Social Innovation Labs

Social Innovation Labs

The Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and resilience (WISIR) has beta-tested a specific form of "Lab" that is designed to stimulate social innovation and that emphasizes the role cross-scale interactions and change "at scale."  

This approach brings together ideas and practices from the fields of social innovation, design and whole systems processes. 

Current Projects

Waterloo Social Innovation Lab: International Development 308, Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship

Class Portfolio: The Future of Youth & Work


This course, Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship is structured as a social innovation lab using processes adapted from the Waterloo institute for Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR) Social Innovation Lab Guide. This approach is increasingly used to tackle the complex, systemic, and interrelated challenges that we face as a society and a planet. Social Innovation labs are processes intended to support multi-stakeholder groups in addressing complex social problems and rely on tools drawn from ‘whole systems’ processes and ‘design thinking’

The course is structured around solving a single wicked problem. In this inaugural INDEV308 Class Lab the challenge for the class was the Future of Youth and Work. Students are introduced to a variety of social entrepreneurship and social innovations tools that they then use to map the wicked problem, design interventions and create model intervention prototypes. All of the research used to inform the lab process from system mapping through to prototype development is collected and interpreted by the students. The scope and scale of the problem is thus dependent on student research and the breadth of solutions developed is dependent on the perspectives and judgement of the students.

Assistant Professor: Sean Geobey

For a full class portfolio see (PDF) indev308_winter_2016_class_portfolio.pdf

Past Projects

Ontario food lab

The Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR) partnered with MaRS Solutions Lab to develop and test a social innovation lab on the Ontario Tender Fruit Industry in Canada. This project aimed to find innovative ways to address the complex challenges in our food systems; and to contribute to a stronger, healthier and more sustainable food economy in Ontario.

The lab's key initiative was to answer the following question:

How can social innovation be introduced into the Ontario food system to give people access to healthy, sustainable and affordable food?

The lab was convened over three separate workshops that included a select group of approximately 20 key participants across the tender fruit network: growers, processors, distributors, retailers, government, NGO's and researchers.

Project manager: Sam Laban

Senior Researcher: Ola Tjornbo

Youth unemployment lab

The Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience partnered with The Rockefeller Foundation to develop and test a social innovation lab on Youth unemployment in the United States of America. The focus was to engage participants in a particular pattern of questioning. With an agent-based model, the team explored what was happening for young people in the employment system.The model was a model of young people looking for jobs, and employers selecting employees. It modelled the employment journey from pre-employment, through the point of hiring, to employment.

Project manager: Sam Laban


Around the world, "Labs" are increasingly being used in response to complex challenges. Labs emerged in response to our growing need to find new processes to support people in government, civil society and the private sector as they search for break-through solutions to serious social, economic and environmental problems. They come in many different forms, but most strive to offer a place for creative, cross sector and cross-disciplinary decision-making and innovation.

The Social Innovation Generation (SiG) group - now WISIR - sees Labs as an extremely promising platform for generating new solutions to complex social and environmental challenges. MaRS, for instance, has developed the Solutions Lab.

Partners and funders

The project has been made possible through the generous support and engagement of both Rockefeller Foundation and the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation. The Solutions Lab based at MaRS has also been instrumental in the development of this project. Together, WISIR, MaRS and these foundations are committed to building capacity for social innovation and believe that Social Innovation Labs would not work in isolation but are natural keystones that would help to maintain a whole ecology of social innovation supports.

Learn more

Read more about designing labs and their applicability to social innovation, and for examples.

Project members: 

Sam Laban

Last updated: February 07, 2014