Can a campus grow like a startup?

Handmade yurt - Rural Innovation Campus, Whaelghinbran Farm, New Brunswick, Canada


Sometimes running a startup feels like a bit of a curse.  Like the one Zeus laid on Sisyphus specifically, where Sisyphus has to push this huge bolder up a mountain but it keeps rolling away just before he reaches the top.  There’s always another daunting challenge waiting over the next false horizon when you’re running your own organization.  The difference of course is that as entrepreneurs the work is full of meaning – unlike Sisyphus who’s toil is pointless and unending.  Meaning cuts both ways though.  Meaning energizes you, but then drives you to pile on more good work for more good measure.

Last year Community Forests International achieved an important milestone with the launch of the Rural Innovation Campus on Pemba Island, Tanzania.  Bringing that long-held vision into reality with direct buy-in from our network felt like a huge victory.  Hope for Pemba’s struggling rural communities, a physical space to share solutions for people and the planet, and the world’s first facility devoted entirely to rural innovation.  The accomplishment so inspired us that we immediately set to work on a second Rural Innovation Campus – one based in New Brunswick, Canada – in hopes of supporting transformative change here at home as well . . . In other words, we eagerly started pushing another meaningful boulder up the mountain.

Permaculture Kitchen Garden training - Rural Innovation Campus, Pemba, Tanzania


The CFI team has been chasing the dream of building a Rural Innovation Campus in the Maritimes for over a year now, and though there is still no shortage of inspiration we have recently come up against some substantial obstacles.  The usual, like how to pay for its construction, but also challenges unique to this undertaking such as convincing sceptics that rural Maritime communities are worth the effort and that there is a real rural advantage.  It’s been a great learning experience, and in true startup form we’ve pivoted numerous times to navigate around pitfalls and avoid loosing our momentum entirely. 

Which is where we find ourselves today – at a crossroads and searching for a way to keep the dream of a Canada campus moving forward despite falling well short of our year 1 building fund targets.  Capital campaigns are never easy, and this one has been exceptionally painstaking.  At this point I can’t help but think that the fundraising targets we set are just too high.  Convention says infrastructure that demonstrates excellence in sustainable design, an important standard for us, must come with a very large price tag.  A price tag that is evidently out of our reach.  But this financial impasse has got me questioning convention, because our predicament raises concerns around the accessibility of decent, ‘green’ infrastructure in general.  If typical sustainable architecture is  out of reach for our organization, then it's out of reach for countless other not-for-profits and community institutions also.

CFI Timber Framing workshop, 2014 - Rural Innovation Campus, Whaelghinbran Farm, New Brunswick, Canada


If green infrastructure isn’t affordable, is it actually sustainable? If a high level of building efficiency and environmental sensitivity can’t be achieved without a jaw dropping price tag, green options will forever remain out of reach for the 99%.   Not to mention all the bootstrapping organizations and institutions that make up the rural sphere specifically.  And in that case sustainable building in its current form doesn’t really constitute a viable, ‘sustainable’ solution. If it’s not replicable, not widely attainable, it won’t benefit the people who need it most and it won’t be scaled up to the level necessary for systemic change.

Clearly it’s time for CFI to rethink our approach to building the Rural Innovation Campus proper, the green facilities that will help bridge the gap between innovative thinkers and communities in need.  Fittingly, we must apply some deep innovation to our design / build approach.  Of course this means addressing the larger challenge of making ‘sustainable’ affordable in general, which is another boulder at the bottom of a mountain.  In a strange way though expanding the scope of the problem is energizing, because we’re not just solving our own problem anymore but chasing a solution that can be shared.

Hearth by Kyle Schumann, B.Arch & Katie MacDonald, B.Arch - Judge's Award Recipient in CFI's 2014 Rural Innovation Campus cabin design contest


If we can figure out how to make sustainable infrastructure more accessible for our organization, we can figure out will how to make it more accessible for other cash-strapped groups as well. Then we’ll really be on to something.  A replicable, scalable solution to a systemic problem – precisely the sort of innovation that we are seeking to foster through the Rural Innovation Campus platform.

How to do this is a whole other question, but the answers might actually lie at our roots. A solution that fits a small organization, or small community, trying to leverage big changes.  Is there a way to build a Rural Innovation Campus that mirrors the way we have built our own organization? Lean and flexible, one step at time, with limited resources but plenty of support from friends.  And most importantly, permissive when it comes to breaking with convention.  In other words, can a campus grow like a startup?

- Daimen


At the outset of this project we crowd-sourced the design for our first small piece of campus infrastructure, a backwoods cabin for resident innovators.  The challenge attracted over 50 entries from around the world, and in addition to meeting our needs served as a platform for designers to develop and share their ideas.  We then leveraged the success by licensing all entries through Creative Commons, making the information freely available to all.  This is the sort of innovation that will bring the Rural Innovation Campus into reality and at the same time carve a path forward for groups embarking on their own rural odysseys.  We need more of the same . . .

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