Our Purpose & Story

What is Social Innovation?

Before you get in too deep, you might want to know what we mean by “social innovation.” At CSI, we define social innovation as the creation, development, adoption, and integration of new and renewed concepts, systems, and practices that put people and planet first.

Social innovation comes in many forms and spans many sectors, but put simply: it’s people looking for inventive ways to help each other. 

We’re 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.

On This Page

Our Purpose

The Centre for Social Innovation catalyzes and supports social innovation in Toronto and around the world. We create community workspaces, incubate emerging enterprises, and develop new models and methods with world-changing potential.

Our Mission

To catalyze, inspire, and support social innovation.

Our Vision

We envision a world where our systems – economy, government, culture and communities – serve to create a healthy, just, resilient & sustainable society full of meaning, equity & happiness.

Our Theory of Change

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.

CSI's Theory of Change

Our Goal: The Next Economy

The Next Economy is one that puts people and planet first. It’s regenerative, inclusive, equitable, and prosperous for all.

We believe the shift to The Next Economy is urgent and possible, and that applying social innovation principles and practices is essential for identifying, creating, demonstrating, amplifying and scaling the solutions that will be required to create it.

Our Story: How it all started

The story of the Centre for Social Innovation begins way back in 2004, when a group of visionary social entrepreneurs decided that something wasn’t working in the social mission sector. Too many organizations were working out of isolated and substandard facilities. They asked themselves some core questions: How can we improve access to office facilities? How can we lower the cost of administration and let organizations focus on their missions? How can we tear down the silos that keep organizations apart? And, how can we best catalyze social change?

Part of the answer came in the form of the Robertson Building at 215 Spadina Avenue in Toronto, which had been recently purchased by Urbanspace Property Group. With generous support from the landlord, the Ontario Trillium Foundation and the Harbinger Foundation, the Centre for Social Innovation Spadina opened its doors to 14 founding tenants in 5,000 sq. ft. of space in June 2004 – one of the very first coworking spaces in the world!

The model worked. It meant sharing ideas, strategies and experience. It meant collaborating, learning, growing and becoming resilient in ways never imagined in isolation. And so we grew! We now have over 3,000 members and three locations, including two buildings we bought and renovated thanks to our innovation in social finance, the Community Bond.

CSI Fast Facts

  • The first coworking space in Canada!
    We opened our first space in 2004 with, just a handful of tenants. This brought co-working to Canada — and maybe the world! (Though we called it "virtual tenancy.") We turned a $572 surplus in our first quarter.
  • The world had some catching up to do.
    Preceding coworking space IPOs by about 15 years, it took six weeks for banks to agree to let us open an account. Our Founder and CEO Tonya Surman was walking around with a handful of cheques we couldn’t cash.
  • Strength in numbers.
    The CSI Community is home to nearly 1,000 non-profits, charities, and social ventures. Our membership employs over 3000 people and generates combined annual revenues of $270 million.
  • Incubating game-changers.
    Over 5,000 organizations got their start at CSI including Spacing Magazine, the David Suzuki Foundation, the Pembina Institute, and Well.ca. We love when members outgrow us!
  • A space for climate innovators.
    Our Climate Ventures program is home to the entrepreneurs, innovators, and advocates working on climate solutions and climate justice. From farming to fashion, our members are building the low-carbon economy and a better future for all.
  • Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibilty.
    In 2016 we did the first demographic survey of our community. We have used this data to identify and address the potential barriers for groups and individuals who are currently underrepresented at CSI.
  • The strength of Community Bonds.
    We own two of our locations, thanks to having invented the Community Bond, an innovation in social finance that allows a nonprofit or charity to leverage its supporters to pursue its mission, build its resiliency, and create more vibrant communities.
  • Affordable software for Canadian charities.
    In 2007, CSI helped establish TechSoup Canada, which has resulted in 21,000 Canadian non-profits, charities, and libraries receiving over $273 million worth of software and hardware donations.
  • Prioritizing accessible spaces.
    In addition to our own wheelchair accessible spaces, we helped accelerate both The StopGap Foundation (which offers free removable wheelchair ramps to business owners), and the Access Now app. We’re also the home of Accessibility Ontario.
  • An innovative volunteer program.
    Every year over 100 people from a hugely diverse background go through our Desk Exchange Community Animator program. One of our first DECAs is now our Chief Community Officer!
Play Video

Changing the world and just trying $#!% since 2004

Become A Member