Social Innovation Labs

16.07.2014 Blog

As part of Tepsie’s work on the ecosystem necessary to support social innovation, I recently conducted some research on social innovation labs.

Social innovation labs aim to provide a neutral space for experimentation, and hope to generate solutions to some of society’s most pressing challenges. Also known as ‘change’ or ‘design’ labs, they come in all shapes and sizes – some are funded by government, others by non-profits, some have a single area of interest, others have many. Nevertheless, Frances Westley and colleagues suggest that there are key features which are usually present:

1. Labs are often hosted in specialised spaces which have been designed to promote creativity, and it is a hallmark of labs that they like to bring together practitioners from different disciplines, such as design, ethnography and business.
2. Unconventional and risky thinking is encouraged to assist in developing disruptive ideas, yet labs nevertheless tend to stick to a clear process, both in the development of ideas, and to make space for differing contributions from users, beneficiaries and decision makers.
3. There is a significant research element to assist in understanding a problem space, often using ethnographic techniques, and there is an emphasis on rapid prototyping of ideas.
4. Furthermore, as labs are keen to increase awareness of the role of innovation in generating social change, they often show a distinctive openness regarding their methodology and results.

Labs are now appearing all over the world, with notable examples including the European Network of Living Labs, the Social Innovation Generation lab at MaRS in Canada, La 27e Region in France, Participle in London and MindLab in Denmark. One lab that I looked at was InWithForward, a relatively new lab which is working in Canada and the Netherlands. They have conducted an in-depth ethnographic project with people living in a social housing complex in Burnaby, British Columbia. In order to engage residents, they themselves rented an apartment in the complex, and then used a variety of techniques to meet people and let them know about their project – baking chocolate chip cookies and going door to door, hanging Easter eggs in the elevator with prizes that could be redeemed at their apartment and offering to help people with chores. They then spent ten weeks getting to know residents and at the end of the project produced a 25 page newspaper – ‘The Ideas Press’ – which profiled residents using language that they had used to describe themselves, explained some of the disconnects they were experiencing when they engaged with social services, and suggested ideas for innovative solutions which might help improve their lives. In particular they moved away from grouping people as ‘refugees’, ‘single parents’ etc. but rather grouped them in terms which were more reflective of their lived experience – such as ‘the dissatisfied’ or ‘the positive deviants’. They then made alternatives visible by creating visual maps, scenarios, role plays, field trips and immersive experiences to enable people, professionals and policymakers to see and feel potential interventions for change.  For example, one idea they have suggested based on their research is ‘nok nok’ – a suggestion that each housing complex have a resident Introducer who can connect residents who might have interests in common or skills that they can share with each other. The lab is now looking to find partners who can help them in prototyping some of these solutions, and publishing their results.

Another lab that I looked at was the Reconstructed Living Lab, which was founded in 2008 in South Africa. Known collectively as ‘R-Labs’, it is now a movement and registered social enterprise with a vision to impact, empower and reconstruct local and global communities through innovation. R-Labs began as an exercise to see how technology could be used to impact upon local communities. The founder, Marlon Parker, wanted to experiment to see whether technology could be used to generate and share stories of hope to inspire communities of young people. Parker was able to recruit the son of a prominent gang leader to write a story to share his life experience, and what he had learned since leaving that lifestyle behind. This young man learned how to use a PC during the process of sharing his experiences.

Marlon comments “from there, a number of his friends came along and said, ‘Hey, but what about us? We also have stories to share’”. The project snowballed, and the people who had initially been trained began to offer training to others. In particular, women with children started to come in, which proved the basis for a successful initiative called ‘Geeky Mums’, empowering housewives to learn new digital skills. Marlon says, “what we realised is that when people become empowered with understanding the power of technology, they have hope…. We then see that people come up with interesting ideas, because who best to understand the problems of a community than the community themselves?”

This philosophy was validated when the young people who had initially been involved came up with the idea of starting a mobile support service to help others who were struggling with drug addiction and gang membership. This idea was first prototyped by working with people in the community who were battling the most entrenched drug addictions. Once the mobile support service became successful, those involved began to develop a cloud based technology termed JamiiX in order to manage the different instant message platforms. Parker comments that these were “ex-drug addicts, housewives… very unlikely innovators”.

Today, R-Labs across the world offer a space where community members can access training and development programmes, mobile and internet solutions and social enterprise incubation. In addition, R-Labs offer consultancy services to the public and private sector. The R-Labs main hub is in Athlone, Cape Town, but they also have off-shoots in the United Kingdom, Europe, Asia, South America and Africa.

Labs benefit from a close connection with the insights and experience of people on the ground, and this is a real strength. However, they remain very new, and there have been challenges associated with their successful implementation. Currently, many labs operate on a hand to mouth basis regarding funding and this invariably affects decisions about which interventions are possible, and how long certain interventions should be trialled. In addition, some have raised questions about the ability of labs to be as truly participatory and user-driven as they claim to be. In a recent paper, Edwards-Schachter and Tams argue that social dynamics and power issues have been largely overlooked in the literature around living labs, and the lack of focus on this issue may present a barrier to truly participatory innovation.

Finally, there is an enduring question regarding how best to translate solutions which have worked well within one lab into alternative environments, and the level of risk invariably involved when attempting to scale solutions. It is likely that how easy this process will be depends vastly on the intervention in question. Marlon Parker from R-Labs comments that when he is looking to take a solution to another country, he “brings it into that community to re-look at it, and then we tweak it for the local market. For example, when we went to launch [JamiiX] in Finland, instead of using the mobile chat… we basically had to do it full into Facebook…. Because most of the young kids are chatting on Facebook via their PCs.”

While this example proved fairly simple to tweak, others will be more complex. Although a strength of labs is their ability to rapidly prototype and alter interventions which are targeted to specific problems and communities, it becomes much harder to manage risk when trying to replicate an intervention at scale. This is an issue that labs will have to combat if they are to effect large scale change or systemic change, a space in which InWithForward hopes to operate. The lab method, then, still has some prototyping of its own to do, yet these spaces remain critical for experimenting with new ways of addressing social challenges, and as such, are a very promising addition to the social innovation ecosystem.


R Labs image from