The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

Despite the downfall of a collective office space, Social Innovation Calgary is working to create a virtual space for social entrepreneurs

workspace Calgary City Council approved an online initiative that will support the development of social enterprises at a meeting earlier last month — its second attempt to do so.

The city's first attempt to facilitate a co-workspace for those looking to make social change was partially subsidized by Calgary's Innovation Fund. According to the city's annual report, the $75,000 investment was used to create and operate the space, called EPIC YYC, from March until Dec. 2013.

The space was rented by 17 social enterprises and employed 27 social entrepreneurs, including, Talem Health Solutions, Bridges Social Development and Engaging Africa.

A social enterprise is an organization that applies business strategies to maximize social and environmental well-being. The emerging category of business' and not-for-profit organizations aim to be innovative while returning dividends to the community.

Despite the office's initial full capacity, the annual report suggested the pilot project was not financially sustainable due to a lack of long-term demand for physical workspace.

Tim ShawTim Shaw, a corporate social responsibility advocate, occupied an office space at EPIC YYC until November 2013.

Photo courtesy of Tim Shaw/Twitter
Social innovator Tim Shaw was among the 27 members occupying the building last year. Having moved west to pursue his communications company, amplifi, Shaw was optimistic about joining EPIC YYC as he had been involved with a similar project in Toronto.

He rented a space at EPIC's 8th Ave. S.E. location. "It really was a community of people who weren't necessarily working for the same cause, rather working for the same purpose," Shaw says. "That had huge benefits."

But Shaw left the space in November. "Being able to make connections and share information, whether it's in person or online, will be valuable no matter where that takes place," he adds. "They really are trying to create that hub, of not just information, but of people to make social innovation work within the city."

City Council consented to spend the remainder of their $75,000 contribution on a social entrepreneur website.

With the pilot project in mind, council has decided to support Social Innovation Calgary's new initiative: a virtual hub set to launch this spring. The site will offer support and networking opportunities for social innovators.

It is reported in Social Innovation Calgary's operations update that the new platform will have dramatically reduced operating costs and allow it to regain financial stability.

However, the proposed domain will in many ways do exactly what EPIC YYC promised to avoid as stated by the project overview in 2012. The document's feasibility assessment states that social innovators lacking a physical space will have:

• limited productivity and motivation
• limited professional connections
• challenges bringing their ideas to market and "from market to scale."

Former city councillor Gael MacLeod sponsored the project's application in 2012 and remains one of the initiative's biggest supporters despite its recent revisions.

"There were a lot of concerns of whether or not this would actually work when they first started," she says in regard to council's decision to support the project. "There was no guarantee of success, which I felt was exactly what innovation was about."

She noted that although EPIC YYC provided a number of valuable resources to social innovators, the online initiative will be able to supplement most of the project's attributes — citing events and programming as a few.

"It's more than just a network, it's about how one business connecting with another business can create greater good than either one of them could individually," she added. "So while the space is now online, these other pieces are integral to the organization."

Proposed project is not the first of its kind

Social Innovation Calgary is not the first to create an online resource for up-and-coming social innovators. While it's website will take a local approach, Calgary-based website theSedge.org has already set out to take this platform to a global level.

Danielle Carruthers, PJ Frayne, and Michell Paez launched the website to provide guidance, resources and networking opportunities to international members.

According to Carruthers, virtual interaction is at the forefront of social change and expanding local networks is essential to maintaining momentum.

"We want to try and make these connections and relationships beyond just a localized community," Carruthers says.

In an online platform, Carruthers says interpersonal relationships and connections are often missing. At theSedge.org, its real-time interaction "maintains the support you get when you go to a live event in the city because people still need that," she says.

How are other Canadian cities managing to maintain venues?

EPIC YYC's fiscal and social expectations were based on the success of collaborative workspaces around the globe. Despite Calgary's lack of demand, some of the world's most utilized hubs reside within Canadian metropolitan areas such as Toronto, Vancouver and Halifax.

Toronto's Centre for Social Innovation has become home to nearly 100 social mission groups working within diverse sectors — which range from environment and arts, to social justice and education.

Kate Hodgson, an animator based out of Toronto's Centre for Social Innovation, credits the program for her extensive support system and vocational grasp.

"I think what makes us successful is that we really take pains to develop and facilitate a community feel that is not virtual," she says of the co-workspace dynamic.

"It's an interactive knowledge base...so people sit and share their opinions and knowledge in different backgrounds which benefits everyone," she adds.

"As an entrepreneur I have the ability to network and have a space outside of my kitchen, which was starting to get quite lonely."

EPIC YYC is unable to disclose the websites name and its anticipated launch date at this point in time.

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