As the public and social innovation landscape gets populated with an increasing number of ‘labs’, the need to be clear about why this development is happening and what could be gained from it remains highly relevant. A detour into the arts provides a useful reminder when trying to answer these questions.
Some time ago I was given the opportunity to get a new sense of the current refugee crisis when I visited Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen’s exhibition 'End of Dreams' in Copenhagen. Different artforms (e.g. sculptures, photos and video) illustrated the dangers, trauma and sense of loss among the refugees and immigrants trying to get to Europe with the dream of a better life or just attempting to ensure their survival.
Larsen’s original plan was to create a sculptural installation portraying body bags marked by the wear and tear of the sea. This plan was compromised by an unanticipated violent storm that ravaged the raft that was holding the structures in place. Larsen made use of this unexpected development by hiring divers to film the scene and collect all the debris and sculptures that could be found. Working with this material, he created a new multi-media installation comprising a five channel video shot under sea and a composition of some of the remains of the sculptural elements.
Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen’s exhibition 'End of Dreams', image courtesy of artist
Walking out of the exhibition, I felt like I had been taken on an emotional rollercoaster. Larsen had managed to get me emotionally and cognitively connected in a new way; through the lives of loved ones lost; through a sense of human companionship combined with a feeling of shared responsibility for not preventing this from happening; through the global magnitude of the conflict and our collective inability to prevent the suffering from continuing; and through an overwhelming feeling of meaninglessness fuelled by various questions beginning with the word ‘why’.
After the immediate feelings had diminished a bit, I started to think more about the experimental nature of his work itself. It was a strong reminder of the imaginative use of an experimental process, adding to the narrative of the piece by bringing the work’s production even closer to the experiences of trauma and peril that he was trying to express. But Skyum Larsen’s exhibition also took me on a journey that undid my current perspectives on the suffering of refugees and created a new sense of comprehension.
"The refugee crisis became recognisable in a new way."
While I considered myself to be pretty well-informed about the refugee crisis developing from the war in Syria, my perspective was now being recast in a new light: the refugee crisis simply became recognisable in a new way. Or as the American philosopher Nelson Goodman expresses it: “What a portrait or a novel exemplifies or expresses often reorganises a world more drastically than does what the work literally or figuratively says or depicts.”
Innovation labs and teams seem to be a timely structural intervention in times of economic pressure and under-developed public service offerings, especially considering it is imagination and ingenuity that will enable us to respond to the everyday lives of people in their local, national and global context.
Recently, an increasing number of innovation labs and teams have been oriented towards top-down implementation. The positive aspect of this is that it's making user-centered design methods a central part of creating a better dynamic between public policy and practical implementation (which should be the backbone of any public sector organisation).
However, for innovation labs, there is a real risk of becoming technocratic instruments that act as ‘filters’ for people’s responses to political initiatives. The unwanted consequence often is that innovation labs become ‘delivery agencies’ without sufficient mandate to challenge or influence problem definitions or hypotheses for creating change. In other words, the overall (political) intent and/or framing of problems remains unchallenged by the work of the lab.
Whether innovation labs are applied as projects or as more permanent structures within or outside public sector organisations, they are all fighting to create large-scale impact and obtain executive ownership. But in this process of getting institutional acceptance, the risk is that the very virtues and design principles that made innovation labs relevant in the first place will be lost. This is where art exhibitions and artistic expression become relevant inspirational sources for the work of innovation labs.
A core element of this is how experimentation is framed. Many innovation labs are currently being tasked with experimentation as a way of getting ‘silver bullet’ solutions from a more trial-based approach; managing the public decision-makers expectations as if there is one true way of ‘solving’ the problem. Or as if it is about finding the perfect execution of a public policy and you just have to ‘experiment’ – try a few times and then you’ll get it right.
This is a slippery slope, because public problems are like art exhibitions: the issues need to be ‘solved’ over and over again with no final solution to be had. Poverty, housing, unemployment, education, social wellbeing, health, inequality – all are issues with infinite ways of being dealt with. When developing public interventions in this space, the rightness of design or the truth of the intent is relative to the system wherein it is carried out. As artist Richard Diebenkorn phrases it, “the pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued – except as a stimulus for further moves.”
"Public problems are like art exhibitions: the issues need to be ‘solved’ over and over again."
Consequently, it is less about proving a certain idea than illustrating what your idea can do to address the problem at hand. Every ‘solution’ enables efforts to build on it and try something else. Richard Sennett and Hans Joas (2005) exemplify this by referring to the example of the painter Henri Matisse, who was “constantly working on the problem of colour and constantly solving it”. Similarly, a new solution concept does not imply the closure of the development process, but instead is the moment where the people involved in the creative process leave it as an indication for the ways in which existing realities might be understood and/or changed.
So when you do an experiment, you repeat all the features that the hypothesis determines are relevant within the given context – and what you get is an example or illustration of the hypothesis.
What I am getting at is that the innovation lab in this kind of application is largely being under-tasked when it comes to doing experiments. Rather than merely being tasked to create concise solutions, innovation labs should be in the business of illustrating and framing the challenge to be dealt with. This is why labs should really consider how to run multiple, smaller, parallel experiments rather than few grand ones.
We want to have many illustrations of how to address the problem; not investing in one experiment that we imagine can end the policy debate. Crucially, it is a multitude of advancements in understanding that enables useful strategic thinking about new possibilities.
It's no coincidence that many open government initiatives are focused on opening up problems to collective intelligence. This exercise is also about creating new relationships between decision-makers and the broader community. In my work at MindLab, we systematically tried to connect decision-makers with the problem by removing the physical distance between them and the citizens they serve; what we often referred to as creating ‘professional empathy’.
However, as with the purpose of artwork, it is about more than empathy. It's also about making new perspectives possible by advancing a combination of empirical, emotional and imaginative understanding. The purpose of enabling face-to-face interactions between decision-makers and citizens was a way of exposing them to a “drastic version of reality” that was capable of unmaking and remaking their perceptions to “recast them in new remarkable ways” as Goodman phrases it.
In this light, collaboration between public organisations and innovation labs is all about the dual process of remaking reality in a way that both creates motivation for change as well as a sense of agency in pursuing explorative routes when acting on this motivation.
This is a crucial component in defining the intent of public interventions. Considering the failures of previous public interventions when dealing with complex problems, it is worth reforming the process of how this (political) intent gets created and authorised. Just like the function of artwork and art exhibitions, this is about more than advancing rational understanding and technical description. Experiments should allow for the ambiguity of people’s lives and, as with artistic expression, expand the scope of how to illustrate the character of the problem. It is hard to talk about the concrete subject-matter of painting, dance or music, but they ”nevertheless manifest, exemplify or express forms and feelings” to quote Goodman again.
So even though innovation labs often critique themselves for merely coming up with new insights or reframing of problems, this should not be seen as a failure in itself. Failure would be to not let this advancement in understanding have a significant impact on the development of what would at some point be deemed the political intent. In this sense, rather than thinking of innovation labs as delivery units or implementation teams, I think we should see them as being in the business of creating new ways of mandating and enabling change.
"Failure would be to not let this advancement in understanding have a significant impact on the development of what would at some point be deemed the political intent."
But if innovation labs are in the business of mandating change in new ways, what does this actually imply? In this reflection, I have claimed that the innovation lab is successful when it is able to re-recognise and remake public problems; and that it is essential to go beyond being a human-centered implementation unit and to focus on making new authoritative perspectives possible by advancing empirical, emotional and imaginative understanding; much like Skyum Larsen’s exhibition ’End of Dreams’ was capable of affecting its audience.
But is the work of innovation labs then more about enabling the political than policy development? Marco Steinberg, founder of Snowcone, talked about this at LabWorks in 2015 and argued that “co-creation means building political movements". He was referring to the importance of taking politics seriously when working as a lab since most innovation processes challenge how political envisioning and technical appropriation are connected. I tend to agree.
The current focus of improving the capacity of government is not only about developing new processes and tools of government, but is inherently about political innovation as well. What the art of the lab reminds us is that lab work should be an authoritative part of creating political opportunity. This is both about enabling new societal and political movements, but equally about being involved in qualifying the political debate through testing and challenging current assumptions and concretely illustrating and exemplifying what could be good and for whom.
Labs should be more in the business of problem-searching than problem-solving; characterising and posing the challenges rather than merely promising to solve already defined ones. A significant part of building government capacity is about redesigning public policy to work as platforms for creative exploration of new understanding and to enable new imaginative (political) horizons. This, in my view, is the actual art of the lab.
"Labs should be more in the business of problem-searching than problem-solving; characterising and posing the challenges rather than merely promising to solve already defined ones."
The exhibition ‘End of dreams’ by Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen.
‘Ways of world-making’ by Nelson Goodman (1970)
'Notes to myself on beginning a painting' by Richard Diebenkorn
'Creativity, Pragmatism and the Social Sciences' by Richard Sennett and Hans Joas. Distinktion, vol. 14: 5-31.
'The Irrealities of Public Innovation' by Jesper Christiansen
Image credit: Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen