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Social Innovation Labs: Designing whole system change

February 27, 2013

A colourful mix of designers, policy-makers, consultants, non-profit professionals, lab practitioners and the lab curious crowded into the MaRS auditorium last Thursday night to hear Frances Westley’s latest insights on the emerging field of labs and the potential of labs to generate and scale social innovation.

With decades of experience researching and writing about complexity and systems science (including co-authoring the bestselling book Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed) it is no wonder that Frances sold out the auditorium (which has a capacity of nearly 400 people), with 100 people wait-listed two weeks prior to the highly anticipated event.

Here is why we need social innovation labs and why this process is exciting.

The magnitude of change is daunting

The need has never been greater for systemic change. In Canada, much like in the rest of the world, we are facing increasingly complex social and environmental issues, such as the widening of income inequalities, the need to develop policy for aboriginal education that respects native culture and language, and the implementation of clean energy initiatives.

What’s more, we are experiencing pressure from new drivers and externalities (such as climate change, aging populations and government austerity measures, not to mention citizens’ frustration over some public service systems that have remained more or less unchanged since the Industrial Revolution) that put additional strain on our systems. Traditional approaches to building solutions are having difficulty coping with this kind of complexity.

The love child: The best of both lab worlds

Frances offers Social Innovation Labs (#SocInnLabs)—the love child of Change Labs and Design Labs—as a process for tackling these types of complex challenges. What is particularly exciting about her approach is that it blends the best from these two robust processes and adds another dimension based on complexity and systems theory. For example, deep collaboration among diverse groups of people using a highly designed process (a strength of the Change Lab approach) and extensive ethnographic and desk research (a strength of the Design Lab approach) will both be key elements of the Social Innovation Lab process.

Through collaboration with Christian Bason (MindLab), Bryan Boyer (Helsinki Design Lab), Banny Banerjee (d.school: Institute of Design at Stanford) and Luigi Ferrara (Institute without Boundaries), Frances has teased out two key elements from her research to add around prototyping and scaling:

  • Prototyping for complexity: It is not possible to “hold the whole system in one’s mind,” explains Frances. Social Innovation Labs offer computer visualizations and simulations to address the difficulty of applying rapid prototyping techniques to complex systems, such as social and political dynamics and the variables and relationships within these elements.
  • Looking across scales: Where are the key constraints that stop change from happening? Frances advocates moving up through scale to find the leverage points that have an impact on changing the rules and relationships that govern the system in the first place. For example, with regards to youth offenders, she says, innovation in government ministries may make more of an impact than a program or initiative on the ground.

Frances’ work on Social Innovation Labs is in full swing, with a test model and an open source process guide to be available in the summer 2013.

If you’re hungry for more news on this topic, the University of Waterloo has a webpage dedicated to Social Innovation Labs, the SiG website has links to lab-related resources and the SiG Knowledge Hub has a lab section (including an introduction, dip and dive) that offers a smooth transition into these emerging processes.

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Satsuko VanAntwerp

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Satsuko VanAntwerp is the manager of social innovation at Social Innovation Generation's national office. She manages the SiG National Lab Strategy, a program that promotes lab processes and supports those engaged in lab-like activity in the greater Toronto area.

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