The Social Finance Deal that Keeps on Giving

Take two geniuses. The one, Bob Williams, who many consider to be the “social, environmental and economic architect” of modern British Columbia. The other, internationally renowned architect, Bing Thom.

Present them with a high-rise mall in decline in an area of Surrey surrounded by abandoned buildings and boarded-up storefronts.

And you get Surrey Central City, a magnet for a new City Hall, university campus, library, performing arts centre, civic plaza, local institutions, head offices and places to live. Plus winner of numerous architectural awards including the most prestigious one in the world – the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Fair. Click here to see how utterly beautiful and functional this building complex is.

Central City got started because Bob Williams was Chair of the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia. (ICBC) He had two bright ideas. The first was that ICBC’s capital reserves could be used for social good and still provide the same or better return on investment. Nowadays folks call that social finance. To Bob it made good business sense to assist in transforming an ignored part of the city that was home to some of the poorest people in the region. So he invested $250 million to fund the construction of the Central City development.

His second bright idea was to recruit Bing Thom a dedicated and artful city builder whose motto was, “building beyond buildings.” Sadly Bing Thom died in early October, 2016. Before he did he designed some of the most beautiful buildings in the world but none more so than his work revitalizing the downtown core of Surrey, soon to be, the busiest, biggest and most innovative city in British Columbia.

The rest is not yet history.

Thanks to the receptivity of Surrey City Hall, Central City continues to have impact. Since the original construction there have been about $4 billion in new investments in the surrounding area. In another 15 years, the area will be home to twice as many residents as it has now. Twice as many people will work there too. Surrey’s downtown core is being transformed into a vibrant, walkable, town centre that exudes civic pride, creativity and belonging. Can you tell I live in Surrey?

Some things are only about money, like investing in the international money market. However when money and social purpose come together something majestic happens. In Surrey’s case, according to Surrey Councillor Vera LeFranc, the heart of a city emerges.

That makes this social finance deal priceless.

Note: Councillor LeFranc is hosting the second annual Surrey Social Innovation Summit on November 23rd. Tickets still available. Subsidies available for community activists. I’m looking forward to particpating.


To return to awareness is to notice this new world with baby-eyes, and to appreciate her strangeness. (SaraGenn)

Musical accompaniment this post is “Surrey with the Fridge on Top” by former Surrey resident and jazz virtuoso Jodi Proznick


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One Comment

  1. Alex Twigg

    I love the idea behind this Al … imagine what the world would look like if we were able to spread this so that it became the sensible default option rather than the exception. It seems that notwithstanding this and other great examples doing well and doing good stil seem to polar opposites in the minds of many decision makers

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