Designing a social innovation lab

The Waterloo Institutue for Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR) is currently creating a design for a Social Innovation Lab that will be made available on an "open-source" model during spring / summer 2013. The design will discuss both the processes involved (e.g. how to set an appropriate design brief, what types of research to use and for what purposes, what skills, capacities and experience is needed and at which stages, methods for prototyping potential solutions) as well as discussion of the different forms and structures a lab might take (e.g. where they are based, how they are funded, how projects are generated, how they support roll-out of solutions). The design will be prototyped and tested at least twice in separate locations and on different themes.

One key element in the design of this unique form of lab will be the use of visualisation and simulation software. Many systems-change processes already use mapping and prototyping to help participants to understand and engage with systems. Advances in computer simulation have made it possible to imagine developing (or customising existing) software that would allow participants to interact with dynamic visualisations of the systems they are working within. The development of this software will run in parallel to the overall design process.

Why a social innovation lab?

A broad range of initiatives and organisations are using the term "Lab," with many choosing either Design Lab or Change Labs. In many cases, these processes are highly effective, but they often have important and significant differences, not only in structure but in their intentions and outcomes. Through this project WISIR has begun to understand both the similarities between these existing processes (see below for more details) as well the differences and distinctions between the intentions / outcomes that they emphasize. Specific examples or practitioners may incorporate a range or even all of the following characteristics but broadly speaking:

  • Design labs tend to place emphasis on the quality of the ideas or solutions being generated, with a particular focus on incorporating different (often "user" or "citizen") perspectives in the development of specific "thing" (technical innovation, likely a product, object or service)
  • Change labs tend to emphasize building collaboration and shared understanding between participants in the lab as the basis for shared action(s)
  • Social innovation labs would emphasize the development of solutions, but place more attention on the processes by which these solutions become deeply integrated into systems and ultimately transform them

For more on the different sorts of Labs, see                                                               “What is a Design Lab?

The design of the Social Innovation Lab will seek to integrate elements of the Social Innovation framework with those of both Change Labs and Design Labs. Specifically, the Social Innovation Lab will:

  • be infused and guided by the Social Innovation model and questions. Namely, a whole systems focus, a cross scale focus, an emphasis on the role of integrating vulnerable populations as well as the importance of social innovation for resilience (see the About and Research sections of SiG@Waterloo's site).
  • utilize ethnographic research in a way that reflects the cross-scale model of social innovation and not only deepens the design brief but also helps set the parameters of the lab’s work (i.e. gathering stories and examples from both the very local and specific context of innovation as well as from the broad policy contexts).
  • include intensive work-shop like process(es) designed to bring together a customized team around a particular focal problem/design brief. The team will be vital to creating breakthrough ideas and include activists, innovators and policy makers. The Lab process will also be supported by a staff of process and system designers who can help to facilitate the group’s work.
  • create opportunities to prototype or beta test ideas. This will include customized computer based programs designed to allow users to model systems, test sensitivities to particular ideas, and to make strategic decisions.
  • develop protocols for rolling out the innovations.

About labs

Two existing forms of Labs include Design Labs and Change Labs. Both can be highly effective processes for generating novel solutions to complex problems and/or building multi-stakeholder collaboration. The lab process can vary in length (a few months up to a few years) and will include periods of on-going work by lab staff (e.g. research) as well as distinct workshops (e.g. with participants, with stakeholders, with policymakers). Some common characteristics of a lab include:

  • Broad-based research – “research in” helps deepen and focus the design brief (sets out and frames the work the lab will focus) and “research out” that helps to determine how the focal problem is seen by a broader community
  • Co-creation of solutions – work across sectors and silos. Aims to engage citizens in the process
  • Specialized physical environment – space conducive to creativity
  • Clear process design and facilitation – effectively harnesses participants’ creativity, ensures participants understand how each phase of the work fits with the goal of systems change, provides direction and builds momentum
  • Rapid proto-typing and experimentation – to generate possible solutions, to test solutions, and as part of strategies for rolling out solutions
  • Multi-disciplinary support staff – researchers, designers (technical and process), facilitators, political / collaborative skills
  • Continual learning by lab staff – experience builds the capacity of labs, labs document, develop and adapt their processes and tools

From “What is a Change / Design Lab?

About labs and social innovation

This project is part of the growing interest in lab-like approaches to addressing complex social / environmental problems. In addition to the WISIR paper “What is a Design Lab?,” the SiG@MaRS report “Labs: Designing the Future” is an excellent review of a number of existing labs. In addition, the SiG National office has begun to gather resources into a primer.

There are examples of outstanding Labs geared towards generating new solutions to complex social and environmental challenges. This includes examples of Design Labs (Helsinki Design LabMindlabInstitute 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.

~Written in 2013