(Image via HDL)
[I was recently asked to write a review of the MaRS report 'Labs: Designing The Future'. Below is an adapted version for Think Thrice as part of an ongoing series on the lab landscape]
In Canada, how do we maximize the disruptive potential of the ‘innovation lab’ to solve our most pressing problems? In creating a strategy to address this critical question, most important will be to 1) design a lab to fit the Canadian context, 2) get the right people in the room, and 3) steward solutions through implementation.
1. Design a lab to fit the Canadian context
While adapting existing lab models, we must remember that our context is very different from archetypes mentioned in ‘Labs: Designing the Future’ in terms of funding, government support and citizen demographics. Canada’s cultural and religious diversity is often an obvious difference yet other equally, if not more important, variables are public sector buy-in and sustainable funding sources. For example, Denmark’s MindLab is located inside government offices and is jointly funded by three Danish ministries. Similarly, Finland’s Sitra operates using the returns from endowment capital and reports directly to Finnish Parliament. These strong and integrated government partnerships not only provide consistent sustainable funding sources, but also garner access, legitimacy and support for the labs. This aides greatly in implementing their proposed solutions. In Canada, a similar partnership with the state may not be possible (at least at first; however, according to a senior policy advisor at the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development & Innovation, this ministry is in talks with the MaRS Solution Lab regarding a collaboration). Thus, accruing funding that can sustain activities and enable flexibility as we learn are key factors in ensuring the maximum impact and longevity of innovation labs.
2. Get the right people in the room
(Image via HDL on Flickr)
Maximizing the potential of innovation labs requires involving the right people in the process. This is particularly important in the recruitment and selection of funders, participants, and the audience for revealing the solutions. Since funders will often want to dictate the lab topic, it’s important to understand and clarify their motives and ensure they are aligned with the values of the lab. Conjointly, since lab targets may change course and experience periphery discoveries, much like a scientific laboratory, funders should be aided to understand this dynamic and consent sufficient flexibility around the expected outcomes. In doing so, both the funder and the lab’s solutions gain credibility and legitimacy. Lab participants are essential ingredients to maximizing its potential, since they will be generating and conceptualizing the solutions. Labs often have few participants (Finland’s HDL say eight people is the ideal number, two of which must be designers), thus diversity and representativeness is key. Maximizing the diversity in terms of age, cultural background, mother tongue, professional expertise, personal experiences, sex, religion, etc. is immensely important. Hyper-diversity will enable more holistic systemic solutions because the team will generate solutions from multiple stakeholder perspectives. The audience for the solutions become the critical influencers in tipping systems and bringing solutions to life. These individuals will ideally be champions for the cause with the power to have the solutions implemented.
3. Steward solutions through implementation
Developing solutions to pressing problems is only one part of the equation; often the real challenge is in the execution (discussed further in my post on the trouble with design thinking). ‘Innovation labs’ have the potential to create brilliant solutions. However, if these solutions are followed by an inflexible execution plan, the disruptive potential of the lab is lost. Implementing a solution successfully requires adapting to the ever-changing nature of complex systems. Working closely with implementation partners and creating metrics to track progress will minimize the gap between the ‘plans’ and what actually gets ‘built’. Stewarding defined by flexible funders, diverse and open-minded participants and an enabled audience along with a model open to improvisation are key components to achieving the full potential of innovation labs.
As innovation labs proliferate across Canada, we must carefully assess which elements to borrow and which to create. Much like the solutions it creates, the lab should grow, adapt and evolve.
What else can we learn from existing lab models around the world? How else can we ensure that solutions on the drawing board catalyze whole systems change in real life? I would love to hear your thoughts!
For more on planning/developing innovation lab, check out these resources:
- Powering Collaborative Policy Innovations: Can Innovation Labs really help? by Christian Bason (MindLab) and Helle Vibeke Carstensen (Danish Ministry of Taxation)
- Recipes For Systemic Change by Helsinki Design Lab
- The Charrette Handbook by National Charrette Institute
- MASS LBP: works with governments to bring citizens together to co-create solutions (part focus group, part citizen education, part lab)
- Strategic Innovation Lab (part of OCAD): focuses on strategic foresight; current projects include the Ontario Economic Futures projects with the Ontario Public Service
- ThingTank (or DDiMIT): an ideation lab for the 'internet of things' that conducts research, workshops and ideajams on how the data-connected world is moving off-screen into everyday objects/buildings/activities.
Related posts: How to Catalyze Innovation in the Ontario Public Service (take-aways from the 2012 OPS Creativity + Innovation Week), 3 Problems with Design Thinking (conversation with Bryan Boyer of HDL), Top 3 Co-Production Aha Moments (learnings from working at MindLab)