Social Innovation Labs

Anyone interested in transformation processes will find Social Innovation Lab Guide a must read. For those actually developing a lab, it provides a detailed design, tools, examples, and advice; for those wanting to understand the role of labs in a context of a sea of approaches and historic development, it provides a valuable positioning of labs.

Labs with the goal of supporting social transformation and responses to specific wicked problems have become common over the past 10 years. Positioning itself as a complex change methodology, the Guide identifies five elements that Labs should have:

  1. Hold a deliberate intend to transform (as opposed to incremental change and reform);
  2. Take advantage of transitions, thresholds and crises;
  3. Be focused on not just inventing (prototyping), but innovating (also scaling impact);
  4. Pay attention to cross-scale dynamics; and
  5. Catalyze a range of potential innovations.

Most involved in social innovation labs would be in agreement with these elements. However, they might take umbrage at the very detailed and specific methodology presented in the Guide as a three-step process: 1) initiation, 2) research and preparation, and 3) three workshops: seeing the system, designing and prototyping.   Within this process, detailed advice is provided to the point of alternative agendas and exercises for the workshops.

Labs are presented as a process to identify potential inventions that can lead to transformational innovation, rather than realize the full innovation. The Guide also describes the very important “after” Lab activity, ideally under continued leadership of lab participants. This led me to speculate on Communities of Practice as a potential next structure to support dissemination, perhaps integrated with or followed by Action Networks in the Global Action Networks tradition to sustain the many years and geographic broadening activity necessary to realize most innovations.

This methodology is positioned as the product of four particularly important roots: design labs, whole systems processes, computer modeling, and social innovation approaches. I found particularly valuable the analysis of these roots and the detailed explanation of their contribution to the methodology.

The Guide is the product of the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience in Canada, under the leadership of Frances Westley who has a leading position historically in the halls of collaboration and social innovation. It draws on the Institute’s experience and that of others, in particular Christian Bason of the Danish Design Centre (and formerly of MindLab) in Copenhagen, Banny Banerjee of d.School at Stanford University in California, Luigi Ferrara of Institute Without Boundaries at George Brown College in Toronto, Bryan Boyer, formerly of Helsinki Design Lab in Finland and Joeri van den Steenhoven, of MaRS Solutions Lab.

Some will find this guide much too proscriptive, but the description provides a good basis for riffs on the approach. It is written with a deep understanding of complexity, a humbleness of spirit, acknowledgement of great work of others, and a clear sense of the role of Social Innovation Labs in transformation processes. Another recent resource is Zaid Hassan’s Social Labs Revolution; as a personal experience with Labs, it is a good complement to the Guide.

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