Throughout our history, humans have always thrived when working together towards common goals. The power of our collective action has built cities, transformed entire societies and even changed the course of history. This very fundamental principle of human system interaction forms the core of what is known as cluster or co-location theory. This theory is premised on the notion that sharing space can be an effective way for smaller non-profit or social enterprise organizations to reduce their costs, expand their services and improve their operational efficiency. The idea that by sharing space we can capture and harness the creative energies of like minded people is not a new one, but it is one worth looking at again.
The research on co-location over the last two decades has found that the social, political and economic advantages of sharing space are profound. This is particularly important for non-profits or social enterprises that are more often than not: understaffed, underfunded and overworked. At a very mechanistic level, sharing space can reduce the administrative burden on non-profits through cost-sharing for common tools such as advertising, printing, heating and water costs etc. There are also political advantages to sharing space: the political leverage that can be exacted from having strategic clusters working together on bids or lobbying can be significantly more than a singular organization working towards the same ends.
But there are also very important synergies that transcend these more technical advantages. The real magic of the shared space concept is predicated on the equation: Physical Space + Community = Social Innovation. The theory of co-location asserts that by sharing space (and costs) with driven, talented and like-minded individuals social innovation can occur at a more rapid and frequent pace. Essentially, by sharing space you will be able to multiply the number of ideas that you are exposed to which expands your capacity to generate, expand on, or reconceptualise new ideas. Being immersed in such a creative environment allows for continuous learning, inspiration and accelerated growth and development.
While it is tempting to believe that simply by dint of being strategically clustered your organization will immediately reap the benefits of social innovation – don’t’ be fooled! Manifesting social transformation requires more effort than simply co-locating, that’s just the first step! While sharing space with other organizations will result in immediate cost-sharing benefits, in order to fully realize the potential of co-location, you must animate the community that you are creating! This can prove more difficult than simply sharing space. But don’t worry! There are several ways to do this. My article covers these methods more in-depth, however a few key elements include:
• Providing a leadership role which is dedicated to managing the community animation aspect: someone who is a champion of co-location and can motivate and energize the community to engage meaningfully to create social innovation.
• Facilitating knowledge interaction is also paramount to a successful co-location model. Having formalized methods and timelines for sharing technical and practical information are absolutely necessary to ensure that plans are being developed collaboratively and that ideas are being generated to solve mutual problems (such as poverty in the inner city or environmental degradation)
• Communication rituals are also important for the effective functioning of a co-location model. This differs from the last point insofar as it is primarily concerned with developing the community identity of the shared space tenants. These rituals should foster the collaborative spirit and serve to strengthen connections between the organizations and their staff. These connections will create the familiarity and trust that is critical for generating social innovation.
In my quest to fully understand whether and to what extent the principle of sharing space could actually manifest social transformation, I sought out leaders in the field who were living the dream. I drew from the experience of several organizations from all across North America: The Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto; The Hub in Nova Scotia; and the Non-Profit Centers Network in San Francisco to name a few. The interviews were invaluable for providing insights that were not contained in the literature as they gave unedited, in-depth answers to questions that dealt with the more humanistic, as opposed to technical aspects of sharing space. The responses were heartening. All models of shared space seem to be thriving, in some instances seeing cost savings of up to $18 million over the last 9 years! So I’m not making this up folks – this is the real deal and I strongly suggest that if you are a non-profit and you are struggling, seek out a way to share space with fellow non-profits and start reaping the benefits of co-location! It will take time and effort to setup and to maintain, but it is worth it and together – we CAN make a difference!