Recreating the innovation lab - our work to take on acute malnutrition

Problems that are complex, interconnected, indeterminate, and emergent are what Rittel and Webber called ‘wicked problems.’ But all too often we try to tackle these wicked problems, like the climate crisis, inequality, and acute malnutrition, with processes that are simplistic, disconnected, and static.

As a result, the solutions that arise out of such approaches aren’t as wicked as the problems they seek to address. Hackathons and accelerators often produce partial responses or attempted silver bullets that, more often than not, ignore the interconnectedness of system and all of the moving parts that are needed to create systemic impact.

The most exciting thing about the work we are doing with the Childrens' Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), Vihara and our fantastic lab participants in our acute malnutrition prevention lab, is the possibility that we might be able to make a positive impact on lives.

Saving lives and making lives better is the ultimate goal for any social innovation/social change person or organisation. It is the reason for getting out of bed.

From a more geeky innovation practitioner perspective what is also really exciting about this lab is that we are trying to challenge the traditional lab and accelerator methods. We are doing this by not only using the tools and techniques social innovation has developed over the last few decades, including using the business model canvas, running a pitch session, working on ideation (generating ideas) together, we are also coupling these traditional tools with a systems lens and partnership approach.

We have challenged ourselves to develop a new method

In our lab design we have attempted to push the envelope as to what an innovation lab can achieve. In the design process we asked ourselves could:

  • a lab work across sectors?
  • it include nutrition experts as well as others?
  • the lab include the public, private and government sectors and could we get them to work together?
  • could we develop a lab in a way so that all the participants were thinking and acting in systems and sub-systems (seeing the bigger picture and then breaking down problems without being reductive)?
  • the outcome of the lab be a portfolio approach of ventures that worked together?
  • we do all of the above while still delivering standard lab content which we know works to generate solutions?

Could we create a partnership innovation lab?

We knew we could do the design - but we also needed a big mindset shift first with our funders and partners.

Traditional international development practice doesn't seem to capture what is required to tackle the entrenched issue of acute malnutrition. We needed to work with our partners to make a shift to a new way of thinking about complex problem solving.

Traditional vs Innovation approach

Traditional approach vs partnership lab approach

Disrupting the lab

Once we had agreement from CIFF to develop the innovation lab we then designed the lab to include a systems element, as well as, a partnership and cross sector element. The lab is cross sector in both the participation and most importantly in how they worked together.

On a very practical level it looks like the diagram below.

Partnership lab approach

Partnership lab approach

What have we achieved so far?

  • mapped the system, decided on possible intervention areas
  • identified individuals and teams from across areas of expertise (WASH, nutrition, tech, data, marketing, campaigns, food production) and sectors (social enterprises, campaigners, private sector, government and NGOs) to come and join the lab with the specific question driving us and created new cross sector teams
  • designed a future system without acute malnutrition
  • created five new ventures to each work on a different but complimentary part of the system.

Results from testing this new lab approach

For the last few months we have been testing this method, this partnership lab, and refining it based on the following questions:

  • is this developing cross sector solutions?
  • is this generating new, better and actionable systems level ideas?

Initial results in terms of monitoring and evaluation are good (more will be shared in the coming weeks). What we don't yet have evidence about is whether this approach will lead to ongoing partnerships that can make a dent in the prevention of acute malnutrition - only a period of prototyping will prove this. We are now working on a concept note for proof of concept phase and its challenging so far putting systems change methods and results into reductive, international development boxes. We will tell you how we go on this as we make progress.

Long live partnership labs?

We will be sharing our findings and outcomes of the acute malnutrition lab with you over the next months and if it is successful and producing good outcomes. We will also be working to codify (make replicable) the method of a partnership lab to add to Nesta's emerging innovation methods so you can do it too. There are others who are experimenting with partnership lab style approaches including the UNDP and we are keen to collaborate with other organisations who are trying to develop complex, interconnected, indeterminate, and emergent methods to take on the world's wicked problems.

Thank you

Acknowledging our friend Glen Mehn, who passed away recently, for his contribution to this work. Kathy Peach at Nesta for her support with the initial thinking and Suhit Anantula and the team at Vihara for their hard work developing the partnership lab approach with us.


Kate Sutton

Kate Sutton

Kate Sutton

Head of Corporate Social Innovation

Kate was responsible for managing Nesta's Corporate Social Innovation and Inclusive Growth work

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Brenton Caffin

Brenton Caffin

Brenton Caffin

Executive Director, Global Innovation Partnerships

Brenton was Nesta’s Executive Director, Global Innovation Partnerships, leading Nesta's work globally to help people and organisations get better at innovating for the common good.

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