CENTRE FOR SOCIAL INNOVATION: Can a bit of real estate change the world?

CSI cafe.Mention real estate and most of us think housing costs – rent increases or huge mortgages for our living space, and the issue of affordable housing when the average detached Toronto house price has reached $1M. But commercial real estate also has a huge impact on our neighbourhoods and on the overall character of the city.

As avenues and main streets evolve we often lose the real-life daily necessities provided by amenities like hardware stores and greengrocers because those don’t turn the profits required for the square footage rent. We end up forced to make our way to Loblaws and Home Depot rather than take a short neighbourhood walk to pick up lettuce or faucet washers. Advocacy organizations, small start-ups, charities, social justice and political groups are also priced out of neighbourhoods and either have nowhere to go or they spend all their time searching for funding to meet their increasingly high rents rather than working on their mission. Without their presence, the scope of our lives is reduced and our city is left with a big box consumer entity. Buying and selling, driving and riding… public interaction becomes only commercial, and we become urban consumers rather than participating citizens.

This is where the Centre for Social Innovation comes in. The CSI creates and animates co-working spaces, connecting and supporting people who, as they put it, are trying to create the world they want to live in. What that world may be seems to have very broad parameters, judging by the CSI’s member list, and can be summed up by saying that it tends to counter the world of Bay St. and Stephen Harper. As they describe it:

“Social innovation refers to the creation, development, adoption, and integration of new and renewed concepts and practices that put people and the planet first.” 

The CSI has three locations in Toronto – Spadina near Queen, Bathurst at Bloor and Regent Park. It manages the properties and provides the communal resources usually beyond the reach of small organizations – maintaining a high-end photocopier, meeting rooms of various sizes, and free access to expertise. Thoughtful renovations have also included comfortable enclosed phone rooms for privacy and to prevent the disruption of overheard conversations, and social spaces like communal kitchens and a café for informal gatherings. The café is public and has free WiFi, so anyone can come by for a coffee, open their laptop and work (or not). There is a wide range of tenancy options, from renting a desk for a few hours a week, to leasing a large private office on an upper floor. Regardless of the size of their membership foothold, everybody here is part of the community. “Together, we’re building a movement of nonprofits, for-profits, entrepreneurs, artists and activists working across sectors to create a better world.” (CSI)

The Centre for Social Innovation at 720 Bathurst St. Click on any photo to enlarge.

The co-working community

Prospective tenants must fill out an application and qualify as “world-changers”, as well as explain how they will contribute to the members’ community. In speaking with a few members from activist/advocacy sectors, there is an overall positive feeling about working in the CSI space, though they seem to identify their constituency outside the CSI environment, and are not so focused on building community within. Perhaps internal networking is more important to small entrepreneurial members. Those I spoke to did feel that there is a general sense of community and appreciate having people to talk to, others working around them, and relief from feeling isolated. All this on top of stability and affordability. As one member said,

“I like working here. I find people very friendly and easy to share space with. It is definitely nice having someone else deal with the photocopier, toner, etc. We do occasionally make professional connections and have collaborated with other groups here. Some of my colleagues participate in the weekly salad club on the main floor and a few go to other events […] it’s a nice alternative to a traditional office building.”

There is a members’ Listserv where people connect and interact. It’s filled with offers such as discount massages and free stress management workshops, and people will often put out questions like, “How do you do this?” or, “Do I need a lawyer for this and can anyone suggest one?” The community responds and shares their knowledge and skills, though that can occasionally be delicate and create minor tensions. One tenant said he tried to contribute by answering computer related questions, but there are other tenants whose business is computer skills (for which they charge) and he got a friendly email saying “stay out of our territory.” When discussion sometimes veers into contentious political topics, management intervenes and redirects it to an opinion forum.

The broader community

Turnout Toronto poster.The CSI also sometimes serves as a small scale alternative convention centre. In January 2014, over 500 hundred people turned up for the first Turnout Toronto, A Civic Engagement Fair. Organized and hosted by the CSI, it was “conceived … as a way to galvanize Torontonians looking for ways to effect positive change in the city, and to get involved in positive, forward-thinking initiatives.”(CSI)  Other organizations have rented the space – the Green Party used the entire ground floor of the CSI Annex for their recent convention. The Liberal provincial government used the café for its press conference announcing a raise in the provincial minimum wage. Community Food Centres Canada held a two-day summit there in February 2015. Have a look at their use of the CSI Annex space in their program Food Summit 2015.

The CSI seems to have stepped into the benevolent landlord niche that used to be filled byCommunity bond sign. progressive downtown churches until they were sold by dwindling congregations and converted to condo lofts. The CSI is committed in a deliberate and ambitious way to being a catalyst for social change by providing and animating affordable, centrally located work spaces for small non-profits, for-profits and public sector innovators.

Pooling their own skills and expertise in property development and management, architectural heritage and social organization, the founders are putting their money and effort where their values lie and are providing avenues for the rest of us to do the same. To ensure permanence and affordability, the building on Bathurst at Bloor was purchased using the innovative financing concept of community bonds. A second bond initiative is now under way in order to purchase a new Spadina location.

Clearly, by glancing at the Toronto skyline we can see that lots of big tall money is being made in new highrise buildings. Those who choose a different, less profit-oriented path make a valuable contribution to the city. They preserve historic architecture and people’s organizations, promote civic engagement and help envision and create the future. Changing the world? Well, we all have to take that on, but at least we have a place to meet and work on it.

– Schuster Gindin
Photos by Schuster Gindin

Who’s there? Have a look at the CSI members list. For a complete picture of the Centres for Social Innovation, visit the very articulate and comprehensive CSI website.

This article is part of our issue OUTPOSTS: Ventures Outside the Box.



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