The chairs in the basement lounge of the Centre for Social Innovation’s Annex location don’t match. Not a single couch in the rustic, exposed-brick space looks like its neighbour, nor do any of the worn wooden tables share the same shape. So, when Adil Dhalla, the centre’s director of culture, tells me to look at the furniture around us, he’s not trying to sell me something; he’s making a point. “We are the antithesis of a homogeneous environment,” he says. “What we celebrate and relish is diversity.”
That applies to the people in those seats, too. If I were to ask, I’d probably discover a non-profit founder, an artist, a community-organizing activist, a writer, and a disenchanted former bank employee littered around the space. What brings them together is a common cause: to make the world a better place.
That’s the only prerequisite to becoming a member of the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), a curated coworking community that consists of four locations and 750 member organizations. The people behind the ever-expanding decade-old project, including Dhalla, believe that these movers and shakers—who might otherwise be stuck working in libraries, coffee shops, and cramped apartments—are better when they’re put together.
That idea hardly seems radical today, but when CEO Tonya Surman and four other entrepreneurs started CSI in 2004, it was the first coworking space in Canada. They opened the first location, on Spadina Avenue in Toronto, because they thought it would be practical to share space and resources. Ten years later, CSI has two more Toronto locations, in Regent Park and the Annex, and another in New York. (Coworking in itself has also taken off; countless spaces like CSI have popped up in Toronto and internationally.) “People come here for pragmatic reasons,” Dhalla explains, “but they stay here for the community.”
Dhalla knows first-hand. After earning his MBA, he fled the Financial District and headed for the CSI instead. When he walked into the Spadina location, he says, “I immediately felt like I had come home.” An entrepreneur since he was six years old (he started a co-op lemonade stand in his neighbourhood), he knew he wanted to bring his small map-based video-sharing company to the space. It was a risky move—the rent was more than the business earned at the time—but it paid off. Simply being in the Centre’s Annex location helped the business grow.
When his company moved out two and half years later, Dhalla stayed behind and became CSI’s director of culture, a position that’s been evolving ever since he and Surman created it on a napkin 18 months ago. Now he’s the guy who welcomes you when you become a member, who organizes and hangs around events, who meets with people like me to tell the CSI story, and who can help you find what you need in the Centre’s vast community.
“When you have someone who works in farming and someone who works in finance sitting together talking about a common problem, their different experiences tend to produce something that the world hasn’t heard, seen, or felt before,” he says. “That’s the magic that CSI was built on.”
Some of that magic happens organically (or at least semi-organically; the Centre’s coffeemakers are placed strategically to encourage conversation and community), while some is more facilitated. Take, for example, the CSI Summit, in which members wear two stickers—“My organization needs…” and “My organization is awesome at…”—and mingle, or CSI Hookup, a tech tool with a similar purpose that’s “intended to be as cheeky as it sounds.”
“Our community is like a potluck,” Dhalla explains. “It will only succeed if people bring things to it, because they’re coming looking for other stuff. We haven’t gotten formal. We walk around in flip-flops and have dogs running around and have funny signs and cocktail competitions. And yet we do really serious work.”
For proof of that, look to the Centre’s list of members. Spacing, Toronto’s urban issues magazine; Twenty One Toys, whose products foster empathy; and the artivists in the Sustainable Thinking and Expression of Public Spaces (STEPS) Initiative all call the Centre home. Alumni, meanwhile, include the Toronto Tool Library, Ladies Learning Code, and Studio Jay Wall. Like the lounge’s loveseats, CSI members may not have anything in common—apart, of course, from that common purpose.
“If you have a mission to make the world a better place,” Dhalla says, “we have a home for you.”
This story is the first in a series of profiles on members of the Centre for Social Innovation.