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Lab Matters Challenging the practice of social innovation laboratories

Author: Marlieke Kieboom, Kennisland
Published Date: 30 September 2014

This article was originally published in Issue Seven of Social Space.

The paper, “Lab Matters” is the direct result of the exchange at Lab2: A Lab about Labs—an event jointly organised by Kennisland and Hivos. In April 2013, 40 practitioners from 20 social change labs gathered in Amsterdam in a convention aimed at promoting critical engagement of social innnovation lab practitioners for the purpose of “discontinuous change.”

“Labbing” has indeed become the trend in finding solutions for today’s world problems. Behind the idea of labs is the promise to “transform” the situation and combat ills existing in the established system. Yet, the question remains: How practical are labs in negotiating the intricacies in social problems?

Implicit in the question are two processes taking place in tandem: “underestimating complex system dynamics” and “overestimating the impact of lab practices.” Together, they can bring about negative effects on the quality of impact that labs can bring. On the one hand, there is a serious underestimate of the complexities in four areas of lab practice:

1) Outcomes, where too much emphasis is put on solutionism.
2) Focus, where the place and power of politics is overlooked.
3) Goals, where scaling solutions override ideas, values and ethics.
4) Representation, with miscalculation as regards the messiness of human nature.

On the other hand, the expectations of the direct impact of labs on transformative change tend to be overestimated and could be more measured. How then can we support social innovation labs in moving their practices forward? The article seeks to

  • understand the unique practice and principles of labs;
  • identify the dynamics frequently ignored; and
  • offer suggestions by considering the future of labs.

Read the full article here.