News | Creating an Ecology of Social Innovation

Creating an Ecology of Social Innovation

What’s the Infrastructure for Realizing Ideas for a Radically Better World?

Work isn’t working. That much is clear. Freelancers, flexi-workers, nomad professionals and social entrepreneurs are more and more often characterizing the landscape of contributors to social and ecological responsibility. As we see a shift toward more flexible and entrepreneurial working patterns and an increased ambition to create world-changing products and services, there is demand for new forms of workspace that attract, inspire and support people to realize that ambition.

Welcome to Impact Hub! A growing constellation of spaces that are home to clusters of social innovators in world cities, Hubs are rooted in local context and connected globally through a shared infrastructure of culture, creativity and collaboration. What is The Hub’s vision? It is a world where diverse people are pioneering imaginative and enterprising initiatives for a radically better world. “Social innovation is vital to solving systemic challenges, and systemic initiatives need the attention of interdisciplinary and global talent that embody the courage and critique of an activist with the resolve and ingenuity of an entrepreneur,” says The Hub’s co-founder Jonathan Robinson.

Meet Tamsin

Tamsin Lejeune is a founding member of the Ethical Fashion Forum, a network of designers, businesses and organizations promoting social and environmental sustainability in the fashion industry. Tamsin was seeking a way to leverage her people-skills to create economic opportunities in places where she saw no real market access. With her experience of traveling, studying and working all over the world, Tamsin saw the potential role that fashion can play in development and set out to explore how she could create market access for producers in small communities. She has found that what becomes the key ingredient in activating ethical supply chains is intelligence in how global markets operate at the production end.  Enabling local fashion producers through a smart, equitable and sustainable business model-and encouraging the market to adapt to new values and emerging global imperatives- Tamsin has witnessed small ideas turn into global ventures. In just five years, the Ethical Fashion Forum has grown from a concerned conversation to a platform for network collaboration, conscious catwalks, youth involvement projects and building of a comprehensive information and sourcing site for any business or individual looking to source or buy products made to ethical criteria within the fashion and textiles sector. 

At The Hub, the social entrepreneur finds a physical space supported by virtual tools and a like-spirited peer network that maximizes the visibility of emergent ideas, and facilitates access to the right mix of talent, knowledge and resources.

Home to civic entrepreneurs, kitchen table pioneers, corporate change agents and sustainability forerunners, Hub members describe a culture that supports the risk-taking involved in learning through doing. It is the convergence of attention to the design of space and the hosting of that space that allows people to meet, work and make things happen. Hub spaces are transformative, and borrow the best from offices, lounges and cafés to create a new kind of social space where people are invited to be open, creative and daring, where serendipity is a welcome part of the journey and the path of ideas to action.

In supporting social entrepreneurs from the initial ‘itch’ of an idea to taking innovation to scale, Hub hosts are an integral part of the ecosystem within a Hub.  Hosts serve as a ‘light-touch’ interface between the space and its members.  Maria Glauser, co-director of Hub Islington in London and the catalyst behind The Hub’s unique approach to hosting space, feels strongly about members being at the heart of the experience: “Beyond all The Hub does and provides, it’s the members’ own diversity, personal meaning and context that will determine their experience and The Hub’s social impact through the development of their projects. Members are offered what they need to generate unique value for themselves and to co-create value with others in the network.” A key principle is hospitality: “Welcoming and setting of a stimulating culture for people to be themselves…  and a safe space for people to reveal themselves and their projects, get feedback, consider other perspectives, be challenged and take risks.”

Meet Neil

Driven by the desire to enable population-wide reduction in carbon emissions, Neil Tierney has been busy redesigning how people consume energy by inspiring massive behavioral change in order to meet the imperatives of the sustainability challenge. His start up company, Onzo, brings world-changing products to market. It also demonstrates a new model of practice for enterprise, which recognizes that sustainability is not just an add-on but instead needs to be at the core of business models and central to its value models. With this in mind, Neil fused together the best of corporate organizational practice with the confidence and innovation of the social entrepreneurial sector to take on one of the biggest and most significant blockages in the greening of the U.K.-energy. The products they create are known as the ‘iPods of cleantech.’ They are as smart as they are beautiful, offering a unique suite of products and services for the energy sector that reduce consumption, educate consumers and track how power is being used to enable energy providers to become more responsive and forward-thinking. This is where the smart consumer and smart grid meet.

The Hub’s multi-sited offering currently includes London Islington, Berlin, Bristol, Johannesburg, Rotterdam and Sao Paulo with Hubs-under-construction in Amsterdam, Brussels, Cairo, Halifax, London King’s Cross, Madrid, Mumbai and Tel Aviv/Jaffa. There is also exponentially growing interest in many other cities. The first-generation Hubs have recently co-founded a global social enterprise at the core to help hold and evolve core practices and services for Hubs around the world. Reframing social problems as opportunities for innovation and creating opportunities for co-developing the local and global enterprises are significant attractors for enterprising talent.  But beneath it all lies a culture of strong values, shared risk-taking and friendship that sustains the rapid expansion of Hub ambition through its ever-surprising number of emerging initiatives. The Hub is an experience. 

In The New Frontier of Experience Innovation, ‘the experience space’ is described as  “conceptually distinct from that of the product space, which is the conventional focus of innovation. In the experience space, the individual consumer is central, and an event triggers a co-creation experience. The personal meaning derived from the co-creation experience is what determines the value to the individual.” Hubs are nothing without their members, who from even before a building has been found, are involved in the collaborative design of the physical and virtual community, and who go on to play a central role in the production of a Hub’s open-source and peer-to-peer programming.

Meet Cyndi

Cyndi Roades founded Anti-Apathy in order to promote and support creative approaches to social and environmental issues. Cyndi started her career in production at a really exciting time for British music, but was frustrated that the lifestyle accompanying this did not really challenge her on a personal level. She started going to lectures and debates on political and economic issues and talking to friends about what she was learning. Cyndi realized that they were all interested in knowing more about emerging issues and wondered how to transport the lecture experience into a more inclusive space-one that attracted a wider audience. Anti-Apathy was born by bringing together a diverse mix of musicians, artists, politicians and social commentators all rubbing shoulders. It started off as an informal endeavor where issues met entertainment. Very quickly, people started wondering what they could actually do to change how they were living, so Anti-Apathy launched a series of social change experiments focused on educating people to understand the reality and impact of the choices they make every day. 

This transformation into real change and action opened up some new opportunity spaces-most significantly a partnership with Galahad Clark who wanted to create a range of Clarks shoes to generate some revenue for Anti-Apathy. Cyndi figured if they were going to do it, they might as well source ethical materials. And so Worn Again was born, and is now creating a range of everyday products out of material that would be wasted, such as prison blankets, car seatbelts and tents. Cyndi believes that the re-make and re-use agenda will be a central part of the post-recession and post-carbon economy and aims to fill the current gap in provision by developing a template for re-use supply chains and an accompanying business model.

What is the Magic of The Hub?

In a place where ethos-driven innovation is nourished by an environment of working with unlikely allies, people find themselves actively doing and learning every day.  Attention to space, relationship and the tacit conditions that nurture this doing (and being) underlies the Hub innovation ecology.  

In her recently published study The Powers of Place: An Inquiry Into the Influence of Place, Space and Environment on Collective Transformation (July 2008), Renee Levi surveyed a number of people on their experience of space-from temporal retreats to more permanent establishments. She observed that, “Most of the participants in this study mentioned specific elements they noticed that were part of, and directly influenced, their transformational group experience. These began to appear as patterns or configurations of space that influenced the collective experience.” 

Later in the same study, Levi refers to the reciprocal relationships one can have with a place-being ‘held’ by a space and “the importance of feeling contained, safe, comfortable, cared for and secure. Some said that feeling this way in an environment was necessary for the risks, leaps or shifts required for the occurrence of true transformation.” This speaks both to the experience of a Hub itself but also to the emerging fabric of innovation that is weaving itself across Hubs. The transformative possibility of this network of social innovators is now showing its potential through emerging initiatives such as Hubs in conflict areas, learning programmes on the ‘Art of Hosting Spaces for Social Innovation,’ a Hub Venture Capital fund and Hub Labs as innovation processes focused on complex issues. The Hub has become the recognized habitat for conscious entrepreneurs, with a systemic perspective, building resilient enterprises as solutions to global problems. 

As the Hub system creates itself with each interaction and each conversation, social innovators co-create an ecology that provides fertile ground for their respective innovations-be they redefining fashion, reshaping energy habits or creating partnerships for new products-and for higher levels of collaborative innovation.  And so these innovators for a radically better world, who have found less friction between who they are and what they do, say over and over ‘at the Hub we feel at home.’