What are social labs?
A social innovation lab (or simply social lab or “lab”) refers to a process that brings together many stakeholders to address complex social problems involving research, experimentation, prototypingPrototype: an experiment that helps answer questions about how to design and implement a solution to a problem using quick mock-ups, visual aids, or other tangible interfaces so the assumptions behind proposed new ideas can be tested with those most affected. and testing solutions.
Labs are convened to generate high-potential interventions by carefully listening to all those affected. They bring research to bear on a problem in order to gain system-level insights that will help redefine problems and identify opportunities for introducing innovation.
There are a variety of lab techniques and types emerging that are focused on a range of issues across different scopes and scales. Some take an ethnographic approachEthnographic approach: based in social sciences research, its purpose is to understand the lived realities of people who are experiencing a social challenge through research techniques including fieldwork, participant observation, and cultural immersion. to understanding the mindsets and behaviours of people in organizations or systems. Others have a geographic or thematic focus and engage different stakeholders over varying time periods.
Labs begin with a focus on defining problems, mapping systems and gaining a deep understanding of the dynamics that hold systems in place. By supporting multi-stakeholder engagement and prototyping, labs are particularly effective for addressing complex challenges.
McConnell is committed to the development of the social lab field and currently supports labs working on a number of issues.
Labs are taking root in cities, national public services and universities to address many social and resource challenges, and are being led by different stakeholder groups.
Social innovation labs can vary enormously in their structures and ways of working. A lab process can last from a day to several years. Nevertheless, there are some key elements that define this unique process.
Traditional approaches to social or environmental challenges have often been top down, led by government or other powerful actors. Labs are based on a recognition that no one actor group can solve complex problems, and the people most impacted by a social challenge often hold the key to better solutions.
Labs can unleash the creativity of people, organizations and systems that are stuck or fragmented. Designing new approaches requires great research and pooling knowledge and perspectives to generate novel insights. To give form to new insights, prototypes are created and applied. People collectively learn from trying interventions, and iterate interventions further based on lessons learned. Taking an experimental, time-bound approach can help minimize the risks in trying something new, while increasing the possibility that a creative response will be available the next time, for the next problem.
Poverty, racism, environmental degradation, inequality and homelessness: these are examples of complex challenges that cannot be solved through a single approach, because they are the result of overlapping systems that produce adverse effects for people and the natural world. Labs look for opportunities to illuminate these relationships. Whole-systems approaches help people re-frame the nature of the problem, create a radically new repertoire of responses, and build the confidence necessary to implement transformative solutions to collective problems.