What is a social lab? Why now? – Lab Exchange PART I

In this Lab Exchange Series, Chelsea (Public Policy Lab, NYC), Stephane (La 27e Région, Paris) and Carolyn (TACSI, Adelaide) talk with Rachel (Social Lab, Hong Kong) and Marco (SIX, London) about the emergence of social and public labs and what it means to work as a lab practitioner. This conversation was part of Social Lab Symposium in Hong Kong.

Why now?

Chelsea Mauldin (NYC):  Let’s begin with… How do you describe yourself? Are you inside or outside government? To be honest, they are so frequently asked questions. I have lost the ability to understand why those questions are interesting. I wondered if you guys have the same experience…

Carolyn Curtis (Adelaide): We never describe ourselves as a “lab”.

Stephane Vincent (Paris): Interesting question is not this one but the question around it… Why is this happening? Why the popularity of labs now? I can give you my story. When we started 10 years ago, we realised that there could be a field of changing public systems and social issues. We also realised the limits of academic research, often too far from the ground and the decision-making. There were also the limits of traditional consultancies, working on demand as a supplier for clients. I think lab was a way we tried to challenge and transform the demand and to create another kind of conversation.

CM: Stephane, did you come from one of those worlds?

SV: Yes I come from the two worlds. I used to be a civil servant and then became a consultant.

Rachel Yan (Hong Kong): I think it is very interesting that all you have different stories — working inside/outside of the government. In Asia, we think about this a lot because we are trying to penetrate into the system to create impact. As a consultant working with government, there is a clear employer-consultant relationship that is not helpful. At the Social Lab (Hong Kong), we are trying to create collaborative mindset by creating a team with a mix of civil servants and citizens.

CC: In Australian context, there are certain places that government cannot get to, that people from outside government can. An example of that —  we have really profound issues around child protection. You have agencies that take children away and simultaneously organisations figuring out how to keep them in the first place. We found an interesting third space which has enabled us to really leverage the assets and wisdom inside of community itself.\

Transforming administration and the political act of design

SV: I think that the ultimate goals of our labs are different. Our goal is to transform administration. We don’t consider ourselves as a lab. We are more of an action research actor. Half of our work is action research activities and the rest is about building systemic community of civil servants, governments, professionals and influencing at the larger scale.

CM: You say your goal is to change administration. But to do what? To what end?

SV: The goal is to change the culture of administration from the ideal of excellence to another narrative, the one of ingenuity. The only way to do this is by doing it step by step. We consider civil servants and politicians to be our beneficiaries, as well as the citizens. They are users of the administration.

CM: I actually think there is a commonality amongst almost all of us who do this work. I think that you would have to be willfully blind to not decide very early on in your lab practice — that the frontline providers of public services and and their managers and the policymakers are just as fundamentally users of the policy and service as our members of the public. You are not going to get anywhere trying to improve outcomes for members of the public if you are not equally interested and engaged with what’s happening for frontline providers and those above them in the hierarchy. It’s necessary to do the work.

SV: Yes, and we also have to recognise that there are positive agents in the system.

CM: That’s interesting. We are explicitly focused on this idea of the interface between government, between the states and the people, premised on a democratic theory, which is that the state answers to the people. The state is only empowered because the people allow it to have power.

SV: This is really important because one of the challenges we’re facing is that we believe that institutions are not democratic enough themselves. There is a paradox for institutions to promote democracy outside, but they are not democratic inside. We work with that tension inside the administration.

One way to describe what a lab does is — it is about connecting to the ground, the ideal of reality of people but also connecting to the core of the administration.

Our goal is to go further and dig deeper into the administration. Ten years ago, we were only able to work with project managers. And then suddenly we find that there is a positive conspiracy which includes top managers and even politicians.

We have to go deeper into the culture of administration. If you only change the projects run by administration, you only remain on the surface level. The question is: How do you change the rituals of administration? Procurement? Project management? How do you change planning? How do you dig into the practice, the ritual, the practice of administration? How do you also redesign this? If we don’t do this, you are changing the outputs but you are not changing the tools people use.

CM: I’ve come to this kind of work from a background as a designer, as a social scientist. In theory, we are fundamentally activated by being design practitioners. Therefore a fundamental expectation is that we are one creating something which has some tangible existence. It could be digital, but still it’s a thing that can be interacted with and it is applied. You’re not making art, nor are we purely making strategy. We are making stuff that people can interact with and actually do things with.

So if we go too far into the space of just only redesigning the internal administrative systems without an explicit and strong core connection to how that then plays out in how a random person gets to do a thing in their life. Then I worry that we have lost track of one of our fundamental activating qualities.

SV: I agree with you in the political act of design. What we are trying to do is to create dialogue between political capacity of design as an art of creation and the management as something that is part of the programme in our administration.

And if you succeed in creating this dialogue, then it’s not just bringing the inventing new management tools. It is about bringing the capacity of critique and reflexibility. What we miss in administration is the capacity and spaces to be critical. So we consider design and our activity as a way to challenge and to interrogate. I think this is the activist part of this activity. Using these kind of approach as a way to hack, to challenge. Not using the labs, design and all this kind of thing to normalize or be just a new tool in the management.

CM: The reason why there’s no space for critique is because there is not actually a set of behaviors of iteration. Why would you critique if there is no space to make iterative improvements? What the designer can bring is a very strong professional and functional methodology around how to do iterative work which then allows critique to not be damning and shaming but rather turns critique into something generative.

SV: To do that efficiently, I think that the designer must have a sense of history of administration. One of the thing we do is designers or even with civil servants, is that we give them an overview of modernisation of states. So it gives an idea of why we are here now, Why the failure of the new public management?

And then say, why not trying something more interactive, more experimental? Because this is something that the state has never really tried. It’s important for designer to not just bring that capacity of creation but also have a certain understanding the story of modernization in state.

What we have is that a designer has a weak understanding of where administration comes from and we have administrations that doesn’t know themselves. So we work with historians to bring back the story and say, hey, it would be useful to have an idea of where we come from to see where we are going.