Labs: Designing the future

Author’s note: This blog represents part of a body of work that MaRS is undertaking toward the creation of its own innovation lab, the recently announced MaRS Solutions Lab. In the months to come, I’ll provide further details about this exciting new initiative.

Given the challenges we face today – peak oil and climate change, unsustainable urban development, inadequate caregiver systems for an aging population and waves of economic downturn, to name a few – it’s clear that our systems (social, economic and ecological) are under unprecedented strain. We may not perceive our society to be in “dire straits,” but resting on our laurels may catch up with us sooner rather than later.

In an age where “innovation” is the key word in prosperity agendas and economic strategies around the world, relentless incrementalism won’t be enough to get us where we need to be.

It’s one thing to set innovation as a goal; it’s quite another to see it as a societal action plan. Fortunately for us, our hyper-networked world connects people from far and wide who are thinkers and doers when it comes to innovation. Broad-based participation has expanded the pool of ideas, which in turn has increased the probability of finding transformative solutions. In this new context, it is no longer up to the proverbial “powers that be” to prescribe the future. Rather, it is up to us all, working together, to define what’s possible.

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, describes the shift from Industrial to Participatory systems as a means to design for many forms of value beyond wealth. He implies that it’s the way forward. Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, calls the transfer of capabilities from various professional classes to the general public “epochal.”

Labs: Employing thinkers and doers in today’s innovation landscape

In the spirit of a creative, open innovation system, the Lab is a structure that not only thinks, but also does. Traditionally a place for scientists to test hypotheses that lead to potential breakthroughs, the Lab has been re-purposed to address elusive “wicked problems” in society. In this version (sometimes called the innovation, design or change Lab), substitute the scientific method with design thinking as the rigorous and repeatable protocol; swap beakers and Bunsen burners for sticky notes and white boards; and shift from single expertise to multifaceted expertise (usually representing a combination of business, design and humanities – in MaRS’ case, add science & tech as well as entrepreneurs of all sorts).

In these Labs, teams are experimenting with alternative solutions to real-world challenges such as water sanitization, carbon neutrality and age-friendly societies. And just like scientific breakthroughs, when these solutions succeed, they are game changing.

But the innovation Lab isn’t just the science lab’s kissing cousin in a new, networked context. Rather, it’s the net result of a vast body of knowledge based on established traditions in organizational development, systems theory and design.

Labs: A history of innovation pioneers

The Lab takes a systems approach to problem-solving, meaning that the whole architecture of a problem is considered before devising solutions. Civil engineer and innovation pioneer Isambard Kingdom Brunel employed this approach when designing the Great Western Railway in the mid-to-late 1830s. Brunel was concerned with designing the best possible journey, so instead of leading off with the locomotive, he zeroed in on the best passenger experience of travel. Today, Brunel’s approach could be considered an inspiration to “design thinking,” a method coined by IDEO and broadly used as a means to capture human desirability in the design process.

Solutions labA century after Brunel, theorists began codifying the “whole systems approach,” which defined the method behind some important transformative ideas. Thanks to foundations laid by thinkers like Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Kurt Lewin, Eric Trist and Fred Emery (not a definitive list by any means), processes were built in an attempt to convene the whole system in one space to address systemic challenges. And in the design world itself, efforts were underway to push design’s boundaries in its role to solve broader problems.

In 1968, the Helsinki Design Lab was convened for the first time to discuss a new, collaborative form of design, broadening its scope to include applied anthropology and psychology, system design, computer use and human factors engineering. Among visionaries leading the discourse were Victor Papanek, perhaps the biggest influence in sustainable design, and Buckminster Fuller, who included systems theory among his areas of expertise. The result led to a conscious effort in Finland to entrench Strategic Design in everyday decisions.

Today’s Lab models

Today, Labs are emerging around the world as a promising model for designing our future. A Lab can be purposed for sector-specific solutions, such as MindLab’s focus on public service design in Denmark, or Participle’s mandate to create the new welfare state in the UK.

A Lab can also be issue-specific: poverty is the basis for the work at San Francisco-based (a branch of IDEO formed in 2011), aging is the focus for MIT’s aptly named AgeLab and education is at the core of the UK’s FutureLab.


The MaRS Solutions Lab

MaRS’ unique position – set amid academe, government and business, with deep roots in entrepreneurship and community – along with our Social Innovation Generation (SiG) national partnership, enables us to convene the cross-sector expertise at the heart of a Lab model. We will take this one step further, by engaging today’s experts and tomorrow’s leaders – emerging, talented individuals – in prototyping and modeling alternative solutions that have the potential to move the dial. By addressing persistent problems at the systems level, the MaRS Solutions Lab will complement our entrepreneur-focused activities and our longer-term research projects.

The MaRS Lab isn’t the ultimate answer to these persistent challenges, but it’s a Canadian start. And the time to start is now. For further information about Labs, check out our full review, Labs: Designing the Future.

Further reading

For information on how Labs can be used to promote social innovation, readers may wish to review What is a Change Lab/Design Lab?, a proposal by Dr. Frances Westley, Sean Geobey and Kirsten Robinson, our colleagues at SiG@Waterloo.

Lab models to check out