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  • Social Innovation Labs: Top Tips & Common Pitfalls

    Social Innovation Labs: Top Tips & Common Pitfalls

    [aligning for systems change: image via buamai]

    [Note: versions of this post were previously posted to the MaRS Discovery District blog, the Social Innovation Generation blog and the Social innovation eXchange blog]

    Social innovation labs (also called design labs and change labs) are an approach to tackling complex societal challenges that require systems change. This new league of labs provides a structured process for approaching messy and complex challenges and a safe and creative environment to experiment and prototype radical innovations. It also enables deep collaboration among multi-disciplinary teams and diverse stakeholders, and takes a user-centred approach as opposed to institution- or organization-centred approaches.

    Last month, Director of the MaRS Solutions Lab, Joeri van den Steenhoven, presented his views on systems change and social innovation labs in a public talk at MaRS. Here is the video from that talk:

    With more and more practitioners, organizations, and groups embracing a lab-like approach, Joeri’s expertise and reflections are timely. Below are top tips and common lab pitfalls highlighted in the talk, which include an emphasis on: scaling, learning, and doing.

    1. SCALE - Build in the potential to scale solutions up and out

    “if we want to change systems, we can’t do it without scale”

    If your lab has systems tipping ambitions, ensure the emerging solutions have the potential to scale. With regards to social innovation, scale refers to both scaling out -- replicating solutions horizontally across locations and geographies while adapting to local context -- and scaling up -- integrating solutions vertically across hierarchies. In an article for Ecology and Society, Michele-Lee Moore and Frances Westley explain how the impact of an innovation and it’s ability to span boundaries are positively correlated:

    “Complex challenges demand complex solutions. By their very nature, these problems are difficult to define and are often the result of rigid social structures that effectively act as ‘traps’… Therefore when a social innovation crosses scales, the innovation is crossing a boundary that separates organizations, groups, hierarchical levels or social sub-systems, whether they are economic, cultural, legal, political, or otherwise. The more boundaries that the innovation crosses, the wider and possibly deeper the impact, and the more likely the result is more transformative change.”

    While isolated solutions can and do positively impact a community, a solution that intervenes across vertical and horizontal scales has the potential to fundamentally shift systems and get at the root causes of our really tough societal challenges. (Tim Draimin expands further on this thinking in his blog post: The Social Innovator’s Guide to Systems Thinking)

    2. LEARN - Enable key stakeholders and users to learn and reflect together

    “develop solutions with key stakeholders and users, not for them”

    Labs tackle challenges that are not black and white but rather layered, messy and daunting. Part of the lab’s role is to enable stakeholders to deepen their understanding of the challenge by helping them to see themselves as part of the system and gain perspective into the challenges and tensions felt by other stakeholders. No one group has the answer, but rather by working together the lab is able to develop holistic, relevant and responsive solutions. Furthermore, involving stakeholders from the get-go builds champions that enable the solutions to reach scale.

    3. DO - Push through the failure, sweat and resistance of implementation

    “solutions have to break out of the safety of the lab”

    Traditional think tanks stop at the brainstorm. Labs must take the next steps of trying out their recommendations, adapting them based on the realities on the ground, navigating bureaucracies, building networks, partnerships and champions, and doing the hard work of figuring out how to implement and scale. Labs act as a vehicle for change but the road to systems change is long and winding.

    Here are the slides from Joeri's talk:


    For more about the MaRS Solutions Lab, including the challenges the lab is tackling (the future of food, the future of health, the future of government and the future of work) visit their website. Also, stay up to date on lab related content via the Microtainer blog series, a monthly compilation of external links of interest to lab practitioners and the lab-curious curated by myself and SiG colleagues. Social Innovation Generation (SiG) has launched a video series, Learning As We Grow, to showcase some of these Canadian lab stories (including the latest release featuring Joeri). And, other lab related materials can be found via SiG@Waterloo webpage, the SiG website and the SiG Knowledge Hub

    - Satsuko

    Related posts: Architecture of Change (reflections on systems change from Bryan Boyer's Toronto visit), Lab Landscape Part 1: Maximizing the Potential of Innovation Labs in Canada (essay exploring social innovation Labs for a Canadian context), Three Problems With Design Thinking (making the argument for strategic design).

    Also, see the Lab section of Think Thrice for ongoing updated resources.