Town Halls for Social Change Pt. 1
From Co-working to Co-Creating Society
This is the first instalment in a 3 part series about the future visioning of Impact Hub by co-founder Indy Johar and the wider Impact Hub Birmingham team. Together we are re-imagining the future of work and how we impact our wider communities.
Co-working for social change is a growing global phenomenon, headlined by the organisations like the Impact Hub network or the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto. Across the world we are seeing ever-greater numbers of mission-driven innovators co-locate in order to maximise their success and impact. From humble beginnings in a leaky loft in Islington, the Impact Hub network now has over 82 spaces and 12,000+ members worldwide, from Singapore to Seattle; Johannesburg to Yerevan; Sao Paolo to Stockholm; Birmingham to Berlin.
Along the course of this journey, the theory of change at the centre of this movement has evolved from its initial roots. Both The Hub (now the Impact Hub network) and Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation emerged in 2004-2005, when ‘co-working’ wasn’t surrounded by the hype it is now.
When this movement began, it began obliquely. Communities of change-makers were looking for an alternative to the dogmas of the private or public sector as places for driving meaningful change, recognising the need for shared infrastructures to convene conversations and create coalitions between unlikely allies. These infrastructures – whether as temporary event spaces like Soweto’s Mountain of Hope or permanent platforms like hubs – were co-visioned with the entrepreneurs who became their members, and were designed around hosting the human network as opposed to optimising and scaling a real-estate portfolio.
Slowly, and by necessity, business models focused on making these shared infrastructures sustainable emerged. Unsurprisingly, this drive for sustainability was not based directly upon monetizing the largely intangible world of growing trust and a shared sense of mission as a basis for fluid collaborations and innovative new experiments. Instead, it tuned in to creating an easy proxy of the value contribution of these infrastructures, using membership fees or other forms of flexible & fractional desk rental models. As in the Age of the Enlightenment coffee shops, the space and product ostensibly sold to fund the space merely set the stage for a rich set of interactions to take place, with hugely open-ended outcomes.
As such, the new spaces intended to be – and are – sophisticated platforms with deeply embedded founding narratives. These are spaces that are co-designed, built and enriched by the users, using an ethical and DIY spirit to ensure each space is reflective of the founding community. They are hosted as deliberate ‘serendipity engines’, built upon seeding cultures of purpose, empathy, collaboration and openness. Implicitly these environments are also generating new notions of economic management – focusing less on resource efficiency and control, and more on the power of trust and a shared mission to make unexpected new combinations and ideas possible (“lowering transaction costs” as economists would have it). They centre not on ‘cheap space’ and other ‘affordability’ concerns, but on a sense of abundance of shared resources, such as high-speed WiFi or shared meals; and horizontal teams driven by opt-in purpose not task allocation; mission alignment not hierarchical power of control and decision making.
Lots of this, of course, has gone mainstream. However, the ultimate actor at the centre of the theory of change of these socially-focused Hubs was still the enterprise: the social entrepreneur or venture and its ideas, products and services to make a dent in the world, be it for-profit or not for profit. The current craze for anything to do with start-ups certainly has one of its roots here.
As the Hub evolved we accelerated this model and the underlying theory of change – firstly scaling the infrastructure in terms of size, birthing super scale hubs like Hub Westminster, Hub San Francisco or Hub Seattle; secondly growing the infrastructural offer to include start-up accelerator funds/programmes like Hub Youth Academy, Hub Ventures, Hub Launchpad and open innovation consultancy platforms.
In these second generation Hubs, the underlying actor of change – the enterprise – had gone from being a tacit instrument to becoming an explicit one; in fact we even tag-lined Hub Westminster as the “Superstudio for Social Start-ups”. Meanwhile the word ‘hub’ had become so ubiquitous that the network decided to specify its mission and state that this was about impact, not just start-ups.
Whilst few can deny the success of this global infrastructure for social change – proliferating to almost every tier 1 city across the world, without anything close to the massive market capitalisation that characterises commercial counterparts like WeWork – the scale of impact is still open to debate, and the limited penetration beyond capital cities is a challenge.
This means the time may be right to propose another generation of Hubs in locations beyond the global cities – as Town Halls for Mass Collaborative Innovation and Impact. Two distinct characteristics drive this model. Firstly, they focus on a theory of change about driving systemic local change as opposed to just supporting individual start-ups; and secondly, they are financed by the outcomes they accelerate and civic subscriptions, as opposed to being ultimately sustained by a charge for the real estate of a flexible desk.
But, why is this relevant?
Stay tuned for Town Halls for Social Change Pt. 2…