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A shared space age: Coworking from Canada to Cincinnati

   /   Apr 3rd, 2010Business, News

As a freelancer who works from her “home office” (read: dark, cave-like basement), I am all too aware of the connection between physical environment and intellectual creativity. Though I have numerous freelancing friends with whom I exchange ideas and test story pitches, no amount of e-collaboration or sporadic coffee shop meetups can substitute for the creative synergy enabled by working consistently in a dynamic hub.

The folks behind Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) get this. The power of the “hive” to spark innovation is the driving idea behind CSI (check your clever TV references at the door).  On the CSI website, under “Theory of Change,” a three-tiered pyramid explains it all: space is the foundation, community the core, and innovation the goal, as it were.

Tonya Surman, the Executive Director, co-founded the space in 2004, ironically, to adapt what she had learned from online communities to the physical world. Through its events (speakers, film screenings, workshops, dialogues about key social issues), CSI not only connects like-minded people, but turns conversation into action. (Example: Its leadership in advancing a “Social Economy Movement” has gained traction across Ontario.)

CSI is a leading example not only in Canada, but globally. Another leader is the MaRS Discovery District, also in Toronto, part of the Social Innovation Generation collaboration. Few spaces can match their energy, scope and social significance. The Hub, based out of London, hosts workspaces that include changemakers and businesses on four continents and 12 cities. It’s growing fast, but it’s unclear whether these spaces actually function as social change communities.

As  Nathaniel Whittemore observes, coworking is proliferating across the U.S., from California to Cincinnati. My current hometown of Portland, Oregon has recently gotten into the act, spurred by its high concentration of independent professionals seeking surroundings more stimulating than their basements (ahem) and by the recession, which has made individual office space a luxury.

What’s more, new initiatives like Unreasonable Institute (UI) are going beyond coworking, incubating startups and helping them quickly generate revenue streams. These organizations (startups themselves) select promising social entrepreneurs from around the world, bring them together to develop and possibly finance their ideas. UI received 285 applications for 25 fellowship positions for its 2010 summer institute.

Communities like CSI in Toronto and UI in Boulder, Colorado, demonstrate the need among changemakers for collaborative spaces. They are still young. But I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of them cropping up.

Bringing aspiring social entrepreneurs together under the same roof is a great first step toward incubating innovation. But it takes more than shared office space to spark social change. What do the organizers of these spaces do to move their tenants from coworking to collaboration? We’ll explore this in a future post with someone who does just that every day. Stay tuned for more stories of the “Shared Space Age.”

That is the real challenge of these spaces. It’s not hard to carve up a building into cubicles and sublease space to cool groups. The creative places like CSI give a lot of thought to how you actually get people to work together – and when it really makes sense to try — which is a far more difficult and artful challenge.

Learn More:

Interested in starting a coworking space? Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) is creating a Guide to Shared Spaces for Social Innovation, dedicated to “tips, tactics and tools for helping people around the world to create shared spaces dedicated to social innovation.” More at

If you live in a major U.S. city, chances are there’s a coworking space near you. Here are a few:
Austin, TX:
Carrboro, NC:
Chicago, IL:
New York, NY:
Philadelphia, PA:
San Francisco, CA:
Seattle, WA:
Tucson, AZ:
Washington, DC:

Coworking can be classy. Check out 10 sweet spaces from around the world:

Photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

9 Responses

  1. Bill says:

    I think facilitating co-working is itself a social enterprise even if the co-workers have projects that aren’t also social enterprise. An associate started in San Francisco. These arrangements, even when used primarily by for-profit co-workers, foster community, which is a noble benefit even on its own.

    Beta Bill

  2. Joanna says:

    I am also drawn to the idea of coworking. I wrote about it a little while back:
    There are now many, many coworking spaces here in NYC. A brand new one is Hive at 55:

  3. Ruby Ku says:

    CSI is awesome! For those who are in Toronto, also check out these other great co-working spaces:

  4. Kevin jones says:

    The hub is open in Berkeley and is opening in SF May 3 for social entrepreneurs and innovators to share space and time

  5. Ruby Ku says:

    I just came across this new co-working space in Shanghai. Worth checking out:

  6. Emily Spivack says:

    Thanks, Ruby and Kevin, for the tips!

  7. Greg says:

    For those around the north side of Chicago there is a new coworking space starting up:

  8. Jay says:

    Where are the co-working locations in Cincinnati?

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