A Reason for Innovation

“-tion.” Its become my least favorite suffix. While I’m sure all education programs are filled with their own “tion’s” and other overly used terms, I can say with an uncharacteristically snide confidence that at least 75 percent of what my interior design professors spoke about centered around one kind of “tion” or another. There was inspiration, organization, and collaboration. But the word that tops my “going-to-design-school-ruined-this” list is Innovation. Its right up there with gear-less bikes, ironic tattoos, and kids that didn’t believe architectural history class was pertinent to their career choice (what?!).

Why do I dislike the word innovation so much? I’m not sure that my distaste for the term stems from what it means exactly, as much as the frequency I’ve heard it being flung about without care or context. The question never seemed to be given a sufficient answer, why innovate?

Finally, I have come across that answer, and it is found in a term that makes use of the one I have just been complaining about: Social Innovation. We develop new strategies, ideas, and design concepts to positively affect environmental, economic, and cultural issues. And seeking to embody this new-found notion of mine is Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation.

The Centre for Social Innovation is similar to what would be considered co-working spaces or what The Hub Network is developing around the world, which provide semi-permanent spaces for small business or individuals to work. They are typically home to designers, freelancers, and entrepreneurs that rent small offices, desks, or hoteling space by the month or visit.

Centre1 What makes the Centre for Social Innovation different is it’s radical approach to space, business, and community. The Centre selects only those business that are equaled in their commitment to social enterprise to inhabit their space, typically non-profits, charities, green businesses, artists, designers, and activists. While it offers hoteling and single desk rentals, the Centre focuses on providing permanent office space to small business. It only allows companies with staffs of five people or less, believing that small numbers better facilitate community interaction and collaboration.

What I found most fascinating about The Centre is the specific approach taken to the physical design. Community meeting places, including lounges and a kitchen, were incorporated throughout the space to encourage interaction and are used for the many peer connecting events the Centre holds for it’s members. In addition to community meeting spaces, several different sized conference rooms and breakout areas were added that are shared by the members and can also be used by the social mission community in Toronoto for a small cost. It is warm, inviting, and modern looking. Its a place workers are excited to bring potential clients, and the space is filled to capacity with a waiting list of businesses that want to get in.

The atmosphere is quite the opposite from what I experienced when I decided to visit several co-working offices in Chicago after learning about The Centre for Social Innovation. Naively, I assumed that all shared work spaces would uphold a certain spirit of Social Innovation, but that simply wasn’t the case. Without a reason to develop innovative spaces, other than profit, these offices were dark, depressing, lacked amenities and inviting common areas, and the space itself seemed disconnected and indifferent to those working in it. What was missing was humanity in these designs, the core of all The Centre’s design concepts, which is what Social Innovation is all about.

–Brittany Hahn

Brittany Hahn is one of three guest design student bloggers who regularly writes and shares her design experiences at TalkContract. Check back often to see what's the buzz among the next generation of designers, and be sure to share your feedback and design advice by commenting below.

One Comment

  1. Brittany,
    I think you highlight why the word is so powerful in the social context. We often assign innovation to products and businesses, be it Apple or production techniques for James Cameron films. When describing efforts that have a higher common good, more people call that social service or social justice. Yet, some of the smartest people around are tackling some of the toughest problems … poverty, transportation, hunger, housing, etc. Given their small budgets and large issues, they have to think "outside the box," to borrow an overused cliche. If we attach the word "innovation" to what they do, what can that do to attract more help, more resources, and, most important, more respect. You're example of the design differences between the spaces goes right to the heart of the issue. For-profit businesses have demonstrated that great things come from smart minds in amazing settings. Creating centers of "social innovation" is finally bringing the entrepreneurial spirit to non-profit and incubator work.