Blog (2011-2014)

  • Lab Landscape [Part 1]: Maximizing The Potential Of Innovation Labs in Canada

    Lab Landscape [Part 1]: Maximizing The Potential Of Innovation Labs in Canada

    (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!

    - Satsuko

    For more on planning/developing innovation lab, check out these resources:

    Also, here are some notable labs in our home and native land:
    • 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)

  • How To Catalyze Innovation In The Ontario Public Service

    How To Catalyze Innovation In The Ontario Public Service

    (Image via KnockKnock)

    This Monday kicked off 'Creativity + Innovation Week 2012', an event organized for Ontario public servants to explore how to catalyze innovative thinking and leadership within the provincial government. As Facilitator of day-one's unConference, I heard about frustrations, challenges and opportunities for change straight from public servants. Below are my three take-aways for catalyzing innovation in the Ontario Public Service (OPS).

    1. Encourage Cross-Pollination

    As we know, government silos hamper effective governance in a number of ways including lost synergies, inaccessibility to information, and redundant efforts. As David Ransom, Social Business Consultant at IBM pointed out, “if we run into an expert and ask them about their expertise, they are happy to share. The problem is the ability to run into them and then to ask the right questions.” So, how can we break out of silos to encourage cross-pollination of ideas? Many point to social media as an increasingly powerful tool to connect and communicate with one another; however, attendees expressed that Twitter access is blocked from their government blackberries and there is currently no social media strategy or guidance document in place in the OPS (note: activity on the event hashtag #CIWOPS indicates that public servants are finding ways around such barriers). Ransom went on to say, "It's not whether I sit at a desk for 8hrs a day, it’s about the quality of work I produce". Embracing new ways to communicate/collaborate and encouraging bridging of expertise across ministries would allow public servants to use their working hours more effectively and to identify the potential for innovation at the overlaps.

    2. Let Innovators Innovate

    (Image via Piccsy)

    The OPS must foster a culture of innovation and creativity to attract and retain Innovators. During the opening panel discussion, Anthony Williams (Co-Author of Wikinomics) lit up the room with his provocative comment “If you want to attract creative talent, you have to provide them with innovative and exciting work and the freedom of action to pursue and accomplish innovative things”. In other words, Innovators need to be provided with an equally innovative work environment and the flexibility to run with creative ideas. Unfortunately, this isn't the current reality for many in the OPS. While public servants are asked to think in bold, creative, out-the box ways, many government environments are monotonous, repetitive and heavily bureaucratic. There is a disconnect between what is being asked of public servants and the tools/environment provided to achieve these objectives. While champions for public innovation exist, they are becoming run down and, thus, finding their way out of government. How can we avoid this brain drain? This leads us to #3… 

    3. Create A Burning Platform

    (Image via RVCA)

    For a culture of innovation to flourish, we need public leaders to facilitate and create opportunities for innovation. Job security, fear of citizen backlash, bureaucracy, and silos all feed status quo thinking. Current incentive structures encourage upper management in the public sector to keep things stable rather than push things forward (management not leadership). There is no burning platform necessitating a paradigm shift to make innovation the norm. So, what can be done? If there is no sense of urgency, create some~ one group at the unConference had the ingenious idea of creating a whistle-blowing program for upper management that blocked innovation. Also important is for governments to become more tolerant of risk with regards to social innovation (view it as learning and progress) and more focused on the long term. In the startup community, failing at a venture earns you your stripes as it shows that you've tried something and have gained wisdom for next time. Bringing this thinking into government will require public leaders and citizens to work together in creating a more conducive public innovation landscape. 

    "If you can't reduce the work and you can't increase the staff, you have to change the way you work" - Finlay Buchanan & Klari Kalkman, Ontario Ministry of Transportation 

    Putting On My Business Hat 

    Reflecting on my background, it was interesting to compare the difference in attitude towards innovation between business and government. Corporate Executives may be interested in implementing innovations in a company but employees may resist due to concerns that a new technology or new way of doing things would jeopardize their job or render their skills obsolete (bottom-up resistance). Meanwhile, civil servants are pleading for innovations but experience barriers to change at a management or systems level (top-down resistance). In the ongoing journey to create a more nimble and adaptive governance system, it is encouraging that we seem to be moving from ‘unknown need’ to ‘perceived need’ to ‘desire to change’.

    Where do you see the biggest opportunities for change in the public sector?

    For more on the topic, check out the links & hashtags below and those in Inspiration.

    - Satsuko

    Tech + Gov Initiatives:
    • Challenge.gov: A platform that crowdsources ideas and co-creates solutions to US government challenges
    • data.gov.uk: A platform making UK government data more user friendly, searchable and provide deeper insights
    Relevant hashtags:
  • 3 Problems With Design Thinking

    3 Problems With Design Thinking

    (Image via The Danish Design Centre)

    [Also published on the Rebel Academy blog on April 2, 2012 | The links and recent projects at the end of this post were updated Nov 8th, 2012]

    “Design Thinking” has overtaken “Sustainability” to become the latest business buzz word; however, there are flaws in the way it is being adapted to corporate settings. In a conversation with Bryan Boyer, Architect and Strategic Design Lead at Sitra & Helsinki Design Lab, I gained a designer’s perspective. Below are the three reasons why we need to re-think Design Thinking.

    1) Thinking is important, but the biggest challenge is the actual “doing”

    Design Thinking can create holistic, innovative, out-of-the-box solutions; however, if a brilliant solution is followed by an inflexible execution plan to roll it out, we miss the whole point of thinking like a designer. Bryan points out that one of the key parts of being a designer is to steward something from the first sketches to the final implementation because “there is a big gap in the plans that you draw and what actually gets built”. Making a solution work requires tweaking and changes as-you-go to account for the unexpected and unpredictable realities of everyday life.

    2) Design Thinking is inherently short term

    The current literature and conversation around Design Thinking focuses on the short-term. For example, when we look at standard consulting projects by the big players (for ex. BCG, Bain or McKinsey), their mandate generally includes 1) analysis, 2) recommendations, and 3) a report outlining the implementation plan. In other words, sticking around longer term to smooth out the kinks and make sure it all works and is implemented correctly is seldom part of the contract. Why not?  There are a lot of reasons. Some point to the financial incentives (the low-cost/high-yield nature of focusing on the planning phase) or the desire to associate with success (implementation is often blamed for failed projects). On the other hand, sometimes it’s not possible to stay on a project long-term due to confidentiality or security conflicts (for ex. with certain public sector projects). At any rate, Design Thinking is only the beginning and must move past the short-term to reach its full potential.

    3) Design Thinking is over-hyped and ignores the complexity of the design process.

    “If design is like a magical seed that you can drop into the board room and after a couple of days workshop suddenly the executive suite is transformed into a design facility, that pretty significantly under values what designers bring" – Bryan Boyer

    Understanding and respecting the design process is necessary before we can attempt to gain from its insights.

    So what does this all mean? Design Thinking is a powerful and useful tool but it is only one part of the equation. Ideas are a dime a dozen, it is what you do with them. Plans are important but the real legwork is in the re-jigging and adjusting of ideas/solutions to make them fit with the real world.

    Bryan is working to help the public sector create it’s own design capacity and advocates for placing designers within teams inside the ministries and municipalities, which his team is bringing to life via Sitra’s Design Exchange initiative. Other initiatives Bryan started with Sitra include Brickstarter (see what WIRED had to say about it) and Open Kitchen (hear Finnish celebrity chef Antto Melasiemi explain the concept in this video). One of the main questions his team at Sitra and Helsinki Design Lab attempts to answer is: how do we help the public sector cope with the challenges it faces more effectively? To learn more about what Bryan is working on these days, visit his personal blog and the HDL blog.

    - Satsuko

  • Top 3 Co-production Aha! Moments

    Top 3 Co-production Aha! Moments

    (image via Kumi Yamashita)

    (Adapted version for ThinkThrice. Originally written for and published on the MindLab blog)

    What is Co-Production and why should we care about it? As NESTA put it, “Co-production means delivering public services in an equal and reciprocal relationship between professionals, people using services, their families and their neighbours. Where activities are co-produced in this way, both services and neighbourhoods become far more effective agents of change.”

    In other words, Co-production empowers citizens to become active participants in the delivery of public services. Exciting stuff!

    This past Monday marked the kick-off of phase two of MindLab’s Co-Production project. As Research Analyst for phase one of the project, below are my top three “aha” moments. 

    1. Improving Services AND Saving Money

    The added pressure of recent economic hardships has catalyzed innovative grassroots co-production solutions that not only function better than the status quo but also save time and money. Among my favourite examples is Youth Court of DC, a youth reintegration program where Peer Jurors interrogate and sentence first time juvenile offenders in the District of Columbia, USA. As individuals who were once in the same position as the offenders, Peer Jurors are empathetic and able to connect with Offenders in a way that governments alone could not. This innovative program has reduced the recidivism rate from 30-40% down to 10%. Such co-production bright spots show us that by getting to the core of the issue, it is possible to adapt to growing economic and social pressures, better serve citizens and save resources.

    2. New Media, New Ways to Connect

    New media creates opportunities for co-production in the public sector by creating faster and more direct communication with individuals and communities. As we saw in Barack Obama’s 2008 US Presidential election campaign, facebook, youtube and blogs are incredibly powerful tools in connecting, relaying information and mobilizing citizens. These tools are already widely used by citizens and many are free. Directly engaging with citizens is at the core of co-production; thus incorporating new media tools into public service is a great starting point.

    (image via Society6)

    3. Mandatory Mutuality

    Co-production works best when both civil servant and beneficiaries/citizens become equal partners in the delivery of the service. The benefits of this mutuality go beyond getting added “buy-in” from both parties. By operating in this way, both civil servants and citizens receive timelier information and are able to build a relationship based on transparency, trust and respect. Citizens are empowered to reach out in their community, identify issues early, prevent escalation and help each other, ultimately relieving strain on the public service system and creating more self sufficient and robust communities. 

    (image via Etsy)

    Co-production improves services, relationship and communication and saves time & money. There is no better time for governments to start co-producing public services; we have the tools and we know where to start.

    Although I'm no longer working with MindLab on this project (I came back to Toronto for my final semester of grad school), I'm excited to see where they will take this next phase! For more information about their projects and for insights into public sector innovation, visit the MindLab website and MindBlog

    - Satsuko

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  • Building A New Business In 54 Hours

    Building A New Business In 54 Hours

    (Image via sparrownestscript)

    It’s incredible what’s possible in a weekend. At Copenhagen's startup weekend, participants went from idea to venture, including functional prototypes, video demos and websites, in 54 hours flat. The Winner of Copenhagen's Start up Weekend was TuneBop, an app that allows you to see what’s playing at a specific bar or club as it plays. 

    Here is a video from Toronto's Start-up weekend where we see two teams' emotional journey working from plan a to b to c to come up with some amazing concepts. It’s no wonder these types of hackathons are gaining popularity around the world!

    - Satsuko

  • Innovation At The Intersect Of Art & Society

    Innovation At The Intersect Of Art & Society

    (Image via Art Rebels)


    Art is crucial to the health and soul of a city. That's why Art Rebels is here to help the creative community thrive. Last night at the launch of their new portfolio, Rebel Academy, I met some of the passionate and ultra-hip front-end team. There is a contagious energy at the ArtRebels office; they know they are part of an important movement. 

    Art Rebels is a company that educates, promotes & develops projects for radical artistic expression. They bring artistic expression back into the lives of Copenhageners and support those pursuing creative careers, but more importantly they encourage openness, understanding and empathy by showing people different perspectives through art.

    In Copenhagen, Art Rebels are known for their edgy projects and creative public art. Last April, they teamed up with the City of Copenhagen and the Danish Design school to create the ArtBus project, where two buses from the busiest downtown lines were completely enveloped in advertisement-free art. In a weeklong workshop, Art Rebels guided graduate students from the Danish Design School and professional artists to produce these adorned masterpieces, viewable at the 2:46 minute mark on the below video (apologies, the rest of the video is in Danish). With public transit system upgrades & construction due to continue through until 2018, the ArtBus project shifted focus from ugly roadwork to creative artistic expression, brightening the commute for Copenhagen’s 1.5 Million inhabitants. 

    Design minded cities like Copenhagen respect creativity, imagination and art; it makes sense that an organization like Art Rebels is well integrated into the city fabric. Rebel Academy is the next step in Art Rebels’ mission to initiate dialogue among the creative community, match creatives with mentors, and inspire innovation, collaboration and rapid growth of ideas. Through workshops, seminars and their online platform, Art Rebel aims to "make the way to success easier for creative and cultural entrepreneurs".

    Art Rebels has figured out that art benefits everyone in society and is worth nurturing and growing. Their work to reintroduce art into our lives in unexpected ways pushes boundaries, evokes emotion, shows us new perspectives and inspires the entrepreneurial spirit. For more information on their up coming projects, visit their website here

    - Satsuko


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  • What's Really Killing You

    What's Really Killing You

    (image via The Mary Foundation)

    If you asked me last week who I thought was unhealthier, a loner or an overweight chain smoker, certainly I would have chosen the latter. However, at the Mary Foundation’s Conference on Loneliness today, I learned that in the long-term, loneliness is worse for your health than smoking or obesity.

    Dr. John Cacioppo explained that loneliness puts the brain on alert for social threats by increasing vascular resistance, the same brain activity that occurs when someone is in a fight. As well, the lonelier the individual is, the higher their blood pressure. Loneliness also causes fragmented sleep since the body and mind are on constant alert. This means that there is never true rest and the day's stresses keep compiling. What’s more, loneliness worsens ones social skills as it causes individuals to act shyer, more selfishly (to protect oneself and ones interests in times of threat), and in other ways that push people away and perpetuate the cycle.

    But everyone experiences loneliness at some point(s) in their life and it is not always bad. In fact, loneliness is an incredibly important human experience, explained various speakers.

    Breakups, changes, transitions in our lives can cause us to feel lonely and push us to seek out different relationships. In the short term, loneliness makes us more human, altruistic and loving. A great example given by Dr. Cacioppo was of a little girl in primary school who gets a time out for acting up. During the minute that she is excluded from the group, she is visibly upset, crying, and vulnerable. Once she re-enters the group she apologizes to her playmates, is polite and respectful and overall a better citizen. Dr. Cacioppo goes on to argue that our ability to learn socially is what differentiates us from other animals, not our opposable thumbs. 

    On a personal level, I can’t help but think how loneliness affects the elderly in senior care facilities, particularly for those residents who are more cognitive fit. It must be terribly lonely to be in a place where the majority of those around you have mentally deteriorated and there is little chance for meaningful dialogue. That coupled with decreasing visits from family and friends must take a toll on ones health. It makes me think that, while it is not without its challenges, Asian or more traditional cultures of having grandparents live at home may have had it right. As populations age and senior care facilities become too full to accept new residents, I'm curious how we will adapt to do what's best for our loved ones. 

    While the Conference topic was quite grim, I’m glad Loneliness, such a basic human emotion that is often taboo, is finally getting some attention. The fact that the Mary Foundation, a big name in Denmark due to its Chairman the crown Princess Mary of Denmark, will be taking on Loneliness will make people take the issue seriously and want to do something about it. If it takes a local celebrity to get an issue heard, that's good enough for me. I'm eager to see what the foundation will come up with to battle this immense and challenging global social issue. 

    - Satsuko

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