11/12/2014 | 4 mins |

What Are Social (Innovation) Labs, and Why Should You Care?

11/12/2014 | 4 mins |

More and more governments, multilateral donors, nonprofits, and corporations are getting involved in addressing complex social problems like food security, inequality, or youth unemployment. But by and large, their efforts are not working.

The culprit is "strategic planning" an approach that assumes we understand the problem and steps required over a period of time to solve it—think of sending a man to the moon. For most organizations strategic planning is simply "business as usual," and in situations that are stable it might make sense—gravity doesn't change while we are trying to send a man to the moon.

But as an approach it's too rigid, and destined to fail when applied to a complex, rapidly shifting, multi-stakeholder social problem. Imagine a strategy that outlines a five-year plan to address hunger by feeding more hungry people every year. This will work if we can reduce the number of hungry people faster than new hungry people are queuing up. In other words, when demand is outstripping supply, then strategic planning is virtually certain to fail. Unfortunately in complex situations this is often the case.

Over the last decade, a growing movement of practitioners has adopted a more experimental approach to addressing complex challenges. They don't ask donors to invest in a plan. They ask for investments in a diverse team, which then manages a portfolio of ideas. It's talent that matters, and the process of iteration, trial and error, not a fixed plan that has little chance of success. Talented teams will produce outputs and outcomes that are valuable, for example new services or products, new skills and capacities and new intellectual property.

At the heart of this movement is a phenomenon known as a social laboratory. Social labs focus on innovating practical actions to address complex social challenges. They have three characteristics:

  1. Social labs involve diverse stakeholders, including the people impacted. By contrast, a planning approach would bring together a small group of experts and develop a top-down, command-and-control solution.
  2. They are experimental, relying on trial and error to create and manage a portfolio that guides investment decisions. A planning approach can put all its eggs in one basket.
  3. They take a systems-based approach that addresses challenges at a root-cause level. A planning approach may address symptoms, not the cause of a social problem.

Just as we have scientific labs to solve scientific problems and technical labs to solve technical problems, we need social labs to solve social, political, and environmental problems. And if we build these three characteristics into our approach, our chances of success go way up.

Examples are becoming more common and include the UK's National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts Public Services Lab, the Helsinki Design Lab, the Sustainable Food Lab based in Vermont and active around the globe, India's Bhavishya Alliance, and the UK's Financial Innovation Lab—the latter three of which I was able to help launch.

The Sustainable Food Lab stands out as the first large-scale, multi-stakeholder social lab experiment. Organized in 2004, the lab is a platform for corporations, governments, farmers' associations, and NGOs to work together to accelerate the incorporation of environmental, economic, and social sustainability into the world's food production systems. The group took two years to develop a shared view of their challenges and devise a series of experiments to test solutions. Out of that work came a number of changes in large corporations' procurement practices, increased support for small-holder farmers, and more sustainable farming practices. Ten years later, the Sustainable Food Lab continues to be a platform for innovation.

The innovations generated by social labs flow from at least four sets of outputs: physical capital (new services or infrastructure), human capital (new capacities and skills), social capital (increased trust and collaboration), and intellectual capital (new knowledge and learning). These forms of capital, if produced in sufficient amounts, can change complex social systems. For an analogy, think of a research lab that produces multiple outputs, such as new drugs or surgical techniques. These increase the probability that patients will survive. Likewise social labs ensure discoveries relevant to the survival of vital systems, like food, water, and health. In the case of the Sustainable Food Lab, Unilever, the world's biggest food company, has embraced sustainability and aims by 2020 to halve the environmental footprint of its products and to improve the lives of a substantial number of smallholder farmers around the globe.

Today, the odds of overcoming complex social challenges improve only if are willing to abandon business as usual and embrace innovative approaches, such as social labs. Our future depends on it.

Zaid Hassan is co-founder of Reos Partners. He is the author of The Social Labs Revolution (2014). Follow Hassan on Twitter at @zaidhassan.

This blog is part of a November-December 2014 series on innovation labs, a joint project between Bridgespan and The Rockefeller Foundation. Please join us during the coming four weeks as we publish a broad range of insights from innovation lab practitioners, funders, and participants.

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