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Theory of Change

We are often asked how social innovation occurs. We’ve learned there is no single or simple answer. Social change is the result of a tremendously complex mix of ingredients. Environmental conditions, social conditions and individual actors collide to spark world-changing ideas. There is an underlying magic to social innovation that precludes any simple recipe for success.

What We've Learned

What we can do, however, is create the spaces that best foster social innovation. Our observations tell us that these are the spaces that provide people with exposure to new ideas, connections with incredible people, and systems and structures to help turn the seeds of an idea into an achievable plan. The Centre for Social Innovation has been working hard to create these conditions in its home base in Toronto and our experiences have led us to a few important conclusions.


First, social innovation occurs best in environments that are diverse. Innovation rarely occurs within homogenous or staid structures. It happens at the peripheries, where differing approaches bump up against each other and stimulate new ways of thinking. The diversity of our system leads to new opportunities and robust and flexible responses to common challenges. For us, this means doing away with the silos that keep sectors and structures apart. We often refer to the ‘social mission sector’ – an umbrella term that includes all the individuals and organizations whose primary mission is to produce some benefit for people or planet. The CSI community reflects this diversity. Our social mission members include nonprofits, charities, for-profits, entrepreneurs and activists working in areas from health and education to arts and environment. We don’t create change by doing the same things we’ve always done. By introducing diversity we provoke discovery.

The Right Environment

Second, social innovation needs a conducive physical environment. Social innovators need actual spaces to spark, develop and apply their ideas. Without access to resources and support structures, even the best ideas have trouble taking flight. As a space-based organization, we are finding ways to create and curate spaces that foster social innovation. We’ve learned that the best spaces are a mix of utility and whimsy. When ‘bearing down’ and on the task at hand, social innovators need a functional work environment with reliable office infrastructure. But all work and no play makes Jill a dull girl! We recognize the critical importance of unstructured social space. There is far more serendipity around the kitchen table than the boardroom table. By balancing these characteristics, we create a dynamic that stimulates new ideas to germinate and blossom.

Animate and Watch it Grow

Finally, we have learned that some gentle animation can do wonders. In addition to the physical space and a diverse mix of people, it is the interventions and learning opportunities that help make connections and stimulate new thoughts and ways of doing. We bring innovators together with capacity-building workshops, informal social mixers, our Intranet network, and more. We foster individual and collective growth and create an environment that produces original action. Our key is to adopt a light touch. We do not program with an expectation of uniform engagement. We offer opportunities for individuals to ‘find their own level’; to dip in and dip out of the community in a way they find comfortable and natural. And when a new idea begins to surface, that same gentle touch helps it to grow. This is our role within the centre: to animate the ideas that have developed in the spaces we have created, and to nurture a participatory culture where all members feel welcome to bring their ideas and to leave their fingerprints.

Making it Simple - The CSI Pyramid

More recently, CSI has begun to understand its work through a new lens. Our emerging Theory of Change is most succinctly communicated through the following image:

CSI Theory of Change Pyramid showing Space, Community and Innovation layers 

We begin at the bottom of the pyramid, focussing on the creation of the physical space. We do this carefully, designing a space that's functional, whimsical, inviting and energizing.

The next layer is community. What begins as a group of people looking for a place to work becomes a community through conscious and careful curating and programming.  

These layers form the basis for innovation -- the serendipity that happens when you mix the right people, the right values and the right environment; when you set the conditions for social innovation emergence.

The results are unpredictable. And often astonishing.

Still hungry for more info? Download "Proof: How Shared Spaces are Changing the World".