Impact Hub: Then and Now

The success of the Impact Hub network — comprising more than 80 locations and over 15,000 members worldwide — comes from the spirit of collaboration, borne out of the activities of a group of ambitious students more than 15 years ago.

Early Roots

In 1998, eager to ‘shake things up’ on the eve of the millennium, a small group of UK students organised a conference on human rights, environmental, and social issues. The 2-day London event featured some of the most prominent world leaders and thinkers, including The Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, English journalist and TV presenter Jon Snow and several Nobel Peace Laureates.

It led to a flood of interest from other organisations, including the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development, who asked the group to replicate the London event for their 2002 summit in Johannesburg. However, the students quickly realised that the convention centre assigned to them was not appropriate for their event.

Instead, they ventured into Soweto, where they met people who had been at the heart of the anti-Apartheid movement and were now shifting towards community regeneration. These locals had their own sustainable development challenge–dealing with a huge mountain of waste accumulating in the centre of their neighbourhood.

By the time the UN Summit took place in 2002, the student team and community members had turned the mountain of waste into a thriving, fully functioning area. Soweto’s ‘Mountain of Hope’ became an icon for local community regeneration and sustainable development, and many world leaders, including UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, took notice. Inspired by the magnitude of what was accomplished, Annan scrapped his formal speech and instead spoke about the project, remarking that the ‘real’ summit had already happened at the mountain in Soweto.

Taking Shape

Upon returning to the UK, the students wondered how best to use this inspiring energy they had discovered to make real change. As in Soweto, they realised that people in the UK wanted to make a difference through their work, yet they were generally operating out of their homes, in isolation.

Jonathan Robinson, a member of the student group, asked himself, “What if these people could come together in the same physical space and have a place to connect?” Robinson, with the other students, would answer that very question in 2005 by creating The Hub, the first workspace solely dedicated to social innovation.

Built on a shoestring budget, the 300-square-meter space opened on the top floor of a warehouse space in Islington, facilitating ways to work, meet, learn, and connect. Many of the features incorporated into this first Hub became staples for new Hubs around the world, including the leaf-shaped tables to encourage conversation, and a reception area where members take turns serving as “host” for the space — making guests feel at home and introducing them to people they should meet.

From Space to Impact

More than a decade on, the Impact Hubs have become much more than simply places to work, with the current model shifting its focus from space at the centre of its model to space as an enabler of impact. The global Impact Hub network is now, more than ever before, focused on supporting their membership base of entrepreneurs, freelancers, and change makers, who are working at the edges of traditional work environments and business culture, to make the impact they desire to see at local and global levels, whether they tap into the network in the physical or virtual environments.

We look forward to the future.

(Adapted from an article written by Impact Hub member and social design architect Katie Crepeau, which first appeared in Public Journal, May 2016)