Exploring the Future of Labs

Cortes Island, B.C. Image by Jennifer Gauld

Written by Geraldine Cahill, Director of Engagement at SI Canada

This Sunday, 70 social innovation practitioners are gathering at Hollyhock on Cortes Island B.C. to explore the Future of Labs. I’ve been fortunate to work in the field of social innovation for many years and I’ve learned a lot from this very generous community, but it’s been some time since I was this excited about the insights I’ll be able to share after only a few short days.

At the Future of Labs, some of the most experienced practitioners who steward and design collective problem-solving lab practices will be examining where labs fit along the spectrum of social change activity, what they can reasonably expect to achieve, what methods within lab work are most effective and what ecosystem supports are needed around labs to realize best results.

First proposed by Ben Weinlick at Action Lab in Edmonton, Future of Labs will be a catalyst for shaping the next ten years of effective lab approaches and a rare chance to connect experienced lab leaders who share the common goal of creating more impactful practices. 

Already we’ve seen helpful resources created. With contributions from all delegates, the Future of Labs convening team have compiled an expansive Primer ahead of the gathering. The Primer is a synthesis of some Lab history we know of, trends, and survey data; and it includes a collection of inspiring examples of Lab practice, as well as some lineages of thought, philosophy, and practice underlying Labs. As with any effort to imagine the future, it’s always helpful to understand the past and the Primer covers that and more in its bumper 90 pages.

The first rumblings I heard about lab practice occurred around 2010, not long after beginning to understand the field of social innovation itself. Working with Social Innovation Generation (SiG) at the time, my colleagues at the University of Waterloo were studying the emergence of these practices and compelling stories were being shared from Australia, Denmark, the UK and more. 

Since that time, Labs have evolved in methodology and intention, their numbers grew inside government, the corporate sector, the social sector and in community, hitting peak lab around 2018 or so. As Ben writes in the Primer, “history is slippery” and we won’t be exactly right in remembering things, but the patterns are revealing. Post-pandemic, the labs community is in a reflective mood, even as the work is getting harder. Or maybe because the work is getting harder. The world is in a state of polycrisis and to say we aim to work on complex problems may seem like an understatement. A polycrisis, you say?

“Multiple global crises – including the pandemic, climate change, and Russia’s war on Ukraine – have recently linked together in ways that are significant in scope, devastating in effect, but poorly understood. A growing number of scholars and policymakers characterize the situation as a ‘polycrisis’.” – Global polycrisis: the causal mechanisms of crisis entanglement, Michael Lawrence, et al. 2024

We know Labs can’t do everything to solve the polycrisis, but better understanding what contribution they can make we believe is helpful. It’s also helpful for enabling organizations like Social Innovation Canada to better understand what the labs community needs from an ecosystem perspective, and that’s a conversation we’ll be co-hosting at Hollyhock as well. 

In addition to the Primer, the Future of Labs is creating a podcast series, called Wicked Complex, produced by Chris Chang-Yen Phillips. The first episode is already available and two further will be offered up following the gathering. No surprise, there will also be a report shared where we collate all the insights in one place. However, much more will leave Hollyhock on May 8.

I’m excited by the learning made possible by this gathering and feeding it into the work we do on the daily. It’s rare to have so much experience in one place, and the collective ideation and wisdom shared will enable better practice. As co-host of the Future of Labs, Social Innovation Canada is looking forward to sharing all that we learn with you. You can follow along online #FutureofLabs and watch this space for more after the gathering.

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