State of the [CSI] Nation

It’s been a while since we last heard from our CEO, Tonya Surman. Considering all the changes that have been happening around here—for example, did you know we’re hiring for a new COO and CPO? —we thought it was time for a check-in!

Don’t just do something! Stand there!

I often find myself reflecting on CSI and my 17 year journey as a social-entrepreneur-turned -founder-and-CEO. Given the rapid and relentless impact of Covid-19 these past several months, I’ve been doing a lot more reflecting than usual, reflection that is actively repositioning and building CSI for what’s next. 

What’s next is CSI doubling down to prove that solutions for the Next Economy are possible. We’re building Canada’s social innovation ecosystem to unlock the earliest stages of enterprises, transform the humans leading these enterprises, and provide a ladder of support that helps them advance and accelerate their solutions from idea to impact.

Proud and Grateful

In March 2020, Covid-19 forced CSI shut its doors for the first time ever. Ironically, we were ‘designed for contagion’ which is great for building social capital but not so good for preventing the spread of viruses. During the first few months of the pandemic, we were stunned, scared, and uncertain. Over the past year (thanks Covid!), we’ve lost 38% of our members – those early stage initiatives that are so vulnerable and often led by some of our most ‘at-risk’ people. It was devastating to see what you, our members, had worked so hard to create, start to crumble.

But our community came together with the creation of our Community Rent Pool, and with the support of the federal wage subsidy, some savings that we had squirreled away, and a diversified revenue stream (TechSoup Canada and CSI Accelerates) CSI continues to navigate through the pandemic. And while we have lost a lot of members, we’ve kept many, many more. We haven’t had to lay off or furlough any staff. We’ve built new partnerships. We’ve strengthened and diversified our Board. These are all things for which I am enormously grateful for and proud of. 

Covid forced us to catch up with ourselves 

Once out of the initial crisis response mode, we had a chance to check in and make sure that we were going in the right direction. Covid has forced us to make some tough decisions. We were forced to close our CSI New York location and move our amazing NYC community online. We also were forced to close our CSI Regent Park location and pivot our work to become more community facing as we look to open the CSI Community Living Room on the ground floor of the Daniels Spectrum and deliver our Every One Every Day program in partnership with Artscape.

For the last 17 years we have been catalyzing, supporting, and inspiring social innovation, but let’s be honest, most people really saw us as the ‘cool, beautiful, hippie coworking space’ in downtown Toronto. (I mean, they’re right, we are pretty beautiful.)

But is that enough to drive the change we want to see in the world? The answer, in truth, is no.

From the Sidelines to the Centre

During our 17 years, we have been pushing, promoting and nudging people towards social innovation, a concept which remains vague and high level. We’ve also been supporting social entrepreneurs… why? Because we believe those idealists with drive and passion are just the right breed of mix – visionary, opportunistic, and pragmatic – to be able to radically redesign business models that put people and planet first. 

But you know, despite progress, social entrepreneurs and social enterprise have been side-lined from halls of power. “Oh look at those nice nonprofits dreaming up those neat little community bonds! How quaint!” or “Maybe the government can create a nice ‘sector’ fund for us and we can have access to… what? 0.001% of the budget?” Maybe I sound harsh, but social enterprise is not enough. Yes, it is important in and of itself, but social enterprise is NOT ENOUGH to fundamentally change our systems.

Re-think, Redesign, Re-set

We know we need a radical redesign of our economic system… our system is flawed. It is built on colonialism, discrimination, sexism, classism, and an unsustainable expectation that our planet will survive our object and relentless abuse. 

I’m horrified by how disconnected we are to the very thing that sustains our life – Mother Earth. No one can deny that we exist at the behest of this great life-giving entity. No religion, culture, race, or creed is exempt from this fundamental relationship – with the air we breath, the water we drink, and the soil that provides us with our sustenance. Every culture in the world goes back far enough to recognize this profound relationship. Many of us are so lost in our digital worlds that we forget what makes us happy: the wind in our hair, a smile from someone we love, relating to each other. 

With Covid, the Earth gave us a ‘time-out’ and sent us to our room to think about what we had done to her. And now, as a global society, Covid has revealed the most vulnerable and once so revealed, we can no longer ignore the vast inequalities. In some respects, the Earth has given us this amazing opportunity to re-think, re-design and re-set our systems. 

Ok, that was a rant. Sorry! Back to my story.

Social Entrepreneurs and Capitalism… right! Oh yes, and CSI. 

So here’s the deal. We need to work together to build the NEXT ECONOMY. We need to take what is good about capitalism – the democratized meritocracy, self-organizing nature, and energy – and we need to make it better. We need to build circles into every design of every system that we create. We need to build a regenerative, equitable, and prosperous economy for all. 

And here’s the exciting thing: the Next Economy is already emerging, with inspiring examples from around the world showing us the way. The Next Economy is sustainable, people-centred, circular, just, participatory, and equitable. It is conscious and caring and it is inclusive: building community wealth, health and wellbeing. We are seeing every sector confronting these challenges – from farming to finance and everything in between.

From local to the global, the Next Economy movement has the potential to redefine success, reshape markets, respect the planet’s capacity to regenerate itself, and create an economy that benefits everyone. 

It’s up to us to be the designers of our economies – to build intentional economies that reflect what we really value – people and planet.

So, that’s what we are doing, and what we want to do more of. We’ve thought about it a lot and let’s face it: CSI, along with so many others, has been working on this for decades and we are finally seeing the mainstreaming of these ideas! It is working! The public and private sectors are finally building ESG’s, clean tech, and so much more. We’re doing it! 

We need to keep supporting the world to embody these values into every decision. We need deep diversity. We need to practice inclusion in ways that may be awkward and painful for some. We need to see across differences and learn to listen better. We need to get outside and listen to how the trees can speak to us. We need to relearn what it is to build true relationships and meaningful communities that we can rely on. We need to remember how to play and bring joy back into our lives. We also need to reclaim our agency and see that we have to power to redesign our economics to be caring and circular when we work together.

CSI is putting everything that we’ve got into Proving that the Next Economy is Possible. We are building social innovation labs mixed with entrepreneurial energy to co-create the business models of the future. We are supporting the humans that are at the earliest stage of their entrepreneurial adventures, often welcoming people who feel unwelcome elsewhere, providing them with the education, acceleration, and catalytic services and supports. We are focusing on Climate Ventures, Social Ventures and Community Wealth. 

We want to collaborate with the people and organizations which share our values and we want to focus on solutions. We ain’t that keen to argue. The challenges are too urgent and the stakes are too high. Instead we want to continue to be generous with each other, give each other the benefit of the doubt, and focus as we always have done, on building real hope, inspiring possibility and demonstrating lasting solutions. 

Wild-eyed still, even 17 years later… let’s see what we can do. We know what we need to, so who wants to help us actually do it? 

Reflections on investing in Community Bonds and opportunities to improve the market

Quick disclaimer: I work for a mission-driven commercial lender that is privileged to work with many issuers of community bonds, some of which I’ve invested with personally. I manage these conflicts carefully and am not involved in lending relationships around these. This is also not financial advice, and if thinking about community finance opportunities you should receive advice relevant to your own situation.

My first real experience with community finance was in 2010 with the growth of the Community Economic Development Investment Funds (CEDIFs) program in Nova Scotia. Through the Farmers Market Investment Cooperative, I was able to invest directly in the redevelopment of the Halifax Seaport Farmers Market. It was an instructive example of a community coming together to build the economic infrastructure it wanted. It was also, sadly, a bust. While the market itself still continues as a beautiful space, some failures in governance and differing incentives between the tenants of the space (to naturally keep costs down) and the private investors (to see their investment returned with some profit) let ultimately to a wind-up and handover of the space to the port authority as a permanent owner. It appears the market is now being relocated to another part of the port, and the space the coop helped finance the improvement of turned into a “living lab” for the transportation sector by the port authority. Well, do hope they enjoy the green roof!

Since relocating to Toronto almost seven years ago, it’s been exciting to play witness to and support a growing community finance sector in Ontario. Through the leadership of organizations like the Centre for Social Innovation, community bonds have become much better understood by the coop and nonprofit sectors. The Feed-In-Tariff (FIT) programs in Ontario, while no longer offering new support, spurred the creation of a community-based renewable power coop sector that creates fertile ground for more work in driving the low-carbon transition. Now organizations like Tapestry Community Capital are helping professionalize the delivery of these tools and campaigns, so I certainly expect more to come.

I’ve invested in a total of 15 community bond or community share offerings, including the farmers market. For the purposes of this I’m excluding both broader based green bonds (for example CoPower and RE Royalties) as well as preferred share issuances by Credit Unions. While both can also be impactful investments, they aren’t focused to a given community project or projects, so I don’t think of them as the same. Here’s what that sub-portfolio looks like for me:

Overall, this constitutes about 11% of my investment portfolio, from which I exclude our home. I’m generally comfortable with this level, and would consider going up to 15-20% in the right circumstances despite the lack of liquidity because my partner and I are young and we’ve got good coverage of our fixed costs from our income. We’re pretty concentrated in an early investment in Zooshare, and while there’s been a couple of moments that have made me nervous with that, I’m excited about a virtual ribbon cutting on the project this Spring. When that investment matures later this year, I’m intending to try to reinvest towards other impact investments to hopefully diversify more. I’m satisfied with the yield we’re getting from these investments, and while there are concerns about inflation looming in general, there’s still a strong premium over lower risk fixed income options.

What do I like (sometimes love?) about Community Bonds and Investments?

  • They are a meaningful way for signature projects in the community to access additional capital, often at a greater risk tolerance than institutional investors or lenders would provide.
  • They help us realize the economy isn’t something that happens from the outside to us, but something we actually all actively create through our decisions on where to buy, invest, and work.
  • They aren’t strongly correlated with the broader investment market, and so can be value-adding as a stable fixed income tool.
  • They can allow for targeted investment in the themes we’re most passionate about.

What don’t I like as much?

  • There’s low liquidity or market for these investments. While there’s sometimes a bit of a waitlist an issuer can try to sell your investment into, that’s too much work for most.
  • There’s a lot of refinancing risk, as full redemption at maturity is often dependent on someone else coming in to refinance a projects or additional reissuance of more community bonds that others subscribe to
  • There’s a bit of a “first mover” risk in these investments, as a well subscribed campaign gives greater likelihood that these projects can be achieved than a more minimally subscribed campaign. Generally this risk is partially managed by having a trustee not release investor funds until after a minimum amount is reached, but there’s value in having greater confidence of a project’s success. I’ve observed that this leads to a bit of a momentum effect in these campaigns.
  • The flip side of targeted investment is that unless you’re willing to roll up your sleeves on a portfolio of community investments, you’re likely to not be particularly diversified.

One idea to improve the Community Bond Market: a “market making” fund

I wonder if there could be a benefit in a Canadian (or provincial if required) community bond fund that would invest exclusively in community bond and share offerings. This could do a few things that could strengthen this market for investors and offerings alike:

  • For investors: A turn-key mechanism to invest in a more diversified pool of community finance offerings.
  • For issuers – campaign momentum and confidence: The fund could commit to anchoring new community bond campaigns with an investment, that would be replaced by direct investors if the campaign is successful. For example the fund could commit to investing up to 20% of an offering (up to some maximum of the Fund’s own portfolio such as 5-10%), which is replaced as other community investors buy-in. This would give campaigns early momentum, fill in some gaps in capital access as a backstop, and give other investors a vote of confidence if the offering had undergone an anchor investors due diligence.
  • For issuers – a liquidity mechanism: For any approved offering above, the fund could commit to being willing to buy-out individual investors interests in the same offering, subject to the Fund’s own liquidity requirements and concentration limits. This could de-risk the ability for an individual to invest by providing a safety mechanism for unexpected emergencies.
  • For issuers – reducing refinancing risk: As a dedicated fund for the sector, such a fund could also ensure that unique market moments don’t heighten refinancing risk by providing the same backstop as for initial offerings.

As food for thought, there are some issues with the idea I recognize right away:

  • Investor interest: I wonder if I’m unusual in how I think about impact. I’m fairly embedded in this work, and care about these approaches as more economically democratic, so I feel comfortable with the idea of investing in a fund, that is investing in these offerings, vs. needing to see/feel the individual projects being supported. I wonder if there are enough investors who would similarly value the diversification and more turn-key solution to investing in these approaches?
  • Capital cost: For such a fund to work, it would have to operate on a very streamlined basis (and likely as a nonprofit) to keep costs down and operate viably. Ultimately the fund would need to invest in community bond offerings at a higher rate than what it could offer investors, and so the benefits to investors in diversification and simplicity would need to be greater than the financial delta they could achieve investing in offerings directly.
  • Capital deployment: While the community bond market continues to grow, the build up of a portfolio based on infrequent offerings (they’re pretty cyclical with the RRSP season generally!) would create a meaningful cash drag unless there were opportunities to act on right away. This could really damage the economic viability of the fund.

I’m curious what others experiences have been with community bonds and share offerings. Would this kind of fund have ever made a difference for you or the investors you’ve collaborated with? Are there other, better ways to improve this area so community investment can thrive?

About our guest author: Lars Boggild is a creative thinker working at the intersection of finance and social change. He currently supports new business relationships across lending and investments for Vancity Community Investment Bank, Canada’s first bank dedicated to social and environmental impact. Prior to VCIB, he worked at Rally Assets leading impact investing advisory projects that built practical strategies for asset owners to deploy more of their investments towards social and environmental good. Lars also sits on the Canadian Community Economic Development Network’s National Policy Council, the Investment Committee of the Evangelical Lutheran Foundation of Eastern Canada and is the Board Chair of Not Far from the Tree, Toronto’s urban fruit picking project.

Why health care institutions need to build trust with the Black community in the fight against the pandemic

Hospital building with a blue cloudy sky in the background

Bria Hamilton is a Master’s student in the Environmental Studies program at York University in the Urban Planning stream. Her research is focused on Black feminist geographies and the use of these theories to disrupt normative planning practices.

Bria also works with CSI on the Every One Every Day: Toronto program as a Neighbourhood Asset Mapping Researcher. This op-ed was originally published in The Globe and Mail. We’ve republished with Bria’s permission.

“I don’t want to get the vaccine.” I have heard variations on this sentiment numerous times from my Black friends and family members regarding the incoming COVID-19 inoculations. In this specific instance, it was my Jamaican-born grandmother, who has lived in Canada since 1974.

I set aside my initial discomfort surrounding anti-vaccination rhetoric, which often cites unfounded side effects of vaccines. After I asked my grandmother why she felt this way, she hesitated before telling me that she did not trust the vaccine, she was not sure how it worked and she felt the trial phase was too quick. She had heard from her friend that multiple people had died from the trials; her friend had heard this information from their friend, and so on.

My grandmother, my mother and I have all had extremely negative experiences with Canadian medical care. The most atrocious story was the removal of my grandmother’s uterus without her permission during unrelated surgery.

These stories of medical racism are commonly shared within and across Black communities, many of whose members do not trust medical institutions to care for us. This mistrust is certainly not unfounded: the histories of Canada and the United States are riddled with enslavement, institutionalized racism and over-policing of Black bodies.

The Tuskegee Study in the United States has become a widely known exemplification of medical anti-Black racism. From 1932 until the study was disclosed in 1972, hundreds of Black men in Tuskegee, Ala., were purposely withheld syphilis treatment by the U.S. Public Health Service in order for researchers and practitioners to study the natural course of the disease.

The patients believed they were receiving standard treatment but instead were “subjected to blood draws, spinal taps, and eventually autopsies” by white medical staff, Marcella Alsan and Marianne Wanamaker wrote in The Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2018.

The majority of the patients in the study died as a result of the disease and lack of treatment. The Tuskegee Study cemented existing oral histories and generational knowledge of racist medical practices, and it is marked as a major contributor to medical distrust in Black communities.

Entrenched memories, oral histories and traumas of medical abuse are often dismissed as conspiracy theories amongst broader populations, as J.M. Hoberman noted in his book Black and Blue: The Origins and Consequences of Medical Racism. Despite the widespread tendency to dismiss experiences of medical racism, there are clear indicators of inadequate health care for Black people.

For centuries, medical professionals have sought to prove biological differences between Black people and white people and their tolerance for pain. According to a 2016 study presented at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, as many as 50 per cent of white doctors still believe that biological differences allow Black people to tolerate more pain, and thus provide inaccurate medical recommendations for those patients. A study published in the Journal of Perinatal Education found Black Americans are up to six times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than white women.

Canada neglects to collect race-related health care data at all, but with the maintenance of oral histories in Black communities, the medical mistrust persists.

The effects of COVID-19 are contextualized within a historically racist system and thus exacerbate disenfranchisement in racialized communities. Marginalized communities are most susceptible to the virus because of high-density dwellings; the necessary use of shared spaces; the fact that low-income workers are required on the front lines; and the use of public transit.

COVID-19 infections are continuing to rise in Canada and the United States, and the Black population has been overrepresented in these cases. Black people in Toronto, for instance, represented 9 per cent of the population but made up 21 per cent of the reported COVID-19 cases, as outlined by Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city’s Medical Officer of Health in July, 2020.

The COVID-19 vaccines will serve as an essential measure of combatting the virus. Despite the necessity of the vaccine in Black communities, which increasingly face the negative effects of the virus, health care and government organizations have neglected to consider the mistrust of institutions amongst Black people. At a press conference in December, Ontario’s Health Minister Christine Elliott mentioned that those who choose not to be vaccinated may face restrictions when travelling and within communal spaces, such as movie theatres.

With the possibility of these restrictions, I am heavily concerned that the inaccessibility of health care and the warranted medical distrust within Black communities will result in additional discrimination and immobility for Black people. Governing and health care bodies are responsible for this mistrust and thus are responsible for providing avenues through which Black people can feel comfortable and safe receiving COVID-19 vaccines.

To achieve this, I recommend extensive work into collaborative efforts toward vaccine education within Black communities, as well as continuing anti-racism education for health care practitioners.

Within my field – urban planning – public consultations allow community members to ask questions, develop relationships and ultimately build trust toward planners who aim for healthier communities. In the medical field, community engagement frameworks can be used for educational and collaborative efforts, and can help lead to safer medical experiences for Black people. The process of creating vaccines should be explicitly showcased with attention paid to accessible, culturally relevant information.

In light of international attention to George Floyd’s killing, many institutions, governments and organizations have put forth statements about the need to address anti-Black racism. In Canada in particular, racism discourse is sidelined by the hegemonic self-proclamation of a diverse and inclusive nation. Anti-Black racism work requires more than statements: There needs to be action, trust-building efforts, anti-racism education and the active engagement of Black voices in these conversations.

Six Big Ideas for the Next Economy

Lightbulbs drawn on dusty black chalkboard

At CSI, we believe we need an economy that is regenerative, equitable, and prosperous for all. Since 2012, we’ve been supporting nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, activists, and advocates as we work toward this Next Economy together.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it impossible to ignore the failings of our current systems. Racism, poverty, the climate emergency: every time we look at a problem, we find our economic structure holding us back. If we’re going to make the world better, we need to design an economic system that puts people and planet first.

Luckily, many people and organizations from around the world have the same idea. They’ve been innovating new solutions, championing community-based, circular, participatory, equitable models that prove a Next Economy is possible.

Next Economy Conversations powered by Fiix is an opportunity to meet these leaders and hear about the solutions they have built and implemented. Tonya Surman, CSI CEO and serial social entrepreneur, facilitates the discussion, incorporating questions from the live audience. These conversations help us all learn, reflect, and integrate these ideas into our own efforts to build the Next Economy.

2021 is going to be a year of recovery, and we need big, bold ideas to get us started. We’ve chosen some highlights from each of our past events to cover in this blog, but if you want to fully immerse yourself in their work and optimism, you can watch all our Next Economy Conversations in full here.

On This Page

Failing so we can succeed

For our first Next Economy Conversations, we asked Bill Young to join us for a discussion about how he founded Social Capital Partners and why failure is necessary in creating systems-level solutions.

The thing about systems change is: it’s risky.

“Most funders don’t like funding things that aren’t working,” said Bill. “So the tendency is ‘let’s do things that will work.’”

Social Capital Partners is lucky to have independent funding. It means they have the freedom to experiment, to push boundaries, to do things that are inherently really, really hard.

“We flipped the script and said ‘no, we aren’t succeeding unless we are failing,’” Bill explained. “We will fail because we are trying stuff that nobody else is going to try. And that’s our role.”

They’re always aiming for the greatest impact they can have.

“How do we transform this economic landscape in the most powerful, equal way? How do we solve inequality? If we saw that what we were doing wasn’t going to get us there, whether it was branded a success or failure, it didn’t matter to us.

“To us, it’s kind of like a maze. In the centre of the maze is the magic of the biggest impact you could possibly have. To get to the center, you hit a lot of dead ends. You need to hit those to get to the centre. So we never look at failure or success as either failure or success. We look upon it as part of the road map on the way to have the most impact we possibly can have. ‘Is this the route to get there?’ If it isn’t, we change. Success and failure has nothing to do with it.”

Creating community-based solutions

Jeff Cyr of Raven Indigenous Capital Partners joined us in June to discuss what Community-Driven Outcomes Contract (CDOC) are and how they are serving the Indigenous community. This innovative new investment vehicle is changing the game in Canada — connecting social finance with deep-rooted respect for community.

The idea of an Indigenous intermediary came to Jeff a few months after the inaugural Indigenous Innovation Summit. His conversations with Indigenous entrepreneurs leading up to, during, and after the summit revealed massive barriers in access to capital.

“What didn’t exist was Indigenous investment vehicles. That’s the problem. We said: ‘We need Indigenous equity. I wonder if we can raise capital from the non-Indigenous world to invest in Indigenous enterprise and prove that this can be done.’”

They did! Raven Capital completed their sixth investment in June 2020. All of their ventures so far are promising — and one in particular sparked the development of a new social finance model for community-based solutions.

In a CDOC, the community in question determines its priorities and how they’re going to get there before they look for capital. It places control into the hands of the beneficiaries, rather than external parties that don’t fully understand the problems they’re trying to solve.

The CDOC itself is basically a pay-for-performance model: private investors upfront the investment and tag a rate of return based on success. The Indigenous social enterprise will work with the band to implement the solution. Once they hit success, the outcomes buyer (the government) pays the private investors back with a rate of return. Raven Capital acts as an intermediary between all three parties.

It’s an intentionally slow, deeply collaborative process.

“We will often say ‘we are now going to be in relationship with each other,’” explained Jeff. “At the end of the day, when things get tough you rely on relationships to see you through. So we spend an inordinate amount of time building relationships and trust.”

Using business as a force for good

B Lab Canada’s Country Manager Kasha Huk joined us in July to talk about using business as a force for good, stakeholder capitalism, and the stringent requirements businesses need to meet to maintain their B Corp Certification.

We often face silos when trying to address systemic inequities: “Nonprofits and governments are creating these policies on one side to do good, and then businesses are doing the work they want to do and donating money toward causes. But they were kind of seen as separate.”

This is where the B Corp comes into play: “The B Corp movement [is] this place where businesses are seeing that [they] can address complex social and environmental issues through their business model.”

Essentially, these are for-profit organizations that want to use their influence for good.

A B Corp (not to be confused with a Benefit Corporation, which is a legal structure) embraces the idea of stakeholder capitalism. They define what’s in the best interest of a company not solely by profit, but by thinking about different stakeholders.

Currently, there are over 260 Canadian B Corps – a number that has grown exponentially in recent years.

“We work with these companies to help them achieve greater impact through the assessment process,” Kasha explained. It’s a lengthy, stringent evaluation that asks businesses to consider all their stakeholders in their operations, and must be completed once every few years to stay certified.

While the B Corp Certification is available only to for-profits, Kasha encourages all organizations to use the free online assessment as a tool to track their improvements over time across five different areas: governance, workers, communities, environment, and customers.

“[The assessment helps you] understand how you’re doing across these areas, and gives you a road map for improvement.”

Measuring success with community capital

We spoke with Buy Social Canada Managing Director David LePage in August about social procurement and the Marketplace Revolution.

In the early 2000s, David realized that while there were lots of employment social enterprises doing great work, there was a stark lack of demand for social enterprises and the people they hire.

“The companies that were saying ‘we want to help’ were [also] like ‘we don’t hire these people,’” David recalled. “But they buy the products and services that hire people into entry-level jobs. So how do we […] create the demand side that says ‘I’m going to buy from the companies that will hire these people’?”

This is the foundation of social procurement theory, which proposes that the purpose of a marketplace is not to create economic value, but to create healthy communities. This means taking into account human, social, physical, and cultural capital along with economic capital – something Buy Social Canada calls “community capital.”

“When we start to measure success in community capital, we start to change the very activity of business,” said David. “So if you aren’t paying a living wage and beyond, if you aren’t environmentally sound, then you aren’t fulfilling your capitals.”

Social procurement is about looking past financial reward as a sole measure of success, and making intentional purchasing decisions that have a positive impact across all capitals.

Government support is imperative to driving this change in how we do business, and can support social enterprise through its procurement decisions.

“The whole policy system is set up to reward big business and financial gain. We need to make accessible the same supports for social enterprises that are available to private businesses,” said David. “We have to shift how we value. It’s not the lowest price, it’s the best value. And the best value is about community capital.”

Rethinking food waste

Marcos Igreja, Genecis’ Associate Director of Engineering and Operations, joined us in October to speak about the circular economy, turning food waste into biodegradable plastic, and the environmental and human costs of the products we use every day.

Genecis takes local food waste and turns it into PHA, a biodegradable plastic whose properties are almost indistinguishable from the traditional PET plastics many manufacturers currently use. It’s an excellent example of a business contributing to a circular economy.

“The circular economy is an economy that knows how to take into account the entire life cycle of any good that is produced,” Marcos explained. “You need to be able to understand everything that came before it – all the labour, all the resources – and what happens after… how it is disposed, where it ends up. Most importantly, you have to be able to connect the two ends back together.”

The startup has already seen interest from clients across multiple industries, from medical equipment (e.g. biodegradable sutures) to household food producers (e.g. packaging). It’s hard not to get excited about their PHA: it’s sustainable, locally-sourced, and most importantly, it minimizes externalized costs.

“When people say that petroleum is cheaper than biofuel or bioplastic, they’re not taking into account costs caused by disposal, the pollution this causes in oceans, greenhouse gas emissions which affect our atmosphere, and all sorts of other political conflicts created through the improper use of those resources,” said Marcos. “In a fair economy, you have to take into account those costs.”

Democratizing control of community resources

In December, SolarShare General Manager Chris Caners sat down for a conversation about democratic control, community-financed projects, and the importance of government support for systems change.

SolarShare is a nonprofit cooperative that owns, finances, and operates 49 solar facilities across Ontario. They’ve raised over $60M with their community financing model, and their values are rooted in giving communities ownership, access, and control over local infrastructure (specifically, a renewable energy source).

“Fundamentally, the thing I’m excited about is the participation and role of community in our day-to-day lives, and in SolarShare’s case, the infrastructure,” said Chris. “The co-op model is a great model. It speaks to me about democratic control.”

It’s a lot harder for a solution’s beneficiaries to get taken advantage of when they are also its owners and key decision-makers.

“It gets a lot better when we have resilience within the community, and are able to [supplement] it with external sources,” said Chris. “For me, democratic control of infrastructure is one path to a better, more equitable future for all of us.”

Chris acknowledged the challenges of scaling community-based solutions right now. We designed a system that rewards only a small group of people. So of course the people who benefit from this system – the ones who currently hold power – aren’t eager to disrupt the status quo.

“Fundamentally, we need to change the way we operate. If we want a better and more equitable future, we need to design it into how our organizations and our laws work,” he said. “There are lots of people doing lots of excellent work, like SolarShare, TREC, and CSI. But in order to make it scale, we need our governments to help.”

What’s Next

We’ve seen some common themes run across our conversations with these leaders: the need to think holistically about how businesses operate and who they impact, the importance of strengthening communities through democratic control, and the need for government policies that support the organizations creating change.

We’re excited to continue these conversations, and we hope you’ll join us on this journey! Our first Next Economy Conversations of 2021 will be with Paul Taylor, Executive Director of FoodShare Toronto, on February 4. Get your tickets!

Further Reading

Still hungry for more? Here are a few full-length recaps from the other conversations we had last year:

Visual learners, we’ve got you too. Watch all the recordings from Next Economy Conversations and Climate Ventures Conversations on YouTube.

A Just Transition for Oil and Gas Workers: A Conversation with Bruce Wilson

Solar panels, wind turbines, and building labelled energy storage in background of sun-lit field.

CSI Climate Ventures Conversations are a chance to hear from leaders working for climate solutions. This event series is a part of CSI’s Climate Ventures initiative.  

After almost 16 years with Shell, Bruce Wilson felt his life philosophy was diverging more and more from his work at the global energy giant. In 2018, he left to take more urgent action on the climate crisis.

Today, he sits on the Board of Directors at Iron & Earth, deeply involved in paving a path for the just transition to a renewable energy economy. He also founded Thor Hydrogen, an organization focused on the potential of renewable hydrogen to create jobs and decarbonize our energy system.

In early December, Bruce sat down with our Senior Programs Manager Shea Sinnott for a virtual conversation about the challenges faced by oil and gas workers, hydrogen as an energy source, and the complexity of the fossil fuel industry. We’ve highlighted a few key ideas that resonate with us in clips and excerpts below, but you can watch the full conversation here.

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Iron & Earth: By and For Workers

Iron & Earth is a nonprofit organization led by oilsands workers that is building a future in renewable energy for their fellow oilsands workers through training, education, and advocacy.

At their core, they develop and deliver training programs to facilitate the transition of these workers to jobs in renewable energy. They blend classroom learning with hands-on project experience (through partnerships like RenuWell), so that individuals not only understand the technology and theory behind renewable energy, but are also able to put what they learn into practice.

Through community-based sustainable energy projects, Iron & Earth shows that this career transition is both possible and rewarding, and they build support for a just and prosperous transition. To encourage this shift to a green economy, and fast, they’ve prepared a four-point plan that seeks to retrofit and repurpose infrastructure, support and strengthen ecosystems, upskill the workforce, and support oil and gas companies who want to reposition their work.

For years, the federal government has dragged their heels in taking necessary, bold action to address the climate crisis, despite their stated ambitions to be net-zero by 2050. Since our conversation with Bruce, the federal government announced a long-awaited new Climate Action Plan, including a $15B increase in spending, with policies that match their stated ambitions for emissions reduction.

Yet as we discussed with Bruce in December, and still feel today, time will tell. Bruce put it well: “The devil is in the details, and not just in the details, but in the execution of the details. How do we get ‘er done? What do we need to do?”

A Just Transition for Oil & Gas Workers

Bruce contextualized the shift away from fossil fuels: “The ground that was once solid under the oil and gas industry is eroding, to the point that there’s real jeopardy for a lot of people. Add it to the government’s commitments [and] those all begin to amount to writing on the wall.”

He called on the need to act now, and to act while centring the people most impacted by this transition. We need to figure out a way to support those that would lose their jobs as they look for meaningful, fulfilling work in the Next Economy (as we at CSI and others call it).

“We can wait for bad things to happen, for more people to lose their jobs, and for there to be an economic malaise, the likes of which we’ve never seen — or we can take preemptive action now,” said Bruce. “A just transition is about looking at the totality… We need to protect people, we need to train them for new jobs, we need to identify what these jobs are, we need to identify who is disadvantaged by this. And it needs to be from the people, by the people, driven bottom up. We need a series of dialogues that make sure we bring everyone with us.”

Hydrogen: the new natural gas?

As the Founder of Thor Hydrogen, Bruce is a firm believer in renewable/green hydrogen both as an alternative to fossil fuels, and as a way to transition oilsands workers to new roles in the Next Economy. Our moderator, Shea, and a few attendees voiced some skepticism around hydrogen as a renewable energy source.

As Shea noted, not all hydrogen is truly renewable, and many are wary about the buzz and attention it’s getting as a solution. Shea put it bluntly: “Is hydrogen just the new ‘natural gas’?”

Bruce acknowledged this, but explained what makes him so optimistic: “Blue hydrogen is the new natural gas. It’s the new bridge to the future.”

“[But] to me,” he continued, “the beauty of renewable [green] hydrogen is decentralization. It can be a wonderful thing when you’re up in rural or remote regions where you’re not on the electricity grid, where you want energy independence. [Green hydrogen is] regional, and you can build ecosystems around it.”

The differences between blue and green hydrogen stem mainly from their production process. To make blue hydrogen, you strip carbon off of natural gas using steam methane reformation. To make green hydrogen, you pass a current through water (a process called electrolysis) using any kind of renewable energy. As a result, the water molecule (H2O) is split into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen. With the exception of the buildout of equipment and the energy required in its production and possibly distribution, green hydrogen is a clean, carbon emissions-free fuel.

At the end of the day, hydrogen is one of many renewable solutions. (This idea came up in a previous conversation with Laura Witt, too!). We have the solutions we need – it’s a matter of implementation and leadership in making it happen.

Should we let the fossil fuel industry die?

People like Bruce illuminate the complexities of the oil and gas industry. Company leadership doesn’t necessarily represent workers, many of whom are a living dichotomy: they care deeply about the environment, but work in oil and gas (for a multitude of reasons).

“The industry is not monolithic,” said Bruce. “It’s not only full of people who are resistant to change, but people who want to make change and who want to understand how they could be part of an energy transition.”

Bruce explained the ecosystem that the industry creates: it’s not just the workers on the “coal face,” so to speak. It’s also the manufacturers, planners, engineers, accountants, and other workers that exist all the way up the supply chain.

“There are communities all around the world built on one resource [like coal], and so we need to break that down. Where that is most important is [in] conversations around a just transition,” said Bruce. “When we talk about who’s included in the just transition, first and foremost, it’s that ecosystem of everybody who makes their living directly from it. But one could argue [it has an international] impact. And intergenerational too. Let’s not forget about when you talk about how you plan for transition, we need to think of generations ahead.”

Therefore, we must understand the fossil fuel industry and those who work in it with nuance. While there’s a mounting call to just let the industry die, as Bruce hinted, we can’t just turn the taps off. Rather, we can plan for a “managed decline”: one that includes a fair transition for those most impacted – including the people whose livelihoods depend on our current energy system – and, most critically, one where no one is left behind.

And, commenting on the pride and deep-rooted culture that many draw from long associations with the oil and gas industry, Bruce said: “Pride is portable. You can bring it with you and apply it to new endeavours.”

Further Reading

Our conversation with Bruce covered a number of topics, and we’ve only highlighted a few big ideas here! You can watch the full conversation on YouTube and check out the links below to continue learning:

Our next Climate Ventures Conversations with Seth Klein, public policy expert and author of A Good War, is coming up on February 11. Get your tickets!

CSI Climate Ventures is an incubator, coworking space, and a range of national accelerators that support entrepreneurs and innovators working on climate solutions.

The Evolving Role of Workspace

Two people wearing masks having a conversation at a Team Table in CSI Spadina

A year of remote work has proven that it is, indeed, possible — but it doesn’t spell the end of the office completely. Likely, organizations will adopt a more flexible system that blends the two.

We know that offices work well for some things, and not as well for others. Having immediate access to people (in person!) can do wonders for innovation, collaboration, mentorship, and professional growth. These spontaneous interactions and background conversations are, however, distracting when you want to do deep work.

It makes sense, then, that workspace evolves into a space for community: somewhere like-minded people can learn, grow, and create together.

“We need to be intentional about the communities we are building,” said our CEO Tonya Surman in an interview with The Professional Centre. “Community for community’s sake is lovely. […] The real question is why do we seek communities? I think that coworking spaces are going to have to dig deeply into purpose.”

Tonya speaks about the future of workspace, harbouring community, and how leadership right now is harder than ever. Watch the full interview:

And if you or your organization are currently looking for flexible coworking space, we might have something for you. See our coworking options.

CSI CEO Tonya Surman talks to Bloomberg about The Future of Cities

The global pandemic changed everything in 2020. Now it is going to change everything forever. In the “The Future of” series, BNN Bloomberg looks at what is next for our transformed economy and daily lives. For their examination of The Future of Cities they spoke with people like Richard Florida, and CSI CEO Tonya Surman. Here is an excerpt:

Tonya Surman, CEO of the Centre for Social Innovation, says she thinks the office of the future will resemble the co-working model her organization first brought to Canada 15 years ago, which companies like WeWork have since taken mainstream.

“Community is going to become even more important,” she says. Smaller employers, in particular, will downsize but maintain enough space so staff can come in a few times a week, hold meetings, train staff and reconnect.

“The whole idea of separating work from home, the way we did in the industrial revolution, and enduring long commutes is starting to finally at long last decline.”

Florida agrees office designs will have more of a focus on common spaces and collaboration. “The office as workspace — where you have a desk or a cubicle — will give way to the office as meeting space or interaction space,” he says, adding that there will be spaces for people to work out, do yoga or meditate, and more outdoor spaces for people to congregate.

And for those whose employer decides to go completely virtual or move to the suburbs to avoid the high cost of downtown commercial real estate, niche third-party co-working spaces such as CSI will fill the void, says Surman. Where CSI provides networking and business development opportunities for individuals who want to make the world better, other co-working spaces will become networking hubs for communities with other personal or professional interests, she says.

Read the full piece here.

Are you looking for a networking community hub?  Learn more about becoming a CSI member!

The Role of Economic Policy in Climate Justice: A Conversation with Marc Lee

Close-up shot of plant in front of window

CSI Climate Ventures Conversations are a chance to hear from leaders working for climate solutions. (Formerly Climate Ventures Mornings, we gave this event a new name to welcome speakers and attendees from coast to coast!) This event series is a part of CSI’s Climate Ventures initiative.  

Marc Lee is not your average economist. Though classically trained, he became interested in ideas outside the mainstream, finding inspiration in institutional and ecological economics. This becomes clear in his writing, where he blends his background in economics with ideas from sociology and psychology, often arguing against the conventional wisdom.

Today, Marc is a Senior Economist with the British Columbia office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), where his work focuses on the role of policy in climate justice.

On a November afternoon, Marc sat down with our Director of Programs Barnabe Geis for an online conversation about his research, what he’s learned over the years, and the possibilities the future holds. We’ve highlighted a few key ideas that resonate with us in excerpts and clips below, but you can watch the full conversation here.

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Growth at All Costs

The word “economics” originates from the Greek root oikonomia, which means “management of the household for the benefit of all members.” Yet, in our capitalist economy, we’ve equated economics with growth and the maximization of short-term profits (a term Herman Daly coined as “crematistics”).

Marc called on us to interrogate which industries we’re allowing to grow, who that growth impacts, and how it impacts them:

“Ultimately this is about the growth and amount of resources that are consumed by the top tier of humanity – the top 10% to 15% – and the amount of waste and resource depletion that we collectively impose on the planet, often for frivolous things. Meanwhile, huge portions of human civilization are very poor and don’t benefit from economic growth. So coming back to the idea of what an economy is for… we need to use our collective wealth and intelligence to build an economy to ensure we meet everyone’s basic needs.

A Phantom Fear of Debt

In discussions about policies and programs that will create a more equitable future for all, we are often hindered by what Marc calls a phantom fear of debt: the idea that in the future some group of people will owe too much to another group. What matters is that we deploy resources in the here and now to stabilize incomes and employment.

Public debt is not as scary as some make it out to be. When the Government of Canada issues debt (i.e. borrows), the Bank of Canada is also buying up a lot of debt in the form of outstanding government bonds, effectively becoming the lender. And at the end of the year, the Bank of Canada’s profit reverts back back to… the Government of Canada! This is a process called quantitative easing.

Issuing government debt has a number of benefits: it creates a safe place where Canadians can invest their money, it stimulates spending and injects money back into the economy, and it helps maintain higher levels of employment.

The Price is Right

There’s this idea among economists that if we could just set a carbon tax that reflects all the costs being imposed on third parties, then the market would do its job and get us on the net zero path. But Marc called for caution here, noting that carbon pricing is just one tool in a government’s policy toolbox and that there are many other environmental externalities besides carbon emissions.

Carbon pricing is very difficult to get right because it’s so intensely political – after all, it’s essentially a tax. We’ve made headway with some modest pricing, but politicians are wary of committing to the pricing levels we need to drive the emissions reductions necessary to meet reduction targets. However, if it is done right, it can be a great source of funds for activities that can drive climate action.

Of course, when we focus too much on carbon pricing, we lose out on opportunities to enact change through other methods. Marc expressed the need for clear rules and bans on certain activities detrimental to our environment, as well as big public investments into infrastructure – like high-speed rapid transit and affordable housing – that can act as a foundation for a healthier community.

Bodies in the Street

Much of Marc’s work focuses on government policy and regulation, but he emphasized the importance of grassroots advocacy in the movement for climate justice. Differing approaches can and do work in concert to make change.

He pointed to the Unist’ot’en peoples resistance to development on their traditional lands, which peaked early this year and sparked Indigenous-led protests (and fierce debate) in solidarity all across Canada. Hundreds of Canadians joined in, shutting down ports and stopping traffic – refusing to let the issue go unaddressed.

Marc called on us to keep up the pressure: “We need bodies in the streets to keep politicians focused. If people lead, politicians will follow.”

Further Reading

Our conversation with Marc covered a number of topics, and we’ve only highlighted a few big ideas here! You can watch the full conversation on YouTube and check out these links to continue learning:

If you want to hear more bold ideas from the world’s leading climate experts, tune in for our next Climate Ventures Conversations on December 3! We’ll be sitting down for a conversation with Bruce Wilson, who sits on the Board of Directors at Iron & Earth. RSVP here!

CSI’s Climate Ventures is an incubator, coworking space, and a range of national accelerators that support entrepreneurs and innovators working on climate solutions. Learn more at

Making social change and having fun doing it

Occupied desks at CSI Annex

Changing bureaucracy isn’t easy, and can’t be done alone. It requires hard work and strong partners. Happily, the Festival for Creative Bureaucracy is up to the task. Their aim is to help bureaucracies feel more competent and confident to address the big social, economic, and political problems of our time.

They are guided by the following three questions:

  1. What then is the incentives and regulations regime to achieve that?
  2. How can we enrich the inner life of the bureaucracy and empower people and the organization?
  3. How can bureaucracies rethink and refresh their relationship to the civic and business worlds?

More than 1,400 people attended last year’s Creative Bureaucracy Festival festival in Berlin, but of course the festival had to move online. Attendees had access to 100 hours of programming over the course of five days.

One of those sessions was Making social change and having fun doing it, a conversation between Creative Bureaucracy Festival President Charles Landry and our CEO Tonya Surman. You can watch that conversation here:

Here’s our favourite excerpt:

“In this work there are the builders and the fighters. And the fighters are so smart and critical and they can jump into things, but they don’t seem to be having as much fun as the builders. I’m definitely a builder. I like to try new things out and give things a shot and have as much wonderful people around me as possible co-creating these ideas and solutions because I guess we never really figured out that we couldn’t.” 

Do you have an idea about how to make bureaucracy more creative? We’d love to hear about it! Become a CSI member today!

Moving at the Speed of Trust: A Conversation with Cat Abreu

Crowd holding protest signs at a climate action protest. Photo credit: Saph Photography.

CSI Climate Ventures Conversations are a chance to hear from leaders working for climate solutions. (Formerly Climate Ventures Mornings, we gave this event a new name to welcome speakers and attendees from coast to coast!)

On a cool September day in Toronto, with hazy skies from climate change-fuelled wildfires thousands of kilometers away, our Senior Programs Manager Shea Sinnott sat down for an online conversation with internationally-recognized climate justice campaigner Cat Abreu. Currently the Executive Director of Climate Action Network Canada — Reseau action climat Canada (CAN-Rac) and with over 15 years of experience in the climate movement, Cat has a reputation for being tenacious and steadfast in her work.

Over the hour-long conversation, Cat shared many thoughtful insights – too many to summarize here! We’ve highlighted a couple of key ideas that resonate with us in excerpts and clips below, but you can watch the full conversation here.

From climate change to climate justice: putting people at the centre of the work

A large part of our discussion focused on Cat’s perspective of the evolution of the climate movement in the last couple of decades. Cat noted the shift from older approaches to climate organizing – with their narrow focus on solely environmental impacts (see: saving polar bears) – to a contemporary focus on climate justice – with a focus on people and systemic injustice (see: naming and addressing the phenomenon of “climate refugees”).

Cat recalled her time at the Ecology Action Centre in the early 2010s and joked: “I had to ban all pictures of wind turbines because that was the only image we ever used for climate action: images that had no people in them, where people couldn’t see themselves in this huge change that we were so passionate about making in the world.”

Climate justice acknowledges that the same series of systemic inequities that have caused climate change also underpin other forms of oppression, like racism. “[Climate change] is both a result of those injustices and inequities, and it worsens those injustices and inequities.”

A climate justice approach contends that we can’t meaningfully address the climate crisis without taking this systems-based approach. And that making these connections and structuring our campaigns accordingly is both right and effective.

“The attempt to address all those injustices and inequities are the same fight,” explained Cat.

“It’s not that we work on human rights issues because it’s a nice thing to do and it strengthens our work on climate change, but because they are one and the same. If we’re going to solve the climate crisis, we need to fundamentally change the systems that are causing these injustices.

Today, the global climate movement is defined by campaigns that take this approach: “[Initiatives like] the Just Recovery, Green New Deal, and #KeepItInTheGround are all about people,” said Cat. “They’re about figuring out how we can transition into a climate-safe society in a way that [not only] takes care of people, [but] actually improves the lives of people.”

Moving at the Speed of Trust

In her work with Climate Action Network Canada — Reseau action climat Canada (CAN-Rac), Cat focuses on relationship-building with and between the 120 organizations across the country that make up CAN-Rac’s membership in order to promote the interests of the climate movement as a whole.

Cat’s motivations for working together are clear: “Very quickly when I got out of school and entered my career, I realized that when I was doing things alone, I wasn’t really making big changes happen. It wasn’t until I started working in coalitions that I was able to be a part of big changemaking. It really turned my life around.”

When our conversation turned to current events and all that the world has experienced in the last six months, Cat cited the often-repeated saying: “change happens in two ways: very slowly and incrementally, or suddenly, all at once.”

She brought a new perspective into the mix, reiterating the importance of strong partnerships and co-creation.

“The thing that people don’t say about change is that it always happens, no matter the speed, because of relationships of trust. People who trust each other come up with ideas and work together over time to spread those ideas, so in those moments of disruption, when change can happen all at once, the bedrock is already there and the relationships to get it over the line are already formed.

With an ongoing global pandemic, mounting calls for a just, green recovery, and our federal government announcing big plans in the Throne Speech, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the pace and scale of change afoot, to feel a sense of urgency to act. Yet, we cannot be too hasty or sacrifice a climate justice approach in favour of speed. Cat quoted Indigenous Climate Action Executive Director Eriel Deranger to drive this point home: “We need to get better at moving at the speed of trust.”

Our conversation with Cat made it clear that lasting change is driven by many, not one — and we must put care into building the relationships that will create a better future for all.

Our conversation with Cat covered a number of topics, and we’ve only highlighted a couple big ideas here! You can watch the full conversation here. Check out these links for ways you can learn more and take action:

If you want to hear more bold ideas from the world’s leading climate experts, tune in for our next Climate Ventures Conversations on November 5! We’ll be sitting down for a conversation with Marc Lee, Senior Economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. RSVP here!