4 Questions with David from The Centre for Social Innovation!
Catching Up With NYC’s Centre for Social Innovation
In today’s Featured Spaces interview, we spoke with David Gise, director of NYC’s Centre for Social Innovation—a coworking space with an emphasis on social improvement. Here’s what we learned about the company’s roots.
David – Tell us a bit about yourself and the Centre for Social Innovation
Well, the CSI (Centre for Social Innovation) was originally founded in Toronto, Canada, and I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to bring the concept across the border.
“Within two seconds of stepping into the space, I said, ‘this needs to be in New York City’”. Initially, David was helping a NYC real estate investor develop community in one of the 10th largest commercial buildings in the city. David had been researching the coworking movement for several years, and had heard of Toronto’s socially-driven model since 2009.
After a little back and forth, the Canadian team was convinced to expand the brand, and the NYC location officially opened in 2013. The mission behind the space is simple: they want to “support people that are trying to make the world a better place”. They host over 200 companies, both for-profit and nonprofit, which are tied together by the common goal of improving the world.
The companies must, “show that they’re using their business to somehow improve the world,” which could be anything from “education, health, hygiene, international development, environmental concerns,” and more. “If you pick an issue area, you are likely to find an organization here that’s working on it.”
How were you first exposed to coworking, and what made you interested?
“I first discovered it when I was working on [my company] Open Office Space, where the whole concept was to lease unused space.” Back in the mid-2000s, before Airbnb and the sharing economy, David had founded a company that was all about sharing unused office space. His interest in coworking and shared work environments goes way back, long before today’s reign of WeWork.
David was doing consulting work in 2008, and with the economic downturn, office vacancy was higher than ever. Meanwhile, he was spending $1500 for a tiny desk in a shared office. With every office he toured, he realized more and more the vacancies were a big problem. One day he received an offer: “we just laid off all these people, and we have all this office space. We can give you a private office for $500″.
And then it sunk in: if all this unused inventory were available on the market, finding a workspace would be that much more affordable for the average person.
What do you think is necessary for a coworking space to succeed?
“I think having an identity of what the space is, beyond the physical space, is critical.” With WeWork dominating the market, smaller coworking spaces must choose a niche and cater to it. Physical workspace can only be so valuable; coworking spaces need to differentiate on a more fundamental level in order to appeal to customers. It has to go beyond renting desks and chairs.
If you don’t do this, “you start competing on furniture… who has better prices,” and soon enough it’s a race to the bottom. It’s not sustainable. Instead, David’s belief is that “people come for the space and stay for the community.” It’s the only way to sustain a competitive advantage when new spaces are popping up every few months.
What are the best features of your coworking space?
“Number 1 is the community. 100%.” No surprise there—community really is the only way for a coworking space to stand out.
But David is also proud of the CSI’s interior design. It’s “cool and warm and welcoming,” both aesthetically and in the sense that it maximizes interaction. The common area receives a lot of foot traffic, and the design of the space lends itself to interaction.
There’s also a broader narrative to the space’s design. “People appreciate the story behind the fact that we took freight elevator doors… and made them into our kitchen table.” The Centre for Social Innovation uses reclaimed materials as a large part of its design, which aligns with their philosophy of doing something to help the world.
Even though community is key to the space’s success, building community isn’t solely left in the hands of tenants. Design contributes to the way people experience the space, and it helps point the community in the right direction.