Lab Notes interview with Sophia Parker, founder of Social Innovation Lab for Kent

Social Innovation Lab for Kent, the first Lab in local government, was founded in 2008 by Sophia Parker. Cassie Robinson of the Point People interviewed Sophia about setting up the Lab, and her thoughts and tips on Labs today.

When did you set up SILK?

The conversations started in 2006. The Lab gained its identity and was named SILK (Social Innovation Lab for Kent) in 2008.

What were the motivations for doing it?

Kent CC had been trying to recruit a new Head of Policy and I’d been approached by a head hunter for the role. After the head hunter interviewed me, he apparently told Kent CC that I was completely unemployable! Luckily this strong statement intrigued the Assistant Director of the Council rather than putting him off, and he decided it might be interesting to meet me.

We began conversations about what the Council was looking to do. For them, I think they were interested in doing policy differently, of disrupting things a bit. He had been aware of the work I’d been doing at Demos around co-production and service design and wanted to see how this could be applied in their context. For me it was just a brilliant opportunity to take the ideas I had written and talked about, and put them into practice in a systematic way, in a council that had a reputation for being pretty innovative. I didn’t turn up and pitch the idea of a Lab, we went on a journey together to understand how you could better connect policy to the reality of people’s lives. The Lab formed itself as we developed that work.

What kinds of outcomes were you hoping for?

We always had two key ambitions for the work. The first was to demonstrate how you could develop policy in a new way and on the most challenging issues, and to be a beacon for that approach. This took the form of demonstration projects on issues such as social care, housing, and 'just coping' families. We wanted to make a real difference on issues where things weren’t changing enough, creating breakthrough thinking by starting with people’s real lives.

Secondly, we wanted to infuse more innovation into the bloodstream of the organisation. How do you build capacity to innovate across a staff of 35,000? That was our challenge and we worked hard to move people out of entrenched mindsets, to get them thinking about people’s daily lives and to shift the whole Council towards a more person-centric and relationship-oriented approach.

Where did the inspiration come from? Am I right in thinking it was the first Lab in Local Gov?

As far as I know it was the first Lab in local government. When we started to look for places to draw inspiration, from our only choices at that time in the UK were corporate organisations that had created 'skunk works' and were talking about 'rocket fuel'. It really was quite an under-theorised space.

The only other people close to what we were thinking about doing at the time were the staff at MindLab. Now MindLab is a high profile name, but at that time Christian Bason had only just started there. I made a few visits over to Denmark in 2006 and 2007 and we shared our thinking about design and policy. MindLab’s offices were amazing in comparison to the typical local government quarters we had in Kent County Council! This learning partnership was inspiring, and helped me to sell the idea of a lab back in the UK. But I think maybe there were some differences at that time in how Christian and I were approaching the purpose of our Labs. MindLab was much more interested in the transformation that could come from lean systems approaches and process redesign rather than being driven by a social justice agenda, which has always been at the heart of my work.

What were the internal cultural challenges and then changes that you saw over time?

I think these challenges will be familiar to people working in public services and I’m not sure they’ve changed very much over the last 10 years. I will list five main challenges that we were faced with:

Local government operates from a service-centric mindset rather than starting with people, relationships and communities. But this is problematic because people’s lives are not built around services.

Silos and bureaucracy made for a lot of wasted energy back then. Local area agreements, public service boards and the like were all relatively new and it seemed to me that ‘partnership working’ meant an awful lot of meetings and paperwork that sometimes made it difficult to make real progress.

Evidence was only really taken seriously when it was quantitative, abstract data. The richness and nuance of qualitative data was seen as anecdotal, rather than a critical part of the picture when it came to developing evidence-driven policy.

There were very few linkages between policy and practice - service managers and policy people seemed all too often to occupy different worlds.

The nature of democratic governance at the local government level made the process of navigating decision-making quite challenging, especially when you were asking people to make decisions about potentially risky or contentious issues.

Labs are all the rage now, why do you think that is?

Labs are brilliant at creating energy, space and a sense of possibility that things could be different. I’m not that surprised that there are so many more Labs now, given the fiscal challenges we’re facing: there’s not much choice except to find new ways of doing things. Labs help to focus people on a narrative of “we are going to work together on this issue until we sort it out and come up with a new way of achieving our goals.”

SILK is still going - do you know very much about what they are doing now?

Thanks to my two tiny children, I’m not really involved with SILK these days, but I’m a supporter from afar. They’ve undertaken some major work on living with dementia over the past few years, winning an award most recently for some brilliant work with families, professionals and an animator called 'Dementia Diaries’. There is still a core team, a network of associates and they still use the core principles that we put in place. They’ve had 10 years now of adapting the method deck and tools we created back in 2007.

I think you pioneered bringing design, ethnography and a 'lab' approach to Local Gov - how does that reflect what you personally felt at the time and also now you look back and reflect on it?

Pioneering is an interesting word. At the time, I occasionally realised we were pioneering something when I spoke to people outside the council about what we were trying to do. But day-to-day, inside the Council, it just felt like really hard work! We were trying to deliver fabulous work, build relationships, and frankly, hold the space open for long enough to demonstrate SILK’s potential. I reckon I spent at least a day a week navigating the internal politics. Looking back, I think that work was critical, I’m not sure the Lab would have survived without that kind of investment in relationships. I felt torn quite a lot of the time, translating between two different cultures - the design partners, who always wanted us to be more radical, and then senior council officials and elected members, who thought what we were doing all sounded a bit too innovative.

Now with some distance, I feel very aware of just how long it takes to change culture. I’m sure the team leading the Lab now would say that whilst they have made progress, even after 10 years there is still masses to do. Labs can create a buzz but that’s not to say they change things overnight. This stuff takes ages; much longer than a political cycle.

The other thing I underestimated at the time was the impact SILK might have on local government more widely, rather than Kent alone. By our very existence we opened up the space for other local councils to try something similar. We had a lot of feedback and contact from councils about how SILK was a beacon they could point to when they were trying to sell similar ideas internally. And of course lots of intermediary organisations jumped on the lab bandwagon, offering services to support other councils to set up something similar.

I suppose my last reflection is that we should be wary of drinking the ‘Lab kool-aid’ too quickly. I’m only really interested in Labs if they break governments out of thinking from a service-centric perspective. I continue to believe that if we start with the assets and relationships offered by people and communities, then the work that follows has the potential to be transformative. This was always the driving force behind SILK, but I’m not sure you always need a Lab to achieve this goal, and there are loads of people doing great stuff on this agenda without being anywhere near a Lab.

You’ve been involved in many other local government and social innovation work since SILK, do you think things are moving forward or do you feel very little is really changing?

I’m one step removed from the Labs world now, but with that caveat, I think it’s a mixed bag. From a distance, when I look at what is going on it can feel a bit like the same group of people talking to each other about the same ideas, with a bit too much affection for post-it notes and bunting and with not enough focus on impact.

That said I think there really has been a huge shift in how governments think and work that we should be glad of. It feels like there’s been a rebalancing of value placed on qualitative data, a genuine appetite to tackle entrenched problems from a more systemic perspective, and a push to use design, ethnography and user-research approaches. Compare this to 10 years ago, when I couldn’t use the word ‘ethnography’ without having to explain what it was and how it worked.

The other huge change in the last decade has of course been in technology and the digital world and I think the opportunities that technology can bring are really significant.

Finally, the depressing reality is that today, compared to 2008, there is just no money. That is a major driver for innovation that we just didn’t have 10 years ago. Not that I think there’s much to celebrate in this shift, given the impact of austerity and who is being hit hardest by it.

Any tips or final thoughts?

Are Labs the best vehicle for sustaining impact, and are they really focussed enough on designing impactful interventions in the first place? Those are the two questions that come up for me when I look at what is happening around Labs now.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with SILK’s design partner, Joe Heapy from Engine, back in the early days. He reflected that whenever they took a contract from a commercial client, that client had decided they were going to produce a new product or service as a result of the work, and they always did. In contrast, the public sector would say they wanted something to change, they’d commission the work, but then nothing would really happen.

So for me, the real challenge to anyone working in this space is to ensure that at the beginning of a project, you aren’t just creating a great piece of work, you’re also anticipating how the change is actually going to happen. Who do you need to line up? How does spending need to be redirected, and who will decide on that? Unless we focus on impact and what that looks like, there’s a danger that Lab work just ends up as some really nice post it notes on a wall somewhere.

Sophia is currently a Clore Social Fellow, and is working out how to redesign childcare for neglected communities. If you’re interested in getting involved you can reach her on [email protected] or @mssophiaparker.

Photo credit: Anthonycz via Thinkstock