Exploring New Labscapes: Converging and Diverging on Social Innovation Labs

Essay by Marlieke Kieboom:”…The question ‘what is a (social innovation) lab?’ is as old as the lab community itself and seems to return at every (social innovation) lab gathering. It came up at the very first event of its kind (Kennisland’s Lab2: Lab for Labs, Amsterdam 2013) and has been debated at every consequent event ever since under hashtags like #socinnlabs, #sociallabs and #psilabs (see MaRs’s Labs for Systems Change — 2014, Nesta’s Labworks — 2015, EU Policy lab’s Lab Connections — 2016 and ESADE’s Labs for Social Innovation — 2017).

However, the concept has remained roughly the same since we saw the first wave of labs (Helsinki Design LabMindLab and Reos’ Change Labs) in the early 2010’s. Social innovation labs are permanent or short term structures/projects/events that use a variety of experimental methods to support collaboration between stakeholders to collectively address social challenges at a systemic level. Stakeholders range from citizens and community action groups to businesses, universities and public administrations. Their specific characteristics (e.g. developing experimental user-led research methods, building innovation capacity building, convening multi-disciplinary teams, working to reach scale) and shapes (public sector innovation labs, social innovations labs, digital service labs, policy labs) are well described in many publications (e.g. Lab Matters, 2014; Labs for Social Innovation, 2017).

As Nesta neatly shows innovation labs are part of a family, or a movement of connected experimental, innovative approaches like service design, behavioural insights, citizen engagement, and so on.

Spot the labs (Source: https://www.nesta.org.uk/blog/landscape-of-innovation-approaches/)

So why does this question keep coming back? The roots of the confusion and debates may lie in the word ‘social’. The medical, technological, and business sectors know exactly what they aim for in their innovation labs. They are ‘controlled-for’ environments where experimentation leads to developing, testing and scaling futuristic (mostly for profit) products, like self-driving cars, cancer medicines, drug test strips and cultured meat. Some of these products contribute to a more just, equal, sustainable world, while others don’t.

For working on societal issues like climate change, immigration patterns or a drug overdose crisis, lab settings are and should be unmistakably more open and porous. Complex, systemic challenges are impossible to capture between four lab walls, nor should we even try as they arguably arose from isolated, closed, and disconnected socio-economic interactions. Value creation for these type of challenges therefore lies outside closed, competitive, measurable spaces: in forging new collaborations, open-sourcing methodologies, encouraging curious mindsets and diversifying social movements. Consequently social lab outcomes are less measurable and concrete, ranging from reframing existing (socio-cultural) paradigms, to designing new procurement procedures and policies, to delivering new (digital and non-digital) public services. Try to ‘randomize-control-trial’ that!…(More).