Town Halls for Social Change: From Co-working to Co-Creating Society by Indy Johar

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?

From Start-Ups to Movements of Change

We quickly realised that the theory of change in places like Birmingham needed to expand beyond the start-up and social venture meme as primary actor of change (or indeed the driver of a business model). This was equally true if we were to be relevant in Myanmar, rural Halifax or other places where space scarcity is much less of an issue than in the global cities of the developed world. After all, in many instances of wicked, deep-seated social or environmental issues, change is no longer the responsibility or the capability of a single actor, organisation, institution or domain . To address issues like the UK’s failing housing or childcare systems, or the global CO2 emissions from agriculture, change needs movements of actors both on the demand and supply side of innovation and intervention. Regulation, finance, data and cultural norms all need to shift – and a theory of change based on heroic, single-bullet start-ups just doesn’t cut it.

Change in this world cannot be designed as a strategy written for one organisation but has to consist of the investment in growing a movement of change, or shared intent, a mission which is an open invitation to take part and innovate together; a shared language and understanding of interdependent issues; and the distributed collective intelligence of a movement.

This reality of societal change in the 21st Century, requires us to reinvent places like Impact Hubs as system change accelerators but not just start-up accelerators. Instead of incubating discrete cohorts of start-ups, these hubs would be successful if they were platforms and convenors of movements of change across multiple actors, agents, citizens, corporates and institutions and start-ups.

From Venture Capital To System Financing

In parallel, this emerging theory of change and impact means Hubs need a new model of financing themselves, one which transcends co-working model. Places like Impact Hubs need to develop new skills, capabilities, models, methods and practices to structure investments for system change – to become a new class of intermediary between agents of change and the liability and opportunity holders. We increasingly believe this future requires us to reimagine a new model of social “derivatives” financing focused on system change; experimenting with a synthesis of direct, oblique and outcome based returns, using a fusion / derivative of traditional finance tools like equity, debt, grant and outcome delivery contracts.

This should become a place where change-makers don’t pay to use the infrastructure, but are instead are paid to shift the outcome of places.


Towards Legitimate Spaces

Thirdly and finally, these new movements and the spaces that provide trampolines for them also need new models of legitimacy – ones which deeply acknowledge the need to work with, but also move beyond the legitimacy of, representative democracy and the state. This is a future which requires us to acknowledge that the public good can come from public, private and collective actors, and to re-imagine legitimacy based on radical relational openness and massive civic participation – unleashing and democratising the power to co-create our society. We need to create a new model of governance, participation and public accountability for this new class of civic institution. A new Town Hall; a place for us to democratically create our society.

Our ambition with the Town Hall model of the Hub is to combine these three architectures of change and to attempt to reimagine the Town Halls of the future as a new home for change, focused on unleashing the collaborative power of us, in towns, cities and neighbourhoods across the UK and abroad.

This Town Hall needs to combine the best of a co-working lab, civic accelerator and social impact financing platform – powered by an agile understanding of collective impact – to create a new class of civic institution.

This Town Hall needs to be focused on responding to the needs of our collective reality; a context driven by complex and wicked social challenges and opportunities at the levels of cities and towns – from rising levels of income inequality to diverging children’s outcomes.

This Town Hall needs to respond to a reality in which we increasingly recognise that meaningful output and real change is a product of complex multiple interactions between many many actors across all the “sectors” and domains.

This Town Hall needs to respond to a reality which requires us to also deeply acknowledge our emergent, complex, interdependent reality; a reality made by a democracy of many actors, which cannot be confidently sidestepped or sidelined with the illusion of heroic leadership or a great strategy.

This is a future we are prototyping in Birmingham and other cities across the world. It requires us to reimagine our Impact Hubs as Town Halls, as complimentary institutional infrastructures, not for democratically governing change but as places for democratically and openly also co-creating society – a model of change fit for the 21st Century and a world of complex wicked challenges and opportunities.