The Lab Exchange Series

Lab.  A word from the science field, that refers to the controlled conditions in which scientific or technological research, experiments, and measurement may be performed. The idea has since been applied in the social and public sector. There has been a lab movement in Europe and the US for the last ten years, both inside the government, i.e. Mindlab in Denmark or outside, i.e. MaRs Solution Lab in Canada. Recently, the UNDP announced they are setting up more than sixty Accelerator Labs all over the world, and ten of them will be in Asia, to re-imagine development for the 21st century.

Earlier this year, in January, international and local public sector innovation practitioners gathered in Hong Kong in the first event of its kind, the Jockey Club MaD Social Lab Symposium – Co-Creating the City: Innovating For Impact. In the context of Hong Kong – a divided society with growing resistance to government and the sense of powerlessness in the civil society – the MaD Social Lab serves as a new space for experimentation and, most importantly, dialogue among government, citizens and civil society to work together and re-imagine new public services and policies. Yet, this is just the beginning, what can be learnt from the best practices around the world to up the ante?

As co-curators of the symposium, SIX and MaD brought together four global experiences of “labs” to Hong Kong: Chelsea Mauldin from Public Policy Lab (New York), Carolyn Curtis from The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI, Australia), Stéphane Vincent from La 27e Région (Paris) and Rachel Yan from Make A Difference Institute (MaD, Hong Kong). 

We had the chance to speak with them at a cosy room in Tai Kwun (the former Central Police Station, now converted into a centre for heritage and arts for the public), a location that seemed appropriate for our conversation about the transformation of public institutions.

This is the first in a series of blogs, in which we will introduce the four speakers, the labs they represent and how they’re trying to change the system in their own context. 

The four labs  share a similar interest in public sector innovation and embracing an experimentation approach to pioneer social and public innovation. All four organisations adopt an iterative experimentation process with an aim to hack the system and to create change from different angles and levels. 

  • Public Policy Lab in New York employs a user-centered design innovation process towards service delivery and policy-making. They engage users, understand their needs, ideate and prototype. The process is iterative. Ultimately, they produce tangible or intangible products or services as outputs. 
  • La 27e Région in Paris aims to alter the culture of administration. One of their focuses is on building the capacities of the civil servants within the administration. They embrace the action-research concept by seeing civil servants as potential positive change agents in the system. They actively create space for critique and iteration. They believe creating this space is the way to change the rituals of the administration, not just the behaviour. 
  • TACSI is an Australian organisation, working with hard-to-reach and vulnerable groups to design policies and services. They build relationships with the community in ways and in places where the government is unable to reach. They  design new models and services by activating the lived experiences of the community.
  • The MaD Social Lab is one of the very first platforms for collaboration that reinvents public services between the government and the citizens in Hong Kong. At the social lab, great emphasis is put on collaboration. They team up civil servants and citizens in the innovation process, leveraging ethnographic methods to gather stories in the community. The platform becomes a space for conversation and understanding between both parties. New ideas or solutions evolve from these dialogues and are then put to the test. 

The following Lab Exchange Series, the four contributors share their experiences and thoughts around what it means to be a lab practitioner.