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From labs to movements? An invitation to join our conversation on re-imagining labs

In the run-up to UNDP-Nesta’s two-day conference 'Istanbul Innovation Days' (Oct 31-Nov 1), we wanted to take stock and critically reflect on current lab practice and the impact labs create, and to consider what future directions might look like.

We reflected with a small group of expert lab practitioners – from public innovation and development labs – on current lab practice, and in this blog we share our reflections, identify a number of needs, and suggest what actions could be taken. We invite you to read it and to join in the conversation on the future of lab practice.

What we see

While the number of labs is growing globally, a recent survey by the Center of Public Impact seems to indicate that we may have reached ‘peak labs’ – a point where these units are increasingly struggling to deliver against their promises and ambitions of transforming how governments operate, shifting systems and tackling big picture challenges. The frustration that comes with this is evident from the labs community itself – a realisation that we are often unable to:

Mobilise resources, create political opportunity space and induce political power, even off the back of early successes of applying new methods to policy and service design.

Go beyond ‘quick fixes’ to create the mandate for change and ultimately transform how governments operate, tackling complex challenges and changing systems while maintaining a ‘direct line of sight’ to the citizens themselves.

We see that innovation can create results, but it is not baked into the DNA of organisations. On one hand we find labs that have become part of the establishment, yet from that position they fail to challenge it. On the other hand we see labs that keep operating at the fringes, but are unable to move to a more central position in government. In short, there is a failing to mobilise resources, capabilities and interests around issues that can lead to sustained change.

We have also seen some of this frustration reflected in the recent media discourse that has questioned labs’ impact and ability to ultimately change the way bureaucracies function, policies get designed, and entire new ways of governing get ushered in. Have these units really moved beyond generating ideas and prototyping at the margins of important government reforms?

There is also something of a ‘catch 22’ at play here too, as those who frequently make the loudest calls for innovation – politicians and the media – are those ‘most likely to blame the public service when innovation attempts go wrong'. This shrinks the space for experimentation and room for failure that is inherent when addressing some of the big picture questions, such as violent extremism, changing climate, migration and reform of the health and welfare systems.

What we need

In this context, how do we re-imagine labs and lab practice? Looking beyond ‘the lab as we know it,’ we may need to question their purpose, structures and business models. We may need to rethink how labs operate, and what they should be, in order to become more effective change agents – a mobilising element for igniting broad movements for impact. We may need to engage with different stakeholders, and change the breadth (more systemic) and depth (sustainable change) of our focus areas.

The need for scale and impact is not simply a linear projection of doing more of the ‘old’. It is about recognising the requirement to build a movement that needs new political capital and a very different set of alliances – as well as possibly new skills and competencies – to address the step change in the type of challenges governments are facing that underline a class of issues underpinning the Sustainable Development Goals.

There are some early indicators of the type of capabilities that labs might need to invest in to be able to create movements more effectively. There are some who point to the practical applications of systems analysis to policy making in an effort to better understand the linkages and power dynamics surrounding key policy issues (a good set of references here include a talk with Duncan Green on his How Change Happens book, Owen Barder’s review of the application of complexity theory in development, the RSA’s recent report ‘From design thinking to systems change’ and ODI’s anti-corruption work that highlights a need to target systems not people).

Others are hinting at the need to redefine what ‘evidence’ is in the context of its influence on policy development, and a deeper understanding of what type of evidence actually leads to change (e.g. ‘narratives have a stronger ability to persuade individuals and influence their beliefs than scientific evidence does’).

What we should do

We believe we should stop talking and thinking about ‘labs as we know them’. We should re-frame the concept of the lab by considering an organisational form that is wider in scope; one that considers the conditions, methods and structures needed to change systems. We believe labs certainly need to move away from being ‘delivery agencies’ or ‘boutique consultancies’ that have become ‘technocratic instruments that act as filters for people’s responses to political initiatives’.

Instead, we believe they should create conditions and employ approaches that work at a massive scale by generating movements – movements that form meaningful alliances with the usual as well as the unusual suspects. We need to become better at establishing connections and collaborating with mainstream bureaucrats (who know how things get done in government agencies), ‘development mutants’, and those with the most stake in a given issue.

Rethinking the lab as a movement means we also need to create the space for experimentation and radical solutions. This may require:

Moving beyond the scope of a single institution tasked with addressing a challenge, and instead creating movements of actors to solve complex issues together. This implies building collaborative innovation capacities, accountability frameworks, governance and incentives – or in other words, repurposing government.

Designing a new class of financial instruments and business models that are on par with the scale and type of SDG-like challenges (the disconnect which one of us calls the ‘ice cream economy’, where the UK alone buys £1 billion worth of ice cream a year whereas the largest social innovation fund is £600 million).

Facilitating processes for deeper investigation into issues and policy trade-offs that are inherent in key structural reforms, and which cut across silos and create political space for radical solutions (interestingly enough, some of this thinking is currently taking place in the realm of venture investment, as the recent Harvard Business Review reports).

Moving beyond the scope of management-led models and means of change – control driven systems within organisations. These industrial models struggle to address the complexity of need or drive the efficacy of outcome and innovation in an increasingly complex and emergent world. This requires us to place emphasis on reimagining the bureaucracy of institutions as a key component of scaling change, and this requires building alliances that go beyond those with niche innovation skills.

Where do we start?

We’d like to explore some of these new directions in Istanbul on Oct 31- Nov 1, specifically looking at how to adopt new approaches that get us more quickly from here to there.

We have tentatively formulated three hypotheses on critical directions for the future:

Rethinking the entry point for intervention: from people (experiences and needs) to systems (networks) and bureaucracy (structures of organising and financing)

Redefining evidence: a focus on ‘thick data’ and moving away from linear narratives to explore speculative futures (imagination)

Changing the focus: from a narrow focus on problem definition and exogenous interventions to a fluid exploration of existing assets and dynamics

The event will be an opportunity to test these hypotheses with a community of practitioners and to open up the conversation with the lab community at large. Interested in joining?

Email Millie Begovic at UNDP, and follow #IID2017 on Twitter for updates.


Millie Begovic

Giulio Quaggiotto

Giulio Quaggiotto

Giulio Quaggiotto

Senior Programme Manager in Innovation Skills

Giulio was a Senior Programme Manager in the Innovation Skills team, responsible for advising international development and public sector organisations on the implementation of their i…

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Bas Leurs

Bas Leurs

Bas Leurs

Head of Learning Experience Design

Bas was the Head of Learning Experience Design in the Innovation Skills team.

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Indy Johar

Indy Johar is an architect, co-founder of 00 and a Senior Innovation Associate with the Young Foundation. He is also a co-founder of Dark Matter Laboratories, which aims to apply compl…

Jesper Christiansen

Jesper Christiansen

Jesper Christiansen

Head of Strategy and Development

Jesper was Head of Strategy and Development in the Innovation Skills team, contributing to Nesta's work to help people and organisations get better at innovating for the public good.

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