Tray of food - a metaphor for a portfolio of prototypes

A social lab is a… portfolio of prototypes

Welcome to our first in a series of posts exploring different aspects of social labs and the practice which drives them. This post is focused on one of the outputs of a social lab: a portfolio of prototypes.

This post looks at this topic through the lens of Grove 3547, which is a next-gen social lab in Chicago, focused on building resilient livelihoods for young people. Grove 3547 is a partnership between The Chicago Community Trust and Roller Strategies.

You can keep an eye on the posts as they are published here or sign up to our newsletter for updates in your inbox.

Why a portfolio of prototypes?

When you’re addressing complex challenges, the likelihood is that there is no clear picture of a ‘best way to intervene’, so instead of coming up with one single intervention, developing it and then finding that it doesn’t work, a social lab increases the likelihood of success by creating a portfolio of different responses (prototypes).

These prototypes are then field-tested, tweaked and improved, or discarded with the learnings from testing them then embedded into a new prototype. This iterative approach is a much more low-cost, effective way of developing, testing and evaluating the impact of each prototype, and working out how to respond, versus the likes of strategic planning responses which have very high failure rates.

Why focus on outcomes?

One of the questions we’re most often asked about social labs, is “if we invest in a social lab as a strategic response to a complex challenge, what are the outputs and outcomes?”.

The answer is that social labs generate multiple layers of value.

Executed well, social labs generate a range of different types of value, best described by Zaid Hassan in ‘The Social Labs Revolution’, when he talks about ‘The Capitals’.

In this article published by The Bridgespan Group, four capitals are identified:

  • physical capital (new services or infrastructure)
  • human capital (new capacities and skills)
  • social capital (increased trust and collaboration)
  • intellectual capital (new knowledge and learning)

These outputs are created both by the activities of the lab itself, such as new connections and training participants in certain skills and methods, but also by the participants as they form teams and start to create responses.

The participants form ‘lab teams’, who then generate a portfolio of prototypes to address the challenge set by the social lab. These prototypes often characterise the physical capital generated by the lab, but they will also play a significant role in creating the impact which will characterise the outcomes of the lab.

If prototypes are outputs, what about outcomes?

Before lab teams form and develop their prototypes, it’s difficult to say what the outcomes of a social lab will be.

Any organisation, consultant or initiative which claims they can guarantee outcomes to a complex problem is essentially misleading you, as no one can predict precisely how people and social systems will respond to a new intervention. This is why planning-based approaches have such high failure rates – they’re predictive, in a time when increasing complexity means that predictability is reducing.

Just because you can’t predict outcomes, doesn’t mean there aren’t any. In fact, a social lab like Grove 3547 will have outcomes associated with each of the prototypes (more about that in a bit), as well as the lab itself generating its own outcomes through storytelling and events. Social labs act as platforms for tackling complex problems over the course of years, by supporting multiple cycles of these Lab teams to generate prototypes, test them, and improve them.

Creating prototypes at Grove 3547

Practically, the Grove 3547 went through a process to support the first wave of participants to generate their prototypes. Here’s Nathan Heintz, Grove 3547 coach, on how it unfolded:

“Earlier this year, our team at Roller and The Chicago Community Trust cast a wide net, reached out to the community and engaged with the local community to find people who were up for a challenge. The resulting participants of Grove 3547 are a group of activists, entrepreneurs, students, community leaders, representatives from local institutions and concerned citizens.

Before the participants joined us, we conducted 50 long-form dialogue interviews and spoke with people at countless nonprofit organizations, research institutions, legal firms, youth development and educational resource centers, and colleges. We asked the people we spoke with to join us in a creative, collaborative process to try and shift the social challenges impacting the South Side. And the response was overwhelming.

When we came together during the kickoff workshop in September, only a few people in the room knew each other. At first, there was a certain amount of tension between the participants. But as we began the process, interviewing one another, brainstorming together, getting to know each other, and sharing our perspectives on what’s wrong and what’s needed on the South Side of Chicago they began to see that they shared a great deal of common ground and a number of common visions.

We saw participants of the Grove begin to resonate and reflect one another’s perspectives, see that their perspectives were shared across the entire social system and they began to gel into teams. On the afternoon of the second day of the kickoff workshop, the Grove teams did a clustering exercise, brainstorming solutions to what’s happening in their neighborhoods. Out of this exercise five teams formed, which are now known as Bronzeville Bridge, Bronzeville Voice, Bronzeville Steam, Justice/Just Us, and Bronzeville Live, all with a common purpose of helping young people develop resilient livelihoods in Chicago.

The teams of Grove 3547 are working on mentoring programs, art and music spaces, restorative justice centers hosting dialogues between youth and police, and youth leadership projects empowering young people to establish and run their projects and programs.”

About the Grove 3547 teams

At this stage of the lab (not yet half way), the teams have been developing their first prototypes and exploring how best to test them. Here’s a short video about Johnny Hart, who is part of the Bronzeville Bridge team:

Bronze Bridge: Pop-Up Recording Studio for Emerging Artists In Bronzeville from Grove3547 on Vimeo.

Here is a short overview of the other teams and their prototypes, which can be found on the Grove 3547 site here, to give you a sense for the sorts of projects which may emerge from a social lab:


Our group is working on creating the space and opportunity for young artists in Bronzeville to deepen their skills and develop a creative livelihood. Two ideas that our group is currently testing are:

A pop-up recording studio. We’re building a pop-up recording studio so that young musicians can have a space to refine their sound and translate their skills into finished products, demos, and albums. This prototype could evolve into a cooperatively owned Bronzeville record label or a musician owned recording studio providing a safe culturally-relevant space to work on music and sound-based art.

Our other idea is a visual arts space providing studio space, training and materials to young artists who wish to refine their craft into a profession. We’re going to start by offering immersive trips to art studio spaces throughout Chicago to meet with professional artists and visit programs with youth from Bronzeville to get their input as to what kind of program is most needed in the neighborhood.


Bronzeville Live wishes to ensure that young people in Bronzeville have a voice in how Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) work to support them in developing resilient livelihoods.

We’re convening a series of events not only to connect youth with CBOs but also to get in touch with their richest and deepest thoughts and feelings about what is needed in their communities. We want to support young people in participating wholeheartedly as leaders in the process of creating change in Bronzeville and beyond.


As our group set out to work together in supporting young people in Chicago to develop resilient livelihoods, many of us continually returned to the question, “Have we asked and listened to the young people in what they need to be resilient?” Many programs and initiatives for the young adults often were not designed with the input of the young people. This dynamic, while well-intended, has the potential for irrelevance and disconnection. Our theory of change is that as listen to the young people of Bronzeville to express what they view as assets in their community, we can begin to create the space than ask what they envision to be fully engaged in their community.

As young people become more engaged in civic life, they can hope for a healthy, more resilient life. They will then feel empowered to create more opportunities. We hope to do this by organizing a series of meet-ups in the Bronzeville community. Our initial focus is to process of engaging the young people —and as we gather more data, we will evolve into an output directly created by and for them. Maybe it will be an urban garden or a mobile sound studio or a public art gallery—whatever it is, it will be driven by the ideas of Bronzeville’s young adults.


Bronzeville STEAM has come to understand that a significant barrier hindering resilient livelihoods for young people (ages 16-24) in Bronzeville is a disconnection from their history and the cultural significance of their community. This disconnection has led to civic disengagement and a lack of opportunity.

Our team aims to help them make the connection through heritage/cultural immersion as well as technology and digital storytelling tools. Long-term we are exploring the possibility of establishing a internship or fellowship experience. This fellowship would be designed to increase leadership skills and foster civic engagement through training, cultural exploration and opportunities to celebrate Bronzeville’s history, art, culture, commerce and business.

Near-term our goal is to establish a day-long program to empower young people to better understand, tell and document the stories of Bronzeville. Participants will explore various historic sites, businesses and cultural institutions. The program will culminate with participants engaged in a our pop up “maker’s lab” where they will use digital tools to document their experience through photography, videos, audio podcasts, t-shirts, and other digital storytelling tools.


We believe the burden of creating a safe environment cannot sit squarely on the police. It must be a shared responsibility.

We seek to gather people together, across sectors, to work on community safety as a shared concern. After collecting over 75 surveys from various Bronzeville residents and stakeholders we learned that the primary participants in this effort should be youth and police.

We are working on hosting an initial gathering with youth and police in a community-based location to create the foundation for a safe space for the community to actively participate and take responsibility for a Safer Bronzeville!

Outcomes of Grove 3547

It’s too early to tell what the outcomes of these prototypes will be. Typically an evaluation approach which is focused on emergence is the best way to track the teams work over time, and establish the impact they have. We’ll report back in the future with updates as they’re available.


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