Focal point for social innovators – comment – Focal point for social innovators
January 18, 2008
Carol Goar

Working at home, economical and convenient as it may be, is not an ideal way to change the world.

There’s no one to answer the phone or go to the door when you’re busy. There’s no place to hold meetings. You probably don’t have a photocopier, a fax machine or a good colour printer.

Then there’s the isolation. You’re on your own when your computer crashes, you need to test an idea on someone or you hit a mental roadblock.

Until 2004, people with big dreams and small budgets had two basic choices: Live with these irritants or rent a cheap – and usually dingy – office.

Then Margie Zeidler stepped in.

The Toronto architect and community leader found a 91-year-old warehouse on Spadina Ave., once used to make and distribute plumbing equipment, and transformed it into the Centre for Social Innovation.

Today, the building serves as headquarters for 85 social enterprises, ranging from fledgling charities to successful ventures such as Green Students Fundraising, which provides schools with compact fluorescent light bulbs, stainless steel water bottles and reusable dryerballs (instead of chocolate bars) for kids to sell.

An office rents for $600 to $2,600 a month, depending on the size. A desk, with access to all the facilities and the company of like-minded colleagues, goes for $350 a month.

The only stipulation to get into the centre – and there is still space available – is that an individual or group must be engaged in an activity with a public purpose. It doesn’t matter whether it is a public, private or non-profit enterprise.

At any given time, a visitor will find groups brainstorming in the common areas, individuals working at their computers, meetings in progress, people coming and going and the odd dog curled up under a desk.

“A lot of the magic happens in the kitchen,” says program manager Eli Malinsky. “You always have little clusters of people sharing ideas and information. Someone can answer almost any question internally.”

Until recently, Toronto wasn’t in the forefront of the social enterprise movement. Quebec was the national leader and Vancouver was the hotbed of activity in English-speaking Canada.

But now the city is catching up fast. A large part of the reason is the Centre for Social Innovation. It provides a focal point for individuals and organizations tackling a range of issues: climate change, poverty, urban decay, underfunding of the arts. It sparks the kind of creative energy that develops when passionately committed people connect.

“It’s starting to take off,” Malinsky says. ” But we’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible.”

The office dividers in the centre are glass, providing an unimpeded view of what’s going on. The building also has other Zeidler hallmarks; high exposed ceilings, hardwood floors, a roof garden, solar panels and plenty of natural light.

Roughly 25 per cent of the tenants are environmental organizations, 25 per cent are involved in the arts, 20 per cent belong to the social justice sector and the remaining 30 per cent work in the fields of education, health, technology and design.

The mix still isn’t as ethnically diverse as the staff would like. “Most of the people we know are similar to us, ” Malinsky says. “One of our key goals is to reach out to people who don’t typically hear our message.”

Financially, the centre is doing fine. It’s six months away from being self-supporting. “It was our hope and intention to prove that we could operate in the marketplace,” Malinsky says. “We’re almost there.”

On Feb. 29 – approximately four years late – the centre will hold its official launch. It is already a magnet for social activists, but most politicians, business leaders and citizens have never set foot in the door.

From the outside, 215 Spadina Ave. is an attractively restored Edwardian office building. Inside, it is place that puts social innovators at the heart of Toronto, stretching the bounds of the possible.

Carol Goar’s column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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