co-productions.

I decide to ask Nynke if I could use my writing as social capital for my lunch buffet.

“Of course you can. I’d love to see more social capital offered in this way.”

Awesome! And by the way I do have euros as well, I confess.

“Either one is appreciated. But you know it was never really about taking money or social capital off people. These changes are about encouraging interaction and exchanges that will build a strong community for us all – and to make sure it is sustainable. By doing this, the location will become more relevant for people and therefore more valuable. It gives people the opportunity to get involved directly by offering social capital, to think about what they can offer, or to help maintain the services with their 5 euros.”

I’m shocked – my free lunch was never really free! But now there is also a new option for how I can help the great experiment that is S2M030 move forward sustainably. It was about us building a community of the future. It relies on a willingness of people to share. That means both giving and taking – and neither on its own. Either one alone is not sustainable – if you only give it leaves the individual not growing – and only taking will fail the community.

So offer what you can and accept what is offered to you. You can share your social capital (offer that skill which is close to your heart), or do a little job (because you just want to do something with your hands) or pay 5 euros.

Seats2meet only works because of you.

Myself, well I’m going to pretend my lunch is still free! I can’t lie I was always going to give a little back to S2M030, lunch or no lunch (but don’t tell them). And the times I do pay my 5 euros instead, I’m still winning. I’ve tried to make a lunch that great for less money and I can’t. My stomach is now growling just thinking about it. Hopefully you appreciate what I’ve just offered in my way of social capital? If not, you can tell me all about it at the buffet, or over lunch, or even comment below this post.

As long as you share, because that’s what it’s all about.