Lab Matters: Challenging the practice of social innovation laboratories

This article was originally posted on Kennisland website here.

Just Lab It?

Social innovation labs are ‘hallelujah-ed’ as the latest vehicles for transforming the way our cities, our schools, our welfare programs, and even our economic systems run. Yet we, lab practitioners, encounter a lack of critical literature and struggle to find learning spaces to improve our practices and deepen our knowledge. The paper “Lab Matters: Challenging the practice of social innovation laboratories” aims to move beyond the current lab hype and deepen our discussions by asking ourselves tough questions. How do we ‘lab’ social challenges? Does labs’ pursuit of systemic impact miss the point? And how could we better prompt social change?

Our questioning raises four fundamental issues that seem to remain under-emphasized in our writing, thinking, and actions. They are particularly present in four areas of our lab practices: outcomes (we are falling prey to solutionism), focus (we tend to overlook the power of politics), goals (we over-emphasize the scaling of solutions while we under-emphasize scaling of ideas, values and ethics) and representation (we cover up the messy nature of human beings). To strengthen our lab practices, we conclude the paper with ten practical suggestions. Together we hope to build a global knowledge community that could support our social labs in moving forward.

How this paper came about

“Lab Matters” is written by Kennisland, with the support of Hivos. Kennisland is currently developing Social R&D Testbeds, in cooperation with InWithForwardHivos is a development cooperation organisation and works globally with social labs and creative spaces. In 2013 Hivos and Kennisland joined forces to convene our mutual need for deeper knowledge on lab practices, with labs, for labs. For example by organizing “Lab2: A Lab about Labs”. Together with 40 practitioners from 20 social labs, residing on 6 continents, we set out to explore and challenge our world views, ideas and practices. In addition, we also held extensive follow-up conversations with lab practitioners, drew from our own engagement in lab initiatives, and employed insights from the available literature. “Lab Matters” is a direct product of these efforts.

The near future

Our quest for new knowledge won’t stop with “Lab Matters”. Kennisland, Hivos, Natural Innovation and Warwick Business School have just finished our experiment with collaborative writing and authorship through a booksprint. We locked ourselves up for 4 days at an English countryside farm, together with 12 seasoned practitioners from 8 experienced labs, to learn how we practically deal with the aforementioned fundamental challenges. Stay tuned for our upcoming co-created book “Lab Craft”!