Universities partner with paradigm-shifters to boost hope

When UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently told the world that it faces a choice between “collective action or collective suicide” he may not have been aware, like most, of the scale of universities’ commitment to co-working organisations at the vanguard of social change.

Specifically, Impact Hub is one of the world’s leading entities that offers physical and virtual spaces to businesses seeking collaboration to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

It has grown exponentially from opening its first office in London’s borough of Islington in 2005, to having over 100 Impact Hubs ‘hosting’ around 25,000 members in 60 countries.

Universities are involved, in part, because they know that 85% of the organisation’s entrepreneurs are actively working towards the SDGs, and that the UN recognises it as a leading actor in this mission.

Impact Hub Madrid, to take one example, promotes the work of the Global University Climate Forum. Led by the University of Pennsylvania’s Environmental Innovations Initiative (EII), on behalf of the International Sustainable Campus Network (ISCN), the forum brings students together to share ideas, learn, connect, and act on climate change.

This year’s cohort consists of 70 students, from eight countries, who are working on climate-related projects that will yield measurable results within six months.

Further groundbreaking work with Impact Hub is carried out by the Red Española para el Desarrollo Sostenible (REDS), which is the Spanish section of the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).

Supported by the majority of public Spanish universities (including Universidad Autónoma and Ciudad Universitaria de Cantoblanco in Madrid), some private universities, and several research centres, REDS bi-annually publishes a ranking of all Spanish cities based on their progress towards the SDGs.

A new paradigm

Impact Hubs can be difficult to grasp for those accustomed to traditional working methods because they operate in an entirely new paradigm. However, at their core is the fact that many entrepreneurs and businesses now do much or all of their work online, but still have the need to network.

At Impact Hub members generally pay from around €30 (US$29.80) per month to predominantly access the virtual community, to approximately €300 to have a physical office space in a building; and many others will have some kind of membership deal between these two extremes, depending on their needs.

Co-working means that many overheads, such as technical equipment and photocopiers are shared.

In return members have access to high quality facilities equipped with state-of-the-art technology (perhaps for podcasting or live-streaming a meeting); access to shared facilities; innovative business assessment and training workshops; and breakfast invitations, in which a member may give a brief talk about their social project (such as assisting a disadvantaged community, or removing plastic from the sea).

‘Work’ is defined in a much more holistic way. At times free live music concerts, massages, or yoga may be offered, as members strive to define what a better world might look like. At the heart of this incredibly dynamic and entrepreneurial space, however, is the importance of values such as trust, collaboration and courage; the development of a community, and the pursuit of a sustainable world.

The structure is also unconventional, with each Impact Hub collectively owning and governing the non-profit Impact Hub Association, which is based in Austria. Each local Impact Hub must comply with the protocols and policies voted on and approved by the members of the network, in what is described as a ‘distributed global operating model’.

Many of the Impact Hubs comprise hundreds of organisations and entrepreneurs; some of which interact regularly with members by giving talks or offering workshops, while others have very little contact.

In Madrid, for example, there are six co-working spaces. One of the first, known as Alameda, hosts businesses that range from InteRed, which promotes transformative education in places like Africa, to Bolsa Social, which advises on socially-responsible market investments. It also provides spaces for larger businesses from cloud-computing firms to Burger King, who might use it as a location to train staff.

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