Tonya Surman

Ashoka Fellow
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Fellow Since 2009


This profile was prepared when Tonya Surman was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.
The New Idea
Tonya believes that systems-change can only be achieved when community, space and innovation are linked together. Consequently, she has developed a model to address all three of these elements concurrently. She recognizes that an integrated solution requires each aspect to feed into the other, thereby creating the most powerful opportunities possible for the citizen sector.

Practically, Tonya is removing barriers, solving capacity problems, creating a platform for collaboration, animating social capital and fostering leadership for the citizen sector. As a result the citizen organizations (COs) that partner with her have achieve financial sustainability, increased their diversity, generated greater innovation and improved their employees’ happiness levels. Intentionality is an integral part of this value-added methodology, which has led to the creation of new organizations that currently express the voice of civil society movements.

Tonya is building communities of innovation inside and outside the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) - the pioneer of shared space in Canada—by catalyzing the generation and implementation of new ideas within a collaborative environment. By bringing competing or isolated ventures together among a diversity of COs she is creating the conditions required to build new initiatives and shared projects. Using a holistic model for service provision, community engagement, capacity building and social venture capital incubation, CSI has become the leading example in Canada for a new generation of social hubs.

To replicate and scale the idea, Tonya has systematized her methodology and will release the details of her model, experience and license into Creative Commons by the fall of 2009. She aims to leverage the power of open networks and viral marketing to engage new hubs to build interactive tools that foster collective action. Tonya is reinventing the concept of scale using network theory to build a global alliance of Shared Spaces for Social Innovation which will leverage the success of CSI at the global level.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person


 Since our founding in 2004, my focus has been on growing CSI’s reach and impact. As a nonprofit social enterprise that provides, among many other services, workspace to the social mission sector, our ability to do so was put under pressure by skyrocketing rents. It started to become obvious to us that in order to fulfill our mission, we would need to be owners of the buildings our community inhabits. In 2010, we bought a beautiful, 36,000 sq. ft. brick and beam building thanks to our innovation in social finance, the Community Bond, raising $2 million from citizen investors. We repeated this feat in 2014 when we purchased our second building, the 64,000 sq. ft. Murray Building in downtown Toronto, with the help of $4.3M coming from 227 community investors. During this time, we have also expanded through strategic partnerships. In September 2012, we opened a 10,000 sq. ft. space in Regent Park, Canada's largest public housing community, currently undergoing Canada’s largest community revitalization. When the opportunity presented itself to expand the New York City, we jumped in with two feet. CSI Starrett-Lehigh is a 24,000 square-foot jewel of modern design packed with social innovators working across sectors in farming and finance and everything in between.

Recently, we’ve looked to expand to cities around the world using a social franchise model. CSIx is a scaling strategy that enables local ownership and local customization of CSI-like spaces. CSIx partners will access our technology, community and expertise to create shared spaces that catalyze social innovation. What’s next? We’re focusing on bringing even greater intentionality to our facilitation and acceleration work. We are building out verticals around themes such as climate change and community health, to deepen our practice and amplify the impact of innovations with world-changing potential. 

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