Labs as a Large Systems Change Strategy

The concept of “labs” as a way to address complex issues is a relatively new concept.  Zaid Hassan, in the Social Labs Revolution, estimates it to be about 20 years old.  His intimate involvement in developing a number of them provides valuable insight into what they are, the current state of the art and guidance for those interested in developing one – guidance derived from perhaps more pain than pleasure, exceptwhenviewed from this side of the experience!

These labs are exploding in number.  They include the Ecosystems Labs that I’m active with and are still in early stage of development Social Innovation Generation (SiG) at the University of Waterloo, and the Innovation Co-Creation Lab at London School of Economics.  Zaid has been involved with an impressive number associated with Generon Consulting and Reos, including the Sustainable Food Lab (also a Global Action Network), the Finance Innovation Lab, a Yemen lab, and the Bhavishya Lab for child nutrition in India.

The labs are an innovative response to the distinct challenges presented by complex issues.   Including climate change, environmental degradation, health challenges and most social issues, complex issues are not, as Zaid emphasizes, amenable to traditional planning approaches that assume a high degree of predictability, the existence of known solutions and low variability in context.  He writes that “The situation in Yemen is a textbook example of a complex social challenge because of three characteristics: (1) the situation is emergent, (2), as a result, there is a constant flow of information to negotiate, and (3) this means actors are constantly adapting their behavior.”

Zaid defines a social innovation lab as a “strategic approach”.  He further explains that:

  • “The strategy is social, in that it shifts the locus of efforts purely from already-stretched government technocrats to a wider stakeholder base.”
  • “A social lab is a gathering, a coming together of people across the silos that characterize dominant social structures in order to attend to a social challenge for as long as necessary to shift the situation.”
  • “Social labs…require that participants operate from a place of inner volition and drive.”
  • “A social lab must also undertake to work in an experimental and iterative way to address challenges. A program is very different from a lab.”
  • “…they must be systemic in orientation, aiming to address social issues at their root cause.” (But do systemic challenges have “root causes” or do they arise from knotty interactions?)
  • “Labs, whatever their focus, must put inquiry—and not just advocacy—at the heart of their activities.”

“Experimentation” is a core activity of a lab, with important collective reflection and learning processes integrated into action.  Stakeholders in an issue identify and undertake actions to address the issue through “prototype” projects.  “The point of a prototype,” Zaid explains, “is to start to deliver results as soon as possible and, in the process of iterating, to improve. That is the difference between a pilot and a prototype.”

A big contribution to understanding labs as a maturing methodology is provided by distinguishing between two generations of labs.  The first, explored through detailed description of Zaid’s Bhavishya Lab experience, had the weaknesses of attention to engaging elites as initial participants, and lack of clarify about how to proceed without falling into a traditional planning mode.

The more recent generation addresses these.  “Elites” are distinguished from people who have influence and passion.  In place of planning with quite long time horizons, products, pert charts, and objectives defined in advance, there is a general direction and clear articulation of an agile processes that “…are all about timely responses to the unplanned event in order to create more value.”  These are operationalized with a pace of work around “scrums” that might be week-long periods and “sprints” that are day-long periods.  These are organized around time for review and check-in to continually adjust actions and direction based on experience and learning.  In other words, there is a disciplined learning process with conscious feed-back loops.

“Prototyping” is associated for Zaid with practical wisdom, in contrast to theory and technology that are the basis for traditional approaches to complex issues.  It seems to me that in addition to the labs, there is an emerging body of impressive experience elsewhere that is producing value insights in how to advance practical wisdom approaches.  In particular, I’m reminded of much of what Global Action Networks do – they are always prototyping.

Zaid is wonderfully reflective on his own experiences that provide the powerful foundation for the book – reflections he acknowledges as being supported by a rich network of colleagues.  Like many pioneers, he sometimes gets carried away with the value of the pioneering approach he’s developing, as he continually criticizes traditional planning.  At the beginning of the book he points out that the labs have three core characteristics:  they are social, experimental and systemic.  It’s important to remember that many challenges do not require responses with these characteristics – such as street maintenance or even putting a person on the moon (largely a technological challenge).  Therefore, it’s important to understand his critique of planning as being about its inappropriate use.  Our ability to recognize when it is inappropriate is particularly important in creating powerful responses to complex challenges.  To this end, the book makes an important contribution.

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