All posts by Zaid Hassan

Guest Blog: Can Social Innovation be Learned in School?

Can Social Innovation be Learned in School?

Five Lessons from CIRAL, Evergreen’s Civic Intelligence Research and Action Laboratory

By Douglas Schuler

One of the things that I like so much about CIRAL is the sense of limitless possibility. — Mattea Kline

Based on our experience running CIRAL, the Civic Intelligence Research and Action Laboratory, over the past three years at the Evergreen State College we believe that the ability to practice social innovation can be learned in school — but it can’t be taught. Instead, we need environments where social innovation is encouraged and cultivated, in which students test and apply theory and other formal learning within real-world situations.

These environments complement traditional educational approaches and because the practice of social innovation can only be learned by attempting it, through experimenting and improvising and collaborating with people, tools, ideas and situations, social innovation is not merely another subject which can be added to the curriculum.

Students in CIRAL work together in small groups (called clusters) to envision and develop their own projects that focus on civic intelligence — the capacity for groups to address significant shared problems effectively and equitably (Schuler 2001).

These projects are limited only by the imagination of the students. There has been wide diversity in the more than 30 projects so far. Examples include an anti-bullying game, video explorations of community health at Evergreen, anti-patterns (which identify and document social mechanisms that maintain oppression in society), public panel discussions and forums, software that supports group deliberation, city ambassadors, housing for disabled veterans, activist road trips, a campaign for a new student union constitution, an on-campus homelessness survey, and many others. Some of the approximately 20 student-originated clusters include Homelessness, Education, Community Health, Pattern Languages, and 15 – 20 others. We also have an overarching cluster, the “Home Office,” that is responsible for managing our weekly meetings, implementing participant suggestions for improving CIRAL, marketing the program on campus and in the community, and producing and archiving resources for future participants.

A critical part of our approach is the weekly assembly. The faculty member opens the assembly with a brief status report that includes reminders, opportunities, and challenges.

The Fresh Sheet, CIRAL’s weekly newspaper, which contains brief reports from the clusters (and provides an historical record) is then distributed. Then, liaisons from each cluster give brief reports, which are followed by cluster meetings. We were happy to learn that sharing reports from the clusters in our assemblies helped build shared consciousness and additional collaboration among the clusters.

Civic Intelligence

To put civic intelligence into practice requires thought and action. Although this specific focus isn’t required for these educational labs, we’ve found it to be extremely useful. (And most students in CIRAL have taken or are taking civic intelligence for one more terms.) A focus on civic intelligence in an educational venue challenges the educational business as usual model. It’s not really appropriate to only study civic intelligence.


While civic intelligence requires knowledge of various sorts, we have learned there are at least four other important types of capabilities that need developing. These types (illustrated below) are typically not addressed in traditional educational settings. And the diverse capabilities that support these types include courage, motivation, civic purpose, a collaborative spirit, and self-efficacy, as well as other attributes such as access to social networks, diversity, creativity, and leadership. Social imagination and the ability to engage in social critique are also important.

Diverse Capacities That Help Support Civic Intelligence

Five Lessons

There seems to be a strong link between social labs (Hassan 2014) and CIRAL. One way to think about this relationship is to see CIRAL as an educational version of a social lab; one could even view CIRAL as preparation for participation in the social labs that Hassan describes. And although education is still CIRAL’s preeminent goal and takes precedence over working for positive social change, the focus on social change is critical — it provides both motivation and an endless source of critical real-world challenges for CIRAL to consider. The CIRAL experiment has been a success, both for the community and for student participants. At the same time CIRAL participation seems to lead to relevant employment opportunities for students and contributes to positive social change. We’ve identified five lessons that account for this success. Ideally these lessons will be useful for students, faculty members, and school administrators who are hoping to launch educational labs of their own — realizing, of course, that the circumstances are likely to vary at each institution and organizers may choose to prioritize objectives or methods differently. Nevertheless we believe that these five lessons work together synergistically; taken as a group they encourage a healthy lab with lively, engaged participants.

1. Focus on Civic Intelligence This non-negotiable constraint (for CIRAL) stipulates that the projects that the clusters develop use, explore, and advance civic intelligence. The focus on civic intelligence, and on increasing the capacity of other groups to solve their own problems, provides a broad but unifying foundation for our work, and ensures that the value of our work extends beyond the classroom, both geographically and temporally.

2. Collaboration is Central All of our projects are intended to be collaborative. These collaborations engage faculty members, students, and community members who are stakeholders in the various projects, sustain the lab community and build critical skills. We also practice a sort of collaboration over time. Unlike more traditional approaches to education, where every term is brand new, where one set of students is routinely replaced by a new one and all of the work of the previous term is forgotten, we consciously try to systematically capture useful knowledge and insight on which future members can build. Ideally, our project participants should not only focus on the immediate project goals but also help further refine the model of CIRAL, and also think carefully about what resources the cluster can pass forward to future CIRAL participants.

3. Student Ownership When students feel that the lab belongs to them and that they can change it for the better, they are much more likely to work to promote the lab and to find ways to improve it. We owe many of our positive changes in the lab’s processes and identity to this deep relationship. This feeling of ownership has been demonstrated in other ways as well. Some students, for example, are attempting on their own to establish CIRAL-like labs in other institutions.

4. Persistence One of the goals for CIRAL has been to actually persist and to be offered every term. When this is the case students can plan ahead for lab participation. It also means that projects — and the involvement of students — can extend beyond a single term. When students can stick with a project — and the lab itself — over multiple terms (and, here, the availability of flexible credit hours becomes important), they can provide valuable lab memory and lessons learned to newer participants. The evolution of the community health project demonstrates why the extra time is often important. During winter term of 2014, students recognized that they wanted to create a community health cluster and began exploring the field. At that point there were no obvious signs that an exciting project was imminent. In the following quarter, the idea of community health — in all its manifestations — at Evergreen became a campus-wide focus and the cluster quickly realized that this was the opportunity they were looking for. They launched an ambitious project that combined documentary film-making with ethnography. The project proved so compelling that half a dozen students — including students from other clusters and, even students not formally in CIRAL — were putting in 30 or more hours a week on the project.

5. Cross-Fertilize and Evolve CIRAL is a new organizational entity that is designed for conscious evolution. Because the labs and the clusters can persist over time and because the structure and orientation of the lab itself is explicitly malleable, this approach establishes something like a permanent test-bed for an institution to try out new ideas. This is especially true if more than one research and action lab exists at an institution.

Challenges for Educational Labs

The challenges facing educational labs are diverse and impossible to ignore. For one thing, because of institutional inertia, one of the hardest challenges might be actually starting one! But once the lab is operational new challenges arise. For one thing the labs need to attract students who long to be more instrumental in shaping their education and those who want to work with others on projects with potential real-world consequences. While these concepts may seem alien to many faculty members who have come to expect students who have been trained to be docile, there still seem to be many who would flourish in a more active and engaged environment. We have also noted that many students only learn that they too have this longing when they are given an opportunity to actually act upon it.

CIRAL flyer1

Poster for College-wide Homelessness Survey

Faculty members might not like everything about the lab. Some who participate in the labs may find their workload increased — but their pay. And if the model promotes more student autonomy faculty control and authority within the lab may be diminished, which could be uncomfortable or even intolerable for some. The faculty member will also need to suffer a certain amount of muddling — even though this sometimes turns out not to be actual muddling! Education in the lab should be relatively safe and “failure” should actually be an option. Having said that, faculty members have an obligation to help steer students — generally with a light touch — in their projects. Faculty members will need to anticipate the need for a heavier touch on occasion, especially when the stakes are higher, such as with community work or work requiring human subject review. Another perceived barrier is that labs similar to CIRAL seem to require faculty “omnicompetence” since the skills and knowledge that students might need at a given time might be in areas that the faculty member feels unprepared to support. But, of course, nobody knows everything! Faculty well-roundedness and the ability to improvise, plus access to foundational material (“How to Conduct Qualitative Research”, “What is Asset Mapping” for example) and helpful, thoughtful colleagues can be invaluable when it comes to handling these inevitable circumstances.

It probably goes without saying that not every student or faculty member would choose to participate in a research and action lab. That being said, providing a research and action action lab opens up possibilities for students and faculty members who are interested in hands on project-related work or other work that influences the “real world.” These labs can’t function well without adequate numbers of faculty members to conduct them or students who are interested in attending them. In most cases the student population is there and that the faculty resources necessary for this adventure would muster for this as well.

Evergreen State College, a non-traditional liberal arts college with a focus on theory and practice makes it an obvious choice for a lab like CIRAL. But even at Evergreen this approach can be a hard sell to many of the faculty and administrators. It was only when a new institutional form, the undergraduate research option, was made available that CIRAL in its basic form could be readily launched. In other words, it is probably easier to adapt an existing educational option than to devise a new one to establish a lab at your institution. Creating a new option, may be the only way to go if no other suitable option exists. In either case, we need successful models to point to. We also need to identify allies. Circumstances will vary but enlisting faculty members from other disciplines who, for example, would like to work with undergraduate students on various projects, is probably in order. And students themselves may be willing to bring up this idea with faculty members, other students, and administrators.

Although many Evergreen students may relish this opportunity to blaze their own educational paths, the research and action lab opportunity is not an option in most schools. In fact, I have been told by faculty members from all over the world that developing a lab similar to CIRAL at their institution was simply unthinkable. While labs like CIRAL, are — I would argue — indispensable for 21st century education, the fact remains, however that the obstacles they face are substantial. Administrative, cultural, and psychological barriers exist that can’t be wished away. Launching educational alternatives — especially in an era of compulsive testing and the sanctification of science, mathematics, and technology — are unlikely to be friction free. These forces in fact echo to a large degree the swimming upstream nature of cultivating civic intelligence in society. Social progress comes both slowly and all at once, but as Frederick Douglass observed, never without a struggle.

The fear I didn’t even know I had has dissipated. I no longer think of issues in my life as immovable, but instead jump immediately to identifying patterns and thinking of possible resolutions or improvements. — Anne Belson

Towards an Educational Research and Action Labs Movement

Establishing a single lab at a college or university can be an important complement to the other offerings. And although I’m a fervent advocate of this, the Internet — and 21st century realities — suggest many compelling directions for a new educational labs movement.

The idea of multiple labs within a given school seems to be one obvious possibility. Consciously thinking about a network of labs could help establish an evolutionary environment for social innovation at that institution. Although the various research and action labs would ideally (in my opinion) follow the same general guidelines, one of the important aspects of the approach would be the development of some body (and/or mechanisms or processes) that would help coordinate the research and action activities of the various labs. Although the labs themselves could change over time (thus presenting an immediately relevant and accessible “natural experiment”), the network of labs that also would be created is also potentially a source for educational and institutional learning. The individual labs as well as the various networks could be developing toolkits of ideas and resources to help students with their projects. The structure and orientation of a variety of labs could, for example, help the school better understand the role of technology within their educational framework. It could also be used to explore different approaches to working with remote or peripatetic outposts, working with the community or with graduates or other people and groups beyond the immediate region. And now that we’re here, why not explore the idea of networking the networks? This notion, while somewhat utopian, is not necessarily implausible. We are seeing new organizational forms daily made possible by new information and communication technologies. Labs built on cooperative principles that are focused on research and action may not be so farfetched as we think.

Finally, CIRAL and new educational labs, new potential networks (and networks of networks) could help address the disquieting aspect that within educational institutions there are virtually no evolutionary paths for their development — especially ones in which students are active agents in the process. The lab model that we have piloted at Evergreen could provide a basic model which could be adopted to local circumstances. My students and I will continue to push forward with CIRAL, and our hope is that our effort will spread at Evergreen and beyond. We’ve talked about the possibility and desirability of expanding beyond our current borders. Many questions need to be asked. How should these labs be organized? What relationships could they have with other educational labs? Could people at other locations join local clusters? Should faculty members be trained differently? What are your ideas and plans and projects? We make the future by building it. — Tim Berners-Lee


Hassan, Zaid. 2014. The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving Our Most Complex Challenges. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler Publishing.

Schuler, Douglas (Summer 2001), “Cultivating Society’s Civic Intelligence: Patterns for a New “World Brain”, Journal of Society, Information and Communication 4 (2).

Putting the Social Into Social Labs

Putting the Social Into Social Labs

Why social labs? Why not “change labs” or “social innovation labs”?

There are many generic terms for labs floating around in addition to change lab, such as innovation labs, social innovation labs, societal innovation labs, leadership labs and so on. Indeed, in our work we had until now referred to the labs we ran as “change labs.” Why introduce a new term, “social labs”?

One of my key ambitions in writing “The Social Labs Revolution” was to try and provide real grounding for the practice of “lab” work that I have been involved in over the last decade and a half.

A strategy for doing this was through grounding the book into the concept of the “social” – which the associated field being the “social sciences.” This also allows “social” labs to be contrasted to “technical” or “natural science” labs.

In contrast, “change” is not an academic field and neither (really) is “innovation.” I believed that the terms “change lab” or even “social innovation labs” fails to sufficiently and clearly ground the phenomenon of “labs” in both a discourse or a field of practice.

For example, if I used those terms ie the “change lab revolution” – the book and perhaps the wider field would at best be associated with business or management consulting literature. This, for me, is an inaccurate representation of “labs” practice – in that business alone is too narrow a base of practice.

For the longest time I was in a constructive debate with my publisher about what social labs were. They initially wanted to position the book as being about a new methodology, not dissimilar to World Café or Open Space. I argued against this, saying that social labs were not a new methodology.

Eventually we came to an agreement that social labs were indeed not a new methodology, but a “big idea” or more accurately a new paradigm.

Steve, my editor, started talking about social labs as a “meta-idea” that actually connects the work of multiple BK authors. What does that mean?

Think of a traditional scientific or technical lab. They are not “methods” but rather places where multiple methodologies are applied to problems.

Traditional labs are of-course “places” but more than that they represent a paradigm for how we address a particular type of problem.

Similarly, social labs are a paradigm, a particular way of thinking about complex social challenges. Within social labs (just like any other labs) a wide range of techniques and methodologies may be used. So for example we may be World Café, or circle or Open Space or any number of methodologies.

Hence, we have scientific and technical labs to solve scientific and technical problems, we need social labs to address complex social challenges.

The second reason, which I outlined briefly in my book was that I saw “change labs” as “first generation social labs.” “Change labs are first-generation social labs. They’re prototypes because they draw on a relatively narrow base of approaches, whereas next-generation social labs draw on a much wider range.”

Are social labs a fashion?

Every second social intervention seems to be using the word “lab” to describe themselves. Does this mean that social labs are old news?

Are scientific, technical or medical labs old news? Yes, they are but of-course they are more relevant than ever. A scientist does not say, “oh not a lab, we used to have labs 100 years ago.”

Part of the challenge with labs is seeing them in light of market logic. I believe lab-practice is moving from a niche to a mainstream market. Life in a mainstream market is very different from life in a niche market, servicing early adapters and mavericks. I believe that with this shift from niche to mainstream, the market for our work and for labs will only grow.

We need to stop seeing labs as just another consultant driven fad or fashion, to seeing it as a new paradigm, a new way of addressing complex social challenges.

Going back to the analogy with scientific labs – there are many techniques employed in scientific labs – the idea of the lab is not a methodology but a paradigm, a way of thinking that informs a practice.


Guest Blog: Five Lessons from The Social Innovation Lab for Kent (SILK)

By Emma Barrett Palmer

5 Lessons from SILK

At a secondary school in Guadeloupe, Caribbean (2004): Why don’t you work together? … Well, we just never have. Dominican students sit on that table. Students from Martinique sit on that table. Students from Guadeloupe sit on this table.

Ten years later in Kent, UK (2014): Why don’t you work together? … Well, we try to. But Care Managers are in that building. Nurses work from that hospital. Teachers are in the Schools and Police are down the road.

This is the context in which SILK works. Lots of great people… working separately.

I have been in the founding team since 2007 and coordinating the SILK work programme since 2009.

Initially with a primary aim to reconnect people’s day to day life experiences to policy makers, the Social Innovation Lab for Kent was, and still is, an experiment in doing things differently, from within a government setting.

7 years since inception, SILK is going from strength to strength. Our current work programme to develop Kent as a Dementia Friendly Community is a true whole systems approach to change. This involves people living with dementia and their families and carers at the heart of a county wide approach involving emergency services, GP surgeries, pharmacies, schools and colleges, museums, libraries, high street shops and markets.

SILK is not your traditional ‘Lab’. We don’t have a white room; rather, as observed by our resident Mental Health Nurse, our ‘Lab’ is the community of Kent, a region of 1.4m people South East of London. We have 3 permanent members of staff and a rolling project team currently with experience in nursing and mental health, domestic violence and policing, social care quality and commissioning and hotel and event management. The team is agile, intuitive, responsive, smart and well-connected, and significantly part of a diverse network which includes specialists and generalists from all fields in both a professional and informal voluntary capacity.

Our Starting With People Methodology, and Method Deck, inspired by design-thinking and informed by two demonstration projects in 2007, have remained reassuringly the same, in an ever changing landscape. Yet, significantly, what was designed as a Planning Tool, we are now primarily using to record and capture the participatory process – ‘the how’ – after it has happened.

The Diamond Framework can be adapted to suit initiatives across Strategy, Service Design and Sustainable activity, providing a consistent structure. However, deep down we are fierce advocates of the Blank Canvas approach. We have never needed the Method Deck to kickstart a community meeting!

5 Lessons from SILK

1. Organic and adaptable – freedom to change
SILK is demand-led; it becomes what we need it to be. Editing films, designing websites, hosting events, telling stories, making cakes, publishing books, chairing board meetings, remodelling services, writing reports, translating terminology and making connections. Every project we do involves people with direct lived experience participating alongside us. If others want to do the task in hand, we step out the way.

2. Keeping it real and making it relevant
We are exploring difficult issues alongside the people that know them best. The team’s resilience is always reenergised and reinvigorated by the stories we hear and the support we get from the inspirational people we work alongside. Our role is to make sure these voices are heard, listened to and influential.

Each project becomes a shared experience; identifying weaknesses but then opportunities to make it better. Our role is as facilitators and translators, but also to keep the aspiration alive. How can we make this work? “Are we allowed to do this?” we were asked by a community group setting up R Shop.

3. Everyone as an equal contributor
We don’t want our work to reinforce labels about ‘us and them’. We aim to put the whole system under the spotlight, that includes reflection on institutional systems as much as community analysis. Labs present a huge opportunity for whole system reflection – at SILK we are walking a fine tightrope between cultures and organisational systems, listening and translating. A common language is a critical in enabling a common ground for equal participation. The word ‘contributor’ is used deliberately. We want people involved who will genuinely add value; we work with a coalition of the willing, we don’t bang on closed doors.

4. New collaborations – new perspectives

The award-winning Dementia Diaries looks at Dementia from the perspective of young carers, grandchildren who have family members living with dementia. Working across cultural boundaries, bringing together diverse groups and challenging perspectives can be hard. But the results can also be spectacular. The Dementia Diaries Editorial Board includes all participating grandchildren and families – find a recent article here

5. Always whole system

The holistic whole systems approach is a more efficient and effective use of everyone’s resources.
But again it is difficult not to belong to any gang – the designers, the anthropologists, the systems thinkers, the innovation specialists. We’re not social workers, housing officers, community development workers, teachers; the role we play as yet has no description. But there are people who ‘get it’ because it makes sense.

#StartingwithPeople is our strap line. We are perfecting the art of getting people to work well together. By seeing people as assets, as people with likes and dislikes and not merely illnesses or problems, starts to reorganise people away from hierarchies, silos and duplication, towards a ‘Lab model which cuts horizontally across discipline and sector boundaries. SILK is a Lab with humanity at its heart – we are revealing a priceless economy.

Click here to learn more about SILK

Notes From A Revolution

When I first proposed the word “revolution” as part of the title to my book, one of my early readers asked me if use of the word wasn’t simply a marketing cliché. “No,” I protested, “there really is a revolution going on!” “Hmmm,” came the skeptical response.

And revolution feels like a rather a tired meme these days. The vibrancy of the idea has faded somewhat as the energies of the Arab Spring have devolved into sordid political realities and the ongoing massacre in Syria.

Is revolution really an accurate description of what’s going on?

This was one of the questions travelling with me as I flew across the Atlantic to kick off the Social Labs Revolution Tour in early February 2014.

Since then I’ve visited over two dozen cities, engaging in hundreds of conversations, as part of the tour. The most unexpected part of my travels was meeting the spirit of revolution on the road.

Instead of a tired, worn out meme, I met a different force, unlike the revolutionary spirit I both had seen and imagined revolution to look like. Instead of a spectacular force, visible, loud, and swaggering, the spirit of this particular revolution has another colour and texture; invisible in so many ways, yet assertive, curious, bubbling with a spirit of enquiry, bursting forth with not so much answers but relentless questions. And very much alive.

What sort of revolution is this then? It doesn’t feel like a political revolution, even though it’s obviously political in nature. It feels different from the performative energy of say, Tahrir Square – one touchstone for revolution in our times. The world’s press are not camped out filming revolutionaries do righteous battle. No, it isn’t that sort of revolution.

It feels more like a quiet revolution. Perhaps even a secret revolution. One that is slowly changing things. Only those who are awake to its nuances, it’s art and it’s music, to it’s discourse, notice something is profoundly changing.

Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions writing over half a century ago provides the most accurate description I’ve come across of what I see happening:

A scientific revolution that results in paradigm change is analogous to a political revolution. Political revolutions begin with a growing sense by members of the community that existing institutions have ceased adequately to meet the problems posed by an environment that they have in part created. The dissatisfaction with existing institutions is generally restricted to a segment of the political community. Political revolutions aim to change political institutions in ways that those institutions themselves prohibit. As crisis deepens, individuals commit themselves to some concrete proposal for the reconstruction of society in a new institutional framework. Competing camps and parties form. One camp seeks to defend the old institutional constellation. One (or more) camps seek to institute a new political order. As polarisation occurs, political recourse fails. Parties to a revolutionary conflict finally resort to the techniques of mass persuasion.

One the one hand was the dominant response, what I thought of as “strategic planning.” “Planning,” with it’s neo-Soviet command & control character is rooted firming in the early 20th Century. On the other hand was a more experimental approach, poorly named, “prototyping,” rooted in the complexity represented by the messy dawn of the 21st century.

Where planning is predictive, prototyping understands the future as inherently emergent, where planning is represented by formal schema, prototyping takes a trial and error approach, and where planning demands detachment and objectivity, prototyping encourages participation and “skin-in-the-game.”

These two “camps” represent paradigms in the Kuhnian sense.

And here I was – on book tour. Of-course techniques of mass persuasion have changed somewhat since Kuhn published Structure in 1962. But beyond that what Kuhn describes felt very familiar. He continues:

Like the choice between competing political institutions, that between competing paradigms proves to be a choice between fundamentally incompatible modes of community life.

What is the process by which a new candidate for paradigm replaces its predecessor? At the start, a new candidate for paradigm may have few supporters (and the motives of the supporters may be suspect). If the supporters are competent, they will improve the paradigm, explore its possibilities, and show what it would be like to belong to the community guided by it. For the paradigm destined to win, the number and strength of the persuasive arguments in its favour will increase. As more and more scientists are converted, exploration increases. The number of experiments, instruments, articles, and books based on the paradigm will multiply.

More scientists, convinced of the new view’s fruitfulness, will adopt the new mode of practising normal science, until only a few elderly hold-outs remain. And we cannot say that they are (or were) wrong. Perhaps the scientist who continues to resist after the whole profession has been converted has ipso facto ceased to be a scientist.

Labs are the most visible form of this new paradigm. In a sense the form, the architecture of the lab, is simply the tip of the proverbial iceberg. What gives labs life is the underlying practice, in turn based on an underlying paradigm, prototyping. What is at stake is nothing less then “a choice between fundamentally incompatible modes of community life.”

La lucha continua.

Challenging the Practice, Badly

A reluctant review of “Lab Matters: Challenging the practice of social innovation laboratories” by Marlieke Kieboom, Kennisland

“This paper first gives a diverse overview of different lab practice. Second, it identifies and discusses four common omissions, namely that labs are falling prey to solutionism, tend to overlook the power of politics, overemphasize scaling of solutions, and underestimate the messy nature of human beings. The paper concludes with ten practical suggestions for social labs to move forward.”

A Weary Confession

“Discourses are practices which systematically form the objects of which they speak.” – Foucault

I started reading this paper with a lot of excitement. I was looking forward to being stretched by a well-thought out series of challenges, to genuinely learning something new. Who can argue with the notion that we need to look critically at our own practices? That energy left me like an overinflated balloon exploding. And it wasn’t remotely because I was challenged.

The intention behind this paper cannot really be faulted. The substance, the crux of the argument, is largely hot air – a lot of puffing around a set of badly constructed straw-man arguments. Not entirely but mostly. I was immediately reminded of the old adage “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The simple summary would be that this paper is a triumph of intention over substance.

Good intentions are not enough.

For those who don’t want to wade through the details here’s a summary of the 4 core problems with this paper:

1. The paper rests on an evidence-base that is very weak (or non-existent).

2. The critiques presented are inconsistent, internally contradictory and generally confused.

3. The author is blissfully unaware that, in some cases, decades of work has been done on the critiques she raises.

4. The author has constructed a straw man argument, which she spends pages and pages knocking down.

5. The author provides no account of their own experience or practice, leaving us guessing as to the ground on which their criticism rests.

Where’s the evidence?

This paper makes a set of accusations against a relatively young field accompanied by an almost endless series of grandiose claims with little or nothing that passes as evidence. And making such accusations without being grounded in anything that even vaguely passes as evidence, data, phenomenon, or as disciplined observation masks a very basic failure to understand the nature of good feedback. (Oh and I’m restraining myself from typing this in caps. Surely any undergraduate knows that URLs do not constitute evidence? Can I say it again? URLs do not constitute evidence.)

The preamble to the paper states that “‘Lab Matters’ stems from insights, experiences, and findings gathered at the event ‘Lab2: a lab about labs’ (organized by Kennisland and Hivos) in which 40 practitioners from 20 social change labs gathered in Amsterdam to learn from each other and exchange ideas.” It isn’t clear how a 2-day (undocumented?) conversation is the source of little more than anecdotal evidence. I’m sure many things were discussed and much of it was interesting. But really, does that constitute the basis for a 44-page paper castigating an entire field?

A typical example of the acute lack of evidence is as follows, this one used to back up the claim that lab-practices are apolitical: “This was also observed by Lab2 participant Anna Lochard (27e Region) after closing the event: “I tried to bring the question of the political visions of our organizations up, but it is obviously a concern that is both really French and linked to our action in the public sector. I would love the other labs to realize that they are acting also politically…”

Ermm what? Hold up.  So you ran a workshop and someone said something that confirmed what you believe? That’s evidence?  I think not.

I’ve never met Anna Lochard. I mean, who is to say what Anna meant when she made her comment? Citing her in this manner seems a little decontextualised and a little unfair. Maybe she has spent the last decade secretly studying all the labs (really?) that everyone in the lab-field (what’s that anyways?) has worked on but that’s news to me.

This selective, anecdotal and depressing confirmation bias is what passes for evidence throughout the entire paper.

Critiquing diverse monocultures thinly

In addition to confirmation bias, the paper falls under the weight of its own inconsistencies.

The paper constantly refers to the “varied” and “diverse” lab landscape. Instead of actually describing the landscape of these “varied” practices the author provides us with a single paragraph listing lots of “labs” and then proceeds to describe in a numbered list a single, abstract, de-contextualized set of principles and practice.

If lab practice is indeed as varied as the paper claims – and as varied indeed as I believe it is – then where all of a sudden did this flimsy mono-cultural description of a “lab” come from? What are these diverse practices? Does the 2-day “lab” the author ran meet this description? Why does the author list a random collection of “labs”? What’s so special about this list? Is it because they all have the word “lab” in their name? What does the author mean by a “lab”? Is it a brand? Once again, it’s impossible to tell, because there’s nothing that could be mistaken for an evidence base.

I’m guessing that the author means to describe a practice or rather a set of practices. Instead of doing so, providing, for example, some “thick” descriptions of the lab-practice being criticized, we get a very, very “thin” set of abstractions.

Welcome to the party

Don’t get me wrong. There is probably some truth to the very grave accusations being made here. Unfortunately it’s impossible to tell from the evidence presented in the paper – because there is none. Instead I have to rely on what I know and am aware of. We’ll return to the question of how grave the accusations made actually are.

If I stick simply to my own practice, to what I’ve written, what I’ve been saying publicly, and the conversations I’ve been involved in, then I would say that many of the issues raised by the author are ongoing conversations.

In fact many of these issues are covered in my 2014 book “The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving Our Most Complex Challenges.” The author cites my book a few times. Bizarrely, this is only in instances when they disagree with me. In instances where I share the authors concerns, for example about scaling, they ignore what I have to say. In other instances where I spend pages discussing power, and how in the various labs I’ve worked on we struggled with power, they ignore these discussions. I guess acknowledging these parts of my book would mean also acknowledging that the field is not as blind as the author claims it is.

For sure some of the concerns raised by the author are newer than others (the critique on scaling for example), but by and large to argue that use of a label such as “poor” is problematic (ie. “one needs to realize that in making a distinction between saving or helping ‘poor or vulnerable’ victimized people…”) is hardly news. That one is about five decades old. Welcome to the party.

What’s more, because the author says nothing much about what a “lab” is or what constitutes the field of “lab practice”, many different fields are collapsed and conflated into one.

For example, international development as a field has been fiercely studied and critiqued for decades. A number of the “labs” mentioned (simply by name) are little more than international development efforts branded as “labs.” To lump these efforts into the “landscape” of labs is needlessly confusing. It would beg the question of why a website (or any workshop) labeled a “lab” isn’t also being included as part of the field? It’s also ironic that the authors ran a 2-day workshop which is labelled “a lab about labs” – if that’s a lab then, again, there are probably many hundreds, if not thousands of events that constitute “labs.” None of these are obviously referred to. Once again, an ugly confirmation bias is lurking behind these choices.

I reluctantly conclude that the author isn’t very familiar with the struggles shaping this field. Nor it seems is the author aware of the broader discourses that the critiques made in this paper emanate from.

In turn all of this makes confronting the avalanche of claims made in the paper a deeply tedious exercise.

In the interests of everyone’s sanity I will therefore limit my comments to the four core accusations this paper casts against the nascent field of social labs.

The charge of solutionism

The word “solutionism” came into play fairly recently with the publication in 2013 of Evgeny Morozov’s book “To Save Everything Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism,” The author cites Morozov saying, “In his view solutions are incremental improvements in systems that fail us, to “end up being OK with doing things just a little bit better.”

Unfortunately, the author hasn’t really bothered to understand Morozov. More importantly they also haven’t understood what the problem with Morozov’s critique is – which is that it suffers precisely by the same problem that Lab Matters falls to – the charge of constructing a straw-man critique. Just type Morozov straw man into google.

If you want to critique “solutionism” in contemporary culture, and extend that critique to lab-practice, then I would suggest Jacques Ellul’s “The Technological Society” is a more serious contender. Ellul’s exhaustive studies traces the consequences of a society organised around and obsessed with “technique.”

And “lab-practice” is vulnerable to this criticism, as are the wider field of social innovation. There is widespread obsession with both tools and technique. I have pointed out several times that this is akin to being obsessed solely with kitchen knives and frying, while professing an interest in cooking.

Then if you want to critique technocratic thinking, the idea of incrementalism, then perhaps examine the dominant culture of planning and optimisation. (As I do in Chapter 2 of my book.)

Finally the logic the author constructs as examples of “solutionism” is so confused that I can barely decipher what’s going on. Here’s a sample:

“Root causes are (unfairly) technically formulated: i.e. malfunctioning institutions and policies, a lack of cooperation, poverty.”

“This is reflected in the way we combat root causes: one can create ‘to-do lists’ to create systemic action: constitute a diverse team, design an iterative process, and actively create systemic spaces (Hassan 2014: 109). But solutions are most evident in the production of labs: more affordable toilets, better mobile applications, and new tools to monitor election violence. And the list is growing.”

Whoa, slow down. Let’s first recover from the horror that “the list is growing.”

So “malfunctioning institutions” or “malfunctioning policy” or “a lack of cooperation” or “poverty” are examples of root causes that are “(unfairly) technically formulated”? And evidence for this is a single statement “the way we combat root causes: one can create ‘to-do lists’…”?

So let me get this straight. “Constitute a diverse team,” “design an iterative process” or “actively create systemic spaces” are examples of “solutionism” because they are…part of a to-do list? The mind boggles. Seriously?

Perhaps creating a to-do list with the item “send Mum a Mother’s Day gift” or “write a paper critiquing lab practice” could also be considered as examples of “solutionism” if they are part of a longer to-do list but who the heck knows?

This section is hopelessly confused.

The author has taken a list that I provide in my book. The list is not directly about “how to tackle root causes” but how to take systemic action, which is a broader challenge.

To this list are then appended examples like “more affordable toilets” and “better mobile applications” that come not from any of the labs I describe in my book, nor any labs I’ve ever worked on, but some other set of initiatives labelled “labs” that don’t do anything of the things I specify needing to be done in order to address root causes. At best this conflation is confused and at worst it’s deliberately misleading.

To top it all off, here’s the coup de grace “In practise (sic), systemic change is a daunting exercise. Let us provide another example, our food system.” And then comes a paragraph describing what systemic change might mean in the food system. At this point I barely have the energy to mutter “but there’s a whole chapter on food in my book…and we worked on food systems for a decade and we did all the things in practice that you describe in abstract…oh whatever.”

The charge of being apolitical

I think the point of the complicated metaphor of an imaginary house in this section is “people are not equal.” Yes, indeed.

The charge of being “apolitical” is simply a long, badly rehashed version of the argument made by Robert Chambers in “Whose Reality Counts? Putting the First Last” (1997) and made countless times since. It culminates in the question “Does this process not just consolidate existing power divisions?” Yes, it totally would…if none of us had ever heard of Robert Chambers or had spent less than a minute thinking about power differentials and how to deal with them.

The opportunity lost at this point is acute. A more informed discussion of how power could be handled in practice (maybe the imaginary room will help?) would have been an invaluable service to the wider community. Instead we have yet another badly constructed straw-man argument, designed mostly to rationalise a single, rather obvious point.

Then, once again comes a second coup de grace, again delivered a few decades too late:

“We cannot deny the political economy of labs: the vast majority is dependent on the same kind of funding structures as other organised efforts for change, such as donor grants and government subsidies. This factor makes it particularly difficult, if not impossible, to propose radically different ideas, especially to the party who funds it. For example Reos’ sustainable food lab is sponsored by Kelloggs, while Mindlab is funded by the Danish government. This will make the offered outcomes largely dependent on the structures that are accepted by donors, and thus has the potential to limit the ability for labs to seek discontinuous change.”

Of course this is a serious point right? Sure. And critique is easy. At this point instead of a poor lecture on political economy, I would have appreciated some reflexivity, so what has the author done to tackle this problem in the labs she has been involved in? Where did funding come from? I would be eager to learn what sources of “clean money” the authors have discovered. Any hints would be appreciated. But alas, none are forthcoming.

The change of being obsessed with scaling

This is probably the only section of the paper that I would rate above a failing grade. We are sorely in need of critical thinking about scale and scaling. The entire field of social enterprise is indeed obsessed with the idea of scaling and unfortunately this obsession has bled over into labs-practice.

The author takes a stab at criticising this obsession. The main point is…well, that we should think critically about scaling. Once again though, the paper lapses into tedious generalisations, such as this one: “After all, most labs tend to be operative in a supportive context of a stable, economically rich, rule-bound state with relative predictability in institutional behaviors and accountabilities.”

What? Most labs are? If anything, isn’t the point of a lab to be a stable platform? But “relative predictability”? Where? I don’t think so.

There’s a short discussion on the alternatives to scaling in my book, in a section called “The Scale-Free Laboratory.” In it I write:

“Interestingly, scale is one of the issues that most preoccupies actors working in the social realm. The usual assumption is that we start small and then grow big. Common questions, particularly in donor communities, include “How will your initiative scale up?” and “What is your scaling strategy?” These concerns are, however, largely irrelevant.

Just as a game of football can be played almost anywhere with very little equipment or can be played with professional teams in vast stadiums, social labs can be run at any scale. This could range from a school or an organization to a community, a city, a country, a region, or the world.”

The charge of not understanding the messiness of human nature

“…we would like to challenge the image of humans as happy-go-clappy-post-it-sticking enthusiasts.”

This critique, while having merit, seems to be a rather random point about social innovation culture in general. It does not specifically cite lab-practice per se but lumps it into a fuzzy, indistinct picture that seems to primarily drawn from marketing brochures.

In many ways, this charge seems to be the laziest of all the charges made against Lab practice.

My colleague Adam Kahane has authored 3 books over the course of a decade of practice and I’ve written 1. All four of these books are fairly candid and have been praised for portraying our practices in their splendid, messy glory. In many of the Labs I’ve worked on, we have tried hard to capture of messiness of practice as we go along, publishing for example various learning histories and documents – none of which the author seems to be aware of.

In our practice we pay a serious amount of attention to both individual and group dynamics. One of my early mentors, Myrna Lewis practices something called Deep Democracy (DD). Originating in process-orientated psychology, DD is a way of working with decision-making and conflict designed to include minority positions in group decisions. Inspired by the very messy work of Arnold Mindell, levelling the charge of not understanding the messiness of human nature to a DD practitioner is laughable.

Similarly, many other colleagues make use of other embodied practices, such as trauma stewardship or somatic coaching. Again, the author seems to be unaware of the existence of such practices.

So yes, let’s not reduce human messiness to 2-dimension caricatures, but if so then let’s start with this paper, which sets up 2-dimensional sacred cows simply for the pleasure of slaughtering them – something I’d expect from a bad undergraduate paper.

Three Friendly Suggestions for Future Critique

I’m guessing that this paper intended to take an inductive approach to the field of Lab-practice. It attempts to give the impression that the charges levelled against the field stem from observation. Certainly no hypothesis is set out and no methodology for verifying a hypothesis is stated.

Here are three friendly suggestions for taking an inductive approach to critique of this field:

1. There is no “we”

In the Labs space there is no “we”. The field is very young, immature and fragmented. Sweeping generalisations do not apply…and so speaking of some “we” makes very little sense. Be specific.

2. Root the case in an evidence base

Being critical is fine. Being critical without an evidence base is not. The evidence base can be personal experience, it does not have to be a longitudinal study.  Anecdotal evidence from a 2 day conference is not sufficient to critique a field.

3. Practice reflexivity

Some degree of reflection on one’s own experiences, one’s background and history, even as a short preamble, is essential to locating the critique. Not providing this information means the reader is constantly left guessing as to where the critique is coming from. This lack of reflexivity coupled with the lack of an evidence base is unforgivable.


Oxford University: Said Business School Q&A

skollThe Social Labs Revolution Global Tour kicked off right here at home, in Oxford, today. I was kindly invited to give a talk by Marc Ventresca and the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship about my book.

Here are some of the more interesting questions asked and some slightly more considered responses to them. My aim during the Tour is to capture the most interesting questions and post responses. Of course I’m also curious at what other people think – so please feel free to leave comments.

One of the first questions was about the nature of complexity, which opened up a very interesting discussion way beyond what we had time for…for example, how does the nature of complexity change historically?

Q. Isn’t everything complex?

A. No. Certain types of phenomenon are charactrized by complexity while others are not. Technical problems are not complex as defined by the three characteristics of emergence, adaptation & new information.

With a technical problem, the problem definition is clear, the solution definition is clear and the work can be done by experts. With a complex challenge the problem definition and solution space are contested and the domain of work is diverse stakeholders. (Source: The Art of Adaptive Leadership)

Q. Isn’t your argument about systems collapse Malthusian? It didn’t happen then and it won’t happen now?

A. Yes my argument about systems collapse is Malthusian. Arguing that dangerous climate change is an probable consequence of increasing emissions is a Malthusian argument. The case that the planet has a limit “carrying capacity” is a Malthusian argument at it’s core. That however, doesn’t make them wrong.

We simply have to examine the evidence base of the claim being made and make the best decision we can based on the evidence if we believe what is being forecast.

Finally, the question we have to ask is, who suffers if we’re wrong? Typically, those who are on the receiving end of global catastrophe are those who do not have the resources to be mobile, to simply move somewhere else in the face of crisis (see Bauman’s Liquid Modernity for more on this idea).

Q. Doesn’t South Korea prove that planning works? Does that mean economic development is a non-complex problem?

A. Central planning works. Until it doesn’t.

South Korea took a central planning approach to lift itself out of poverty after the Korean War ended. How has South Koreas economic policy changed since then? Clearly it is today not a dictatorship with a centrally planned economy. Why not? Because a centrally planned economy run by a dictator is not considered an effective policy approach to economic development.

In the Soviet example central planning worked for decades until the country collapsed. In the post-war era countries adopted central planning as a way to build from the ruins of WW2. Many successes came out of this period, for example the welfare state and the rise the the middle class. (See Postwar: A History of Europe from 1945 for one account of post-war planning in Europe)

Most countries that took a strong central planning approach after the post-war era changed over time. Instead, to take one example, of fixed output targets, successful economies created indicative targets. Look closer at how Silicon Valley operates, is it a planned economy? Check out The Rainforest: The Secret To Building The Next Silicon Valley for a detailed analysis.

One intriguing example of a return to a more central planning culture and it’s consequences in our own time comes from Stein Ringhen’s scathing examination of Tony Blair’s government, The Economic Consequences of Mr Brown. Funnily enough, Ringhen also wrote The Korean State and Social Policy: How South Korea Lifted Itself from Poverty and Dictatorship to Affluence and Democracy.

One further thought.

A planning-orientated focus on economic development on the post-war era led to the unintended consequence of giving rise to a much more difficult challenge, that of sustainable development.

So a single minded focus on economic development was hugely successful in lifting many millions out of poverty. But now we have to figure out how to sustain energy-intensive lifestyles without burning fossil fuels.

The social contracts built on the fruits of planning are under huge strain.

My argument is that planning as an approach to complex challenges is ineffective and that more effective approaches exist.

Q. Isn’t the Marshall Plan a great example of a plan that worked?

The Marshall Plan, despite being labelled a plan, was more accurately a process.

See below for more on the difference between a plan and a process.

Q. Doesn’t all action require that we formulate a plan?

No. Take the example of a public election. A number of formal steps or actions are undertaken but the outputs of these steps are unpredictable – we don’t know for a fact who will win.

To take another example, cooking. When we follow a recipe to cook a dish, we do not know exactly how the dish will taste.

The quality of the output is dependent on our skill as a cook, the quality of the ingredients and so on. The more we practice cooking the more likely we are to be able to produce dishes that are of consistent quality.

It’s more accurate to describe both elections and cooking as processes rather than plans.

A plan demands that a set of inputs is specified before execution and a set of outputs are predicted as a result of executing the plan.

A process is different in that the outputs are emergent, and predictable within certain parameters (ie a good cook will make better dishes than someone who has never cooked).

Finally, when I use the word “planning” I mean “strategic planning” and not “action planning.”

I got some interesting and very useful feedback on the talk – which was that people get hung up on refuting planning, which takes up a lot of oxygen, so I ought to leave that till the end.

That’s all for now. My next posts will be reports on the most interesting questions from Babson College and the MIT Media Lab next week.

Intellectual Property for Social Labs: What Can We Learn From The Twitter IPO?

There is a lot of confusion out there about intellectual property. Often when I talk to people they assume that “open source” or “creative commons” means simply giving away work, gratis…and this begs the inevitable question, “Why would we want to give away valuable IP?” and “Why would I not sell it?”

Perhaps the most central idea to understanding different IP regimes is the idea of the commons. I’ll borrow a definition from Wikipedia and annotate it.

“Commons refers to the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth.”

The commons defines, if you like, a space that is accessible by everyone. In the UK our local parks are often called a “common,” as in “Shall we go to the common?” In this instance the park may be owned by the Queen or local government, but the people that make use of it have no idea. They are allowed to access and use the resources that are located in that space.

An online space, such as the Twitter-sphere, may also be understood through the idea of the commons. Within certain limits, anyone is allowed to access the Twitter-sphere and make use of it. Even though, just like the park, the actual “real-estate” might be owned by someone.

“The commons contains public property and private property, over which people have certain traditional rights.”

So the important thing to remember about the commons is that it about use – and not simply ownership. Ownership may be private, but the question is what sort of usage is allowed.

In traditional “knowledge” businesses – such as software – the business model was very simple. You invested in developing IP, say a piece of software and then you sold it for cash. With the advent of the “knowledge economy” people have tried to extend this business model to all sorts of other knowledge products, from research to tools.

But this strategy has been turned on its head. Businesses have discovered that contributing to the commons, that is, allowing their products to be used either freely or for very small amounts of money, is a way of accruing a different set of returns. Instead of simply getting a financial return, contributing to the commons puts organisations in a position where they accrue huge amounts of social capital.

Even as the experts are scratching their heads about why Twitter is worth the billions that investors are paying for it, they are not factoring in the immense social capital that such organisations have. And one interpretation of the behaviour of the markets is that we are now rewarding different forms of return. Twitter may not have turned a profit in a conventional sense, but the markets don’t care. They have an intrinsic faith that Twitter’s social capital has immense value.

Social capital allows for a wide range of strategic moves.

Old school thinking on IP is to treat it as a private commodity to be doled out only to those who can afford it. Sort of a little like secret knowledge. This would be like Twitter raising the gates and making their services available only to an elite few.

“When commonly held property is transformed into private property this process alternatively is termed “enclosure” or more commonly, “privatization.””

This notion of knowledge-as-private-property is dying a rapid death. Organisations and entities that try to contain knowledge, privatising it and selling it are likely to find themselves rapidly outmanoeuvred. Their competitors will give away what they are trying to sell, thus accruing massive amounts of social capital and killing the old school knowledge hoarders dead in the process.

This does not mean that the knowledge products cannot be owned. What it means is that usage patterns are changing. Knowledge can be owned, just like a park can be owned. The question is what use is allowed.

This is where licenses like Creative Commons and GNU come in. They permit a wide range of usage, allowing knowledge creators to put ideas and products into the commons, creating platforms.

While the decision to put something into the commons can be viewed from an ideological point of view (do you believe in private property or not?) the point is that business logic and the markets are cutting away the need for an ideological case. When we put things into the commons, we are making the whole stronger and when the whole is strong…when the body is strong, so too are the parts, the arms, the legs and so on.

Of-course this does not stop anyone who wants to strengthen the commons from simply putting whatever they produce into the commons, making it public in perpetuity. In such instances, no restrictions on usage are put on a work. Anyone can use them.

Donors and funders who are concerned with the state of the planet have an option – they can support the creation of new forms of capital that benefit the commons.

In my mind, I imagine that the social labs revolution is about revitalising the commons, that the multiple outputs and outcomes from social labs all contribute to the health of the commons.

Further Reading:

Common As Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership – Lewis Hyde 

Free Culture – Lawrence Lessig

Why Social Labs?

One of the questions I have recently been asked about The Social Labs Revolution is why “social” labs? Why not “change labs” or “innovation labs” or “leadership labs” as these terms are already in circulation?

My intention in picking the word “social” is to provide a counter-point to laboratories that are rooted in the natural sciences, that is, traditional scientific, technological, medical domains.

While we’re familiar with biology, chemistry and physics labs, we have no particular conception of what a social lab might look like. Laboratory experimentation in the social sciences might conjure up images of psychological testing, such as in the infamous Milgram Experiment or worse, the idea of social engineering. The idea of an experiment raises the issue of who the subject of experimentation is, leading to all sorts of ethical dilemmas.

This begs the question, what exactly is the “social” as a domain, in contrast to the natural sciences?

According to Bruno Latour, “When social scientists add the adjective ‘social’ to some phenomenon, they designate a stabilised state of affairs, a bundle of ties that, later, may be mobilised to account for some other phenomenon. There is nothing wrong with this use of the word as long as it designates what is _already_ assembled together, without making any superfluous assumptions about the _nature_ of what is assembled…problems arise, however, when ‘social’ begins to mean a type of material, as if the adjective was roughly comparable to other terms like ‘wooden’ ‘steely’, ‘biological’,…At that point, the meaning of the word breaks down…”

What is he talking about? The “social” according to Latour should not be used as an adjective. The “social” is the product of a process, or a series of historical processes, the social is what could be thought of as an “assemblage.”

Terms such as “change,” “innovation,” or even “leadership” are relatively plastic and imprecise in defining a domain of action. The word “social” subject to the caveats expressed by Latour locates the work of change more precisely. It also gives us indications as to the process-orientated nature of the work we engage in. While designating a historical “assemblage,” the “social” also indicates how changes comes about, via processes leading to new “assemblages.”

Imagine a bell ringing in a school, children pour out of their classrooms to head for their next class. “Where are you going?” one of them asks another, “Oh, I’ve got social lab now.” Upon entering the class called the “social lab,” students are organised into small groups of four. “Where are you guys going today?” says one. “We’re off to the urban farm, what about you guys?” “Ack, we have to go and interview people at the local supermarket,” comes the reply with a mournful face.

In the scenario above, school children learn about how systems change through very simple exercises. These exercises do not require special equipment and nor do they need to take place at scale. Teaching children about convening teams, about disciplined observation, about the design of space, about prototyping, fundraising and agile processes are all relatively easy to do. Imagine that these activities are not simply based on abstract classroom learning but that students actually work on real issues that impact them, attempting to make real changes within their context.

I believe that we are living in a particularly fruitful time in history for social labs. Our spaces of experimentation are vastly different from previous eras of social engineering. Instead of a technocratic class experimenting on the unfortunate masses, we live in an era where partnership with broad strata of society is now possible. Our networks have extended inter-connectivity far and wide…and this is only increasing. True partnership still requires sensitivity, skill and trust-building. But no longer can we credibly hide behind the claim that we know better and so must exclude people from self-determining their own lives.

What are Social Labs?

Social labs are platforms for addressing complex social challenges that have three core characteristics.

1. They are social.

Social labs start by bringing together diverse participants to work in a team that acts collectively. They are ideally drawn from different sectors of society, such as government, civil society, and the business community. The participation of diverse stakeholders beyond consultation, as opposed to teams of experts or technocrats, represents the social nature of social labs.

2. They are experimental.

Social labs are not one-off experiences. They’re ongoing and sustained efforts. The team doing the work takes an iterative approach to the challenges it wants to address, prototyping interventions and managing a portfolio of promising solutions. This reflects the experimental nature of social labs, as opposed to the project-based nature of many social interventions.

3. They are systemic.

The ideas and initiatives developing in social labs, released as prototypes, aspire to be systemic in nature. This means trying to come up with solutions that go beyond dealing with a part of the whole or symptoms and address the root cause of why things are not working in the first place. 

– From “The Social Labs Revolution”