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200 social innovators, one copier: It's all about sharing

Tonya Surman, executive director of the Centre for Social Innovation

Rosa Park for The Globe and Mail/rosa park The Globe and Mail

How do you want to change the world? That's the No. 1 question the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) asks prospective tenants. The answer could lead to a spot in the shared, eco-friendly office space in downtown Toronto that the organization provides to social innovators.

"We don't care what kind of governance model you come from," says Tonya Surman, founding executive director of CSI. "Our number one criteria is, 'How is your company, your project, your initiative working toward making the world a better place?' We have artists, environmentalists, videographers, people from education, health and social justice - people from across the political spectrum."

CSI is a social enterprise, defined by Ms. Surman as a revenue-generating, non-profit organization. All profit is directed toward the mission of supporting social innovation.

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The shared workspace is key to that goal, creating "a whole bunch of intersections between sectors and people so that ideas get stirred up, collaborations occur and through those collaborations, projects and innovations start to emerge," says Ms. Surman.

When CSI first opened its doors to 14 founding tenants in 2004, traditional business was skeptical about whether the sharing concept would work, says Ms. Surman. But demand has been tremendous, and today CSI houses about 200 organizations in its downtown Spadina Avenue building and is anticipating more than 300 new ones in a new downtown location that will open soon.

CSI offers a range of services that support early stage startups. It also provides shared space for larger organizations such as the David Suzuki Foundation.

"Our model stops working at about five or six people," says Ms. Surman. "As soon as you get to that kind of staffing, you probably need to move on. Then you need your own culture, your own systems and it's time to graduate."

So how does sharing space work?

"Very practically, we provide shared offices: office suites, permanent desks and 'hot desking,' also known as co-working," says Ms. Surman. "Everybody who becomes a member pays us rent, starting at $75 a month all the way to $2,000 a month for a really gorgeous suite. We all have a little bit of space that we buy; then we share everything else - meeting rooms, kitchens, Internet access, telephone systems, fax machines, reception services and so on."

CSI's operation on Spadina Avenue has 45 private offices, each with a lockable door so people can have privacy. There are about 50 private desks in a big open space that also has a lockable area and lockers for the 'hot deskers.' They are people who aren't looking for permanent office space but just a little piece of it, explains Ms. Surman. Hot deskers bring their laptops in, get their morning coffee in the kitchen, plant themselves in the hot desking area and work with access to all the services.

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"Through co-sharing we are able to have one photocopier instead of 200, one kitchen, instead of 200," says Ms. Surman. "Ninety-six per cent of our members ride their bikes or take transit to work.

"In addition to the events our members have, we host over 300 workshops, seminars, book launches and events in the space, and every one is encouraged to go zero-waste. We're pretty focused on how we do this in a sustainable way."

CSI also uses its procurement policy as a foundation for sustainability.

"Every single decision we make goes through an environmental lens, from our cleaning products to our dishes to our policies," says Ms. Surman. "We have some of the best organic free trade coffee, and every single milk product is organic. That costs us double, but this is a sign of our commitment to our procurement policy.

"Our motto is that we have a vision of how our world should be operating and we need to practice that in every single decision we make, from the paper that we use to the milk that we drink in our coffee. We need to make sure that those decisions reflect our values in every way.

"It's not always easy and there are always tons of compromises, but if we can't do it, who will?"

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