Though quite a few co-working spaces and business incubators exist in Edmonton today, Roundhouse, which located at MacEwan University and is set to open its doors on Thursday, is poised to play a unique role within the city’s innovation ecosystem.

Unlike traditional co-working spaces, Roundhouse caters to a large demographic of entrepreneurs, not-for-profits, students and faculty, and is focused on social change, rather than the bottom line.

“We’re here to inspire and empower people to make a positive difference in the world,” Roundhouse senior manager Amor Provins says.

Whether advocating for mental health through photo and video campaigns or funding the United Nations World Food Programme through the sale of bottled water, more and more businesses in Edmonton and around the world are recognizing their corporate responsibility.

While large corporations have dedicated resources to support environmental and social initiatives, small and medium enterprise often do not. Roundhouse helps fill this gap — supporting those looking to move the needle on social issues such as poverty, literacy and mental health.

“When I hear about the [downtown] innovation corridor… to me there’s one piece that we haven’t really talked about and that’s the social conscience of our communities,” says Leo Wong, founding director of the Social Innovation Institute at MacEwan University, which works closely with Roundhouse. “[At Roundhouse] we’re trying to convene people — not-profit, for-profit, innovators, entrepreneurs — to really focus on social change.”

Members can access workshops and presentations on social innovation, consult with experts on their social mandate and even partner with faculty on research projects.

You don’t have to be a business to access the space (in fact it was originally conceived to support struggling not-for-profits), nor do you need to have a social mandate right off the bat.

We really, truly believe that anyone can be a changemaker

“We completely understand that some people might not have a full idea at the beginning stages,” says Provins. “With our programs and resources, as well as [other tenants], we want to help foster [social innovation] and encourage people to think in a different way.”

The idea for Roundhouse came about two years ago, while MacEwan University’s Allard Hall was still under construction.

Having been asked to create sustainable business plans for several struggling community organizations, Wong, who teaches classes on social enterprise, pitched the idea of a shared office environment to help alleviate financial pressure on these not-for-profits.

In a matter of months, the idea permeated senior administration and got the go ahead from the university.

“It was still just ideas, but I think when people first heard about it they imagined what it could be and so a lot of people supported it,” says Wong.

The project covers a 10,000-square foot space in Allard Hall, which had originally been set aside for arts-related retail outlets.

The result is a gorgeously (and sustainably) designed space meant to spur creative collisions and collaborations.

Large south-facing windows let in streams of natural sunlight, keeping the space energy efficient, while glued laminated timber rails (instead of steel) not only add a warm golden hue to the mix of hot desks, dedicated desks, private offices and meeting rooms, but reduce the buildings carbon footprint.

In the middle of it all, sits a large open space that can be transformed into an event or presentation venue with the flick of a switch and the lowering of bleachers.

This circular space is meant to echo the Roundhouse brand.

When excavating the site for what is now Allard Hall, a train roundhouse was discovered. An integral part of the railway system, a roundhouse is where the trains would be loaded with goods before being redirected.

“We thought that was a really cool metaphor for a co-working space with resources and programs,” says Provins, who added that the logo is a 13-sided shape, called a triskaidecagon, meant to emulate an Indigenous talking circle, where all voices have equal importance.

“We really, truly believe that anyone can be a changemaker,” she adds.

The sold-out Roundhouse grand opening on Thursday, May 31, will be followed by a week of events and workshops meant to introduce the community to the new co-working space and to the concept of social innovation. See the full schedule here.