Labs & Innovation Units

(living document - latest update: July 14, 2013)

The complex social and environmental challenges of our times are forcing governments, businesses and non-profits to accelerate the shift from activities ameliorating symptoms to addressing root causes and systems. A promising pathway to do this is through a lab.

Labs are collaborative spaces for discovery. A lab is a team, a network, a space and a process for tackling complex challenges that require systems change.  

A Lab…

  • provides a structured process to approach messy and complex challenges
  • provides a safe and creative environment to experiment and prototype radical innovations
  • enables deep collaboration among multi-disciplinary teams and diverse stakeholders
  • takes a user centered approach and an outcome focus 

What kinds of problems work well in a lab? Problems that…

  • are complex. It’s not clear what the problem is or what is the cause (there is no agreement). Problems are interdependent.
  • have no owner, except the entire human race. No one individual or interest group is responsible.
  • have become resistant to traditional solutions. Beyond process improvement. Don’t know what to do or where to start “nothing is working”.

How people are describing Labs:

  • a physical and intellectual space designed to encourage and facilitate cooperation and the co-creation of meaningful and innovative solutions to complex problems (Change Lab/Design Lab For Social Innovation)
  • a creative, multi-disciplinary environment that employs a proven and repeatable protocol to seek disruptive, potentially systems-tipping solutions. (Labs: Designing The Future)
  • collaborative places where stakeholders with diverse perspectives engage in a workshop process to understand complex problems and design new approaches and solutions. (Canada Policy Horizons)
  • a place where the innovation process is a professional discipline and not a rare, singular event, and where people can meet, interact, experiment, ideate, and prototype new solutions (MindLab, Denmark)

Here is a table based on Frances Westley's latest research (info pulled from Frances' public talk at MaRS Discovery District on Feb 21, 2013)

  Change Lab

     Purpose: deep collaboration

  • understanding of group dynamics
  • robust process
  • collaboration among diverse stakeholders
  • empowerment of those in the room and neutralize hierarchies
  • focus on common ground while building a shared understanding about past & present
  • less prototyping than other lab processes
  • less emphasis on implementation

  Design Lab

     Purpose: innovative products and services

  • very broad research and deep understanding of the problem space
  • specialized physical environment 
  • robust methodologies for innovation
  • rapid prototyping and implementation
  • often default to technical types of solutions 
  • less prototyping of intangible things 

  Social Innovation Lab

     Purpose: scalable social innovation

  • borrows the best of Change Labs & Design Labs
  • prototyping for complexity using simulations and computer visualization
  • looking for bottle necks and blockages across scales

Labs to Follow (globally)

Labs in Canada...





Process Designers in Canada... the list so far


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Related concept: Co-Production. Learn more here
(image via pinterest)