Recently, there has been an explosion of interest in a variety of processes, referred to as “labs.” Put very simply, labs are intense meetings of diverse groups of people who are searching for break-through solutions to serious problems. Some labs run over days and others have ongoing gatherings and activities that last for years. Almost all lab processes strive to make space for new, creative collaborations and to stimulate new ideas for change.
If you’re interested in social change, you’ve probably been involved in a process called a lab, or you will be sometime soon. These processes hold a lot of potential and we encourage you to learn more about them to make the most of the opportunities they offer. We’ve collected some resources that can help you to explore the theory behind lab processes, the intellectual history of labs, some current examples in Canada and elsewhere, and an exciting SiG led project to design a new lab process that can better support social innovation.
|You may be wondering, what, exactly, a ‘lab’ is all about. There seem to be two main types of processes, Change Labs and Design Labs. They are similar in some ways but also have unique characteristics:
The SiG partnership is now devoting a great deal of energy to lab processes. MaRS recently announced the development of the Solutions Lab: “a new initiative that will help exceptional, young Canadian leaders approach complex, 21st century challenges from an integrated, multi-disciplinary perspective.”
For an excellent introduction to labs, see Lisa Torjman’s “Labs: Designing the Future” blog post, which outlines the MaRS Solutions Lab project against the backdrop of the history and current state of lab models. Her full report can be found below.
On July 21-22, 2011, SiG@MaRS invited Adam Kahane and Joe McCarron from Reos Partners to facilitate a hands-on workshop introducing the Change Lab approach to 110 social innovators. The participants worked through the lab process in 16 teams on 16 different complex social challenges. Watch as Adam and Joe explain the Change Lab process and see its principles in action
|Current lab processes represent a rich integration of knowledge drawn from several decades of work done around group psychology and dynamics, whole system and complexity theory, design thinking and computer visualizations and simulations. In the Dip section we introduced you to the world of labs and the kinds of processes we have found effective in working towards solutions.
The Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience has recently completed a comprehensive Social Innovation Lab Guide. Beginning in 2011, the WISIR team convened a series of conversations and learning exchanges between Christian Bason of the Danish Design Centre (and formerly of MindLab) in Copenhagen, Banny Banerjee of d.School at Stanford University in California, Luigi Ferrara of Institute Without Boundaries at George Brown College in Toronto, and Bryan Boyer, formerly of Helsinki Design Lab in Finland.
During 2014, they were fortunate to partner with the MaRS Solutions Lab, its Director Joeri van den Steenhoven, and his team in the delivery of two Lab processes. These experiences afforded us not only an opportunity to work closely with and learn from the Solutions Lab, but to test elements of the methodology proposed in this Guide.
“This Guide to a Social Innovation Lab is offered as a resource to peers, colleagues, practitioners, leaders from all sectors, and concerned citizens – all who have and/or will participate in change-making processes. One hope for this work is that these ideas on social innovation and these recommendations for new practice will result in a greater sense of urgency for those who work on what often seem like impossible aspirations for a different, better world. Probably our greatest hope is that these ideas help to transform the impossible into the possible.”
For their earlier exploration of the origins of Change or Design Labs, and ideas on the possible evolution of these processes for addressing problems in complex systems, read the SiG@Waterloo paper, “What is a Change Lab / Design Lab?”.
A Social Innovation Lab is unique because it places a more intentional focus on complex problems and integrating ideas for solutions within systems. An exciting element in the design of this unique form of lab will be the use of visualization and simulation software to allow lab participants to map and play out scenarios related to the systems in which they live and work.
There are many examples of outstanding Labs geared towards generating new solutions to complex social and environmental challenges. This includes examples of Design Labs (Mindlab, Institute Without Boundaries and Stanford’s Design for Change Lab) as well as Change Labs (Reos Partners). This project has benefited from the participation of many of these leading organisations and their expertise.
There are many initiatives and organizations around the globe that incorporate labs into their important work. Here are a few examples:
For further resources, the SiG National website has a simplified one-stop resource centre on Labs which highlights links to key tools – documents, web sites, emerging insights – to support a community of practice interested in advancing this field.
A complete list of all SiG educational resources can be found in our publicly-available document library. We hope you’ve found this curated pathway to learning about Labs helpful.