All posts by Leo

Managing Complexity

For every lab that we undertake, we implement an agile regime to provide a working structure for the team. The below is an example of a structure that we have implemented before.

The regime document we put in place includes an overview of the process along with definitions as we use them. Also included are meeting agendas and any expectations of the team.

There are a number of variables such as sprint duration and the digital project management tools which are used (E.g. Trello or RealTimeBoard). In the below example we have been using RealTimeBoard to replicate a physical wall layout in our office space.

Agile Regime Example


Sprint Duration2 Weeks
Sprint Planning1st Monday of the sprint @ 0930, in the office
Sprint Review & Retrospective2nd Thursday of the sprint @ 1500, in the office
Stand UpsDaily @ 0915, Virtual
Strategy Sessions1st Wednesday of month @ 1000, in the office

Agile is an iterative and incremental process that works well for managing projects in situations of complexity where you don’t know what the final outcome will look like. It is well-suited to social labs for this reason. Agile encourages a process of continuous improvement (both to the process and to the product) through short bursts of activities (sprints) with plenty of time built in to review and reflect. This approach has its roots in software development. There are a few ‘agile’ methodologies, but the one we use is called “Scrum”.


In a Scrum team there are three distinct roles:

Scrum Master

The ScrumMaster is responsible for making sure a Scrum team lives by the values and practices of Scrum. The ScrumMaster is often considered a coach for the team, helping the team do the best work it possibly can. The ScrumMaster can also be thought of as a process owner for the team, creating a balance with the project’s key stakeholder, who is referred to as the product owner.

The ScrumMaster does anything possible to help the team perform at their highest level. This involves removing any impediments to progress, facilitating meetings, and doing things like working with the product owner to make sure the product backlog is in good shape and ready for the next sprint. The ScrumMaster role is commonly filled by a former project manager or a technical team leader but can be anyone.

Product Owner

This person is a champion for the product*. They are responsible for bridging the gaps between the client, stakeholders, and the Scrum team. The product owner is an expert on the product and the client’s needs and priorities and will help clarify project requirements.

Product owners make the decisions about what the product does and does not include. As well as the responsibility of deciding what to release to the market and when.

*”Product” In this context can refer to the Project overall.

Team Member

The Scrum Team are the people who create the product. Facilitators, researchers, designers etc. Anyone who has a hands-on role in developing the end result. High-performing scrum teams are highly collaborative; they are also self-organizing. The team members doing the work have total authority over how the work gets done. The team alone decides which tools and techniques to use, and which team members will work on which tasks, and how long those tasks are supposed to take.

The Backlog

 The cumulative list of desired deliverables. This includes stories, process deliverables, documentation, and anything else that might be meaningful and valuable to produce.

The Sprint

This is the time period that the team will work on certain tasks from the backlog. Sprints typically last 1 or 2 weeks, for this example we’re using a 2-week sprint duration.

The Sprint Backlog

The sprint backlog is the team’s to do list for the sprint. Unlike the product backlog, it has a finite life-span: the length of the current sprint. It includes: all the stories that the team has committed to delivering this sprint and their associated tasks. Stories are deliverables, and can be thought of as units of value. Tasks are things that must be done, in order to deliver the stories, and so tasks can be thought of as units of work. A story is something a team delivers; a task is a bit of work that a person does. Each story will normally require many tasks.


RealTimeBoard will be used as a project management tool. This allows us to replicate our physical wall space layout easily in a digital format allowing us to communicate with remote members of the team.

Sprint Meetings

Sprint Planning Session

Takes place at the beginning of each sprint. The goal of the planning session is to emerge with a set of “committed” stories that the whole team believes they can deliver by the end of the sprint. The product owner leads this part of the meeting.

One by one, in priority order, the product owner presents the stories he would like the team to complete during this sprint. As each story is presented, the team members discuss it with the product owner and review acceptance criteria to make sure they have a common understanding of what is expected. Then the team members decide if they can commit to delivering that story by the end of the sprint. This process repeats for each story, until the team feels that they can’t commit to any more work. Note the separation in authority: the product owner decides which stories will be considered, but the team members doing the actual work are the ones who decide how much work they can take on.

Next, the team rolls up its sleeves and begins to decompose the selected stories into tasks. Stories are deliverables: things that stakeholders, users, and customers want. In order to deliver a story, team members will have to complete tasks. Task are things like: get additional input from users; design a new screen; add new columns to the database; do black-box testing of the new feature; write help text; get the menu items translated for our target locales; run the release scripts.

The product owner should be available during this half of the meeting to answer questions. The team may also need to adjust the list of stories it is committing to, as during the process of identifying tasks the team members may realize that they have signed up for too many or too few stories.

The output of the sprint planning meeting is the sprint backlog, the list of all the committed stories, with their associated tasks. The product owner agrees not to ask for additional stories during the sprint, unless the team specifically asks for more. The product owner also commits to being available to answer questions about the stories, negotiate their scope, and provide product guidance until the stories are acceptable and can be considered done.


At the end of each sprint, all Team members are invited into a meeting to review what has been completed in that sprint. It’s an hour long meeting, and allows the team to discuss what they’ve done. It is not an opportunity to discuss whether tasks have been completed, that must take place before this meeting (it should be clear from the daily stand ups whether tasks have been completed or not).


At the end of the review there should be time for a process retrospective – The retrospective, held at the very end of each and every sprint, is dedicated time for the team to focus on what was learned during the sprint, and how that learning can be applied to make some improvement.  We recommend one hour of retrospective time for each week of development.

Unlike the traditional “post mortem,” the aim of a process retrospective is never to generate a long laundry list of things that went well and things that went wrong, but to identify no more than one or two strategic changes to make in the next sprint. It’s about process improvement.

Daily Stand Up

A daily meeting with all team members to check in and ask/answer the following questions:

  • Which stories [from the backlog] I’ve been working on since the last daily stand up.
  • Which stories [from the backlog] I expect to work on by the next daily stand up.
  • Any obstacles which are slowing me down.

This meeting will be held standing up (literally) at the beginning of the day, to encourage brevity. Includes a very brief check in (30 secs per person). Check-in questions – How are you doing? Is there anything affecting you right now that we need to know (e.g. didn’t sleep, had a family argument, had a great workout and am feeling energized etc.…). Should not take more than 15 minutes.

Monthly Strategy Session

The monthly strategy session is an open meeting for the whole team to review and discuss Lab strategy and get clear on overall priorities.

Epics vs Stories vs Tasks

A common question is the distinction of what makes a story in Scrum, and the level of detail needed to be included in a project management tool. There are three levels:


  • Big, too big to deliver in a single sprint
  • Will span multiple sprints
  • ‘high level’. We often use the language of “workstream”


  • Span a single sprint. If a story is too big to be delivered in a single sprint, then break it out into smaller stories.
  • Stories can be thought of as the minimal amount of value deliverable by one or two people in a single sprint
  • Made up of multiple ‘tasks’


  • Very tactical and detailed. E.g. “send an email to Tracy to check date for meeting.”

In terms of how this relates to RealTimeBoard:

What is useful for the rest of the team to know?

Stories are useful for the wider team (E.g. X is going to finalise the dates for the first lab workshop) but the tasks not so much (E.g. X is going to email venue to check date availability).

Epics, Stories & Tasks in RealTimeBoard

Epics & Stories are inputted as cards into RealTimeBoard. Epics are top level cards which will span multiple sprints – usually following the “workstream” format; Stories are nested underneath Epics. Tasks are often too detailed and create a lot of clutter, so are generally not added.

Due to time constraints with the process, epics and stories will be inputted into RealTimeBoard during the Sprint Planning meetings.

Process Summary

Below is the overview for the processes that we will be using:

Ground Rules

Ground rules are a list of behaviors and rules a team decide are useful for working together as a team in a productive and respectful way. AKA working agreements.

Ground rules don’t come about after having a big meeting to create them. They usually evolve over time and with the team. Most of the time a rule is added to the list when the team solves a problem and decides to do things in a certain way.

Very often new ground rules come out of retrospectives. For example a team might have encountered issues with some members making decisions on their own and after a discussion about how to avoid this in the future they decide to add the ground rule “We make decisions together” to the list of rules.

A team’s ground rules are specific and unique to each individual team. As they are a product of a team’s history, context and experiences no two teams’ ground rules will be the same.

Be aware that ground rules will change over time: New rules will be added and obsolete ones will be removed. Make sure to keep the rules a living list and to re-factor them once in a while. Below are some example ground rules to get started. These can be refined over time.

Ground Rules

  • Always have a meeting agenda
  • Each sprint must have a goal
  • Never say “no” to stories, put it in the backlog and prioritize it later
  • Be on time for meetings
  • Be specific about your requests for feedback. Who needs to do what, and by when?
  • All stories must have a clear description/Definition of “done”
  • All stories must be assigned to a person/people
  • Stories may be added to the current sprint as they arise; it’s not always possible to brainstorm every story during the planning session. Epics aren’t generally added mid-sprint.
  • If it is VITAL that an epic is added to the current sprint then bring the team together to discuss and agree on prioritization.
  • Delay with your story? Communicate it to the team as soon as you know it will be delayed – Do this through a comment on that story card.
  • RealTimeBoard must be kept up to date – If you are working on a story, it should be reflected on RealTimeBoard. This means that if you find yourself working on something not in RealTimeBoard, then you need to add it in. This also means you need to make sure the stories are put in the correct row. We don’t want to spend the review session figuring out what has and hasn’t been done, it’s a waste of the teams’ limited time together.

Agenda, Sprint Planning, R&R Meeting

Sprint Planning Overview

The sprint planning meeting has two main outcomes:

  • A sprint goal; a short, one- or two-sentence, description of what the team plans to achieve during the sprint.
  • A sprint backlog; a list of stories that that team commits to complete in order to meet that goal.

Sprint Review + Retrospective Overview

At the end of each sprint, a sprint review meeting is held. During this meeting, the team shows what they accomplished during the sprint. In a software environment this takes the form of a demo of the new features – Using this approach in labs, it’s an opportunity to talk through the stories you have completed and solicit feedback on them. It’s not a place to sign off on things that have been completed – The definition of done should be clear from the planning meeting, and stories should be moved to the Done row in RealTimeBoard in advance of the meeting. I.e. it should be clear to the team what has been completed already from the RealTimeBoard board.  The review segment will be concluded by determining the top 3 priorities for the following sprint.

The retrospective is held after the review meeting. It’s a chance for the team to pause and reflect on how they could improve for the next sprint. There are numerous methods for running a retrospective (+EBI, 4Ls, etc.…). See here for more ideas:

Preparation Requirements – Sprint R&R

Prior to the sessions some preparation is required from all team members. Allow 30 mins prior to the session to prepare for it – The prep outlined below will ensure that the session is efficient, but also engaging for all participants:

  • All cards in RealTimeBoard must be updated on the board. If a card is complete, make sure it is in ‘done’ on the board. This allows the team to spend time during the review session to show off what they’ve completed, rather than assessing whether something has been completed.
  • Each team member should have ready some things to present to the team around what they have completed that sprint. The intention is to make for an engaging review session where team members get to see each other’s’ work and find out more/ask questions about it. Allow 15 mins prior to the session to prep your materials (e.g. document links ready to share, or tabs open ready to screen share etc.)
  • Spend 5-10 minutes thinking about the process that week. What has worked for you? What hasn’t?

Preparation Requirements – Sprint Planning

Prior to the planning session some preparation is required from all team members. Spend 10-15 minutes in advance of the session thinking about what you want/need to be working on that sprint. Write these down in preparation for the planning session to allow it to run more efficiently.

Agenda for Sprint Planning Meeting

Agenda for R&R Meeting

Daily Stand Ups

Each day the team will have a daily stand up in order to check in with each other and clarify any support needs. This will take place at 0915 each day. It’ll take a maximum of 15 minutes and team members will answer the following questions:

  1. What have I been working on since yesterday?
  2. What am I working on today?
  3. What do I need help with/What blockers am I facing?

Please set the intention of joining the stand up each day and try to avoid scheduling other meetings at that time. Obviously sometimes it is unavoidable (e.g. when doing delivery, or if a client can only do a meeting at that time etc.), in which case please send an update to the team in particular to anyone who you need help/support from.

Wall Layout Format

Story Post-Its

Agile Resources

Below are some links to learn more about agile:

On Capital & Skills

This post is the third in our series of introductory blog posts to help readers understand the fundamentals of social labs. Here we’ll look at ROI and start looking at the skill requirements for labs. 

Social Labs – Return on Investment

One of the challenges of social labs is how to evaluate impacts. We have found that the idea of multiple “capitals” provide a way of assessing the impact of labs.

If we invest in social labs, what results do we get?

One way of understanding complex social challenges is that they are collective action problems where some form of capital is being depleted.

Examples abound. With environmental challenges characterized by the “tragedy of the commons” we are rapidly depleting natural capital available in the commons to the point of risking ecosystem collapse. With challenges such as poverty alleviation we are looking at a decline in multiple capitals, for example one set of skill becoming redundant, or the lack of financial capital to support entrepreneurship and so on.

Successful social labs generate capital – and in particular social labs can be used to re-generate different forms of capital in order to address specific challenges. A mature “next generation” social lab is therefore an asset in a society because it is the source of much needed capital.

The 5 Stages of Skill Acquisition

To become competent you must feel bad. – Hubert Dreyfus

Social labs require a broad range of skills sets. In running multiple labs we’ve seen that in practice these skills are acquired in stages.Consider one model of how we acquire skills, the Dreyfus Model, which takes us through five stages of skills acquisition.

Contrasting the the “novice” with the “expert”:

The beginner is then given rules for determining actions on the basis of these features, just like a computer following a program.”


The expert not only sees what needs to be achieved; thanks to his or her vast repertoire of situational discriminations, he or she also sees immediately how to achieve this goal. Thus, the ability to make more subtle and refined discriminations is what distinguishes the expert from the proficient performer.”

Dreyfus goes on to say that the expert does not actually perform a situational analysis but is largely operating by intuition.

“Thus, the ability to make more subtle and refined discriminations is what distinguishes the expert from the proficient performer. Among many situations, all seen as similar with respect to plan or perspective, the expert has learned to distinguish those situations requiring one reaction from those demanding another.

That is, with enough experience in a variety of situations, all seen from the same perspective but requiring different tactical decisions, the brain of the expert gradually decomposes this class of situations into subclasses, each of which requires a specific response. This allows the immediate intuitive situational response that is characteristic of expertise.”

The implication of all this is that “toolkits” – 2-d documents that present a series of “tools” – are really useful for “novices” and “advanced beginners.” This is partly because toolkits – and field books – are largely decontextualized. They do not have much to say about the specific situation you find yourself in.

A good “toolkit” however can help accelerate the learning process, as we’ll see below.

While the nature of all expertise is situational, this is perhaps even more true with social labs. This is because we are trying to deal with complex social challenges where the “complex” frequently involves people and their behavior.

While every context is different, so for example, a community in Kenya dealing with a mega-project is different from a government department in Canada dealing with a healthcare issue – we learn to recognize classes of situations. We learn to recognize situations where certain approaches will work. Developing this discernment is what makes a practitioner good at what they do.

And the only way of developing this discernment is experience.

Short-Circuiting the 10,000 Hour Rule

“Managers tend to pick a strategy that is the least likely to fail, rather then to pick a strategy that is most efficient,” Said Palmer. ” The pain of looking bad is worse than the gain of making the best move.”

― Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

According to the 10,000 hour “rule” (also known as the “10 year rule”) in order to become “expert” at something we need to practice it for 10,000 hours. While not strictly a “rule” it is a useful “rule-0f-thumb” in terms of thinking about what it means to be world class at something.

The good news is that studies on skills acquisition, for example in the world of professional sports, however, have shown that the “rule” is not strictly true. In fact some people can become world class with a lot less and some don’t become world- class with twice as much practice. One way of thinking about this is that getting world-class at something comes from a combination of “software” – that is, training and practice, and “hardware” – things like genes and neurons.

The skills required to successfully run social labs are extremely broad. They range from group facilitation skills to storytelling skills. It is virtually impossible for any one person to be world-class at all of them. Another way of understanding this is that the range of skills required in order to deal with complex challenges required a group characterized by a diverse range of skills.

In many ways the strategy for building a team that is world-class at running successful social labs is no different from strategies for putting together world-class football teams. You have to acquire talent.

One of the biggest challenges to running social labs at the moment is that it is not seen as a full-time, professional activity. At best it’s a full-time professional activity and at worst it’s a volunteer role, done on top of “real world” work. This is a little like the days when barbers were also doctors. As the field matures, we will see the rise of full-time, professional teams.

Building Social Labs

The second in our series of introductory blog posts to help readers understand the fundamentals of social labs.

“A building, or a town, is given its character, essentially, by those events which keep on happening there most often.” – Christopher Alexander

So how do we go about building social labs? The Social Labs Fieldbook proposes a specific architecture for social labs, one that consists of three to four “stacks.”

But what is a “stack” I hear you say?

A “stack” can be thought of as the basic unit of architecture of a lab, a bit like a business unit in an organization with a specialized function. Organisations typically consist of different “business units” that make up an organization. Imagine a widget manufacturing company. There are business units like Sales & Marketing, HR, and Production. Production might be a factory floor, where the widgets are built. The “space” of the factory floor is a very different space from where Sales & Marketing function. When thinking about social labs, we have to reconfigure our perception from “business units” to “stacks”.

Each stack plays a specific function in a social lab. When these stacks are “built” and working together, then we have a functioning social lab. Building a social lab at a minimum involves running three stacks – innovation, information and governance.

Each stack can be thought of as comprising at least three different elements. Firstly there is the space – so if we’re talking about innovation, where is this work happening?

In a traditional laboratory, the answer is “in the laboratory”. In a social lab though, the space of the lab is a heterodox space, comprising not of one single space, but multiple spaces. For example, the space of a workshop, of a learning journey, or of an interview with a key stakeholder. So there is the design of these spaces. Then there are the processes that unfold in these spaces. What is it that happens in these spaces? What processes unfold? Again unlike traditional labs, inside a social lab multiple processes are unfolding. Processes that enable stakeholders to think, reflect and act together. Then finally, there are the teams that go through these processes, and there are multiple teams.

One of the challenges we face in addressing complex social challenges is the type of organization we work in. In the current climate, many funders and donors believe that innovation can be executed as if we were manufacturing widgets – that is through compliance to technical standards that minimize risk and waste. But unfortunately this is not how innovation arises. Innovation is best thought of as a high-risk, high-reward situation. Trying to turn this into a low-risk, high-reward situation makes little sense. Risk of-course can be managed and mitigated, but it cannot be eliminated.

Seth Godin spells out the differences between these two approaches:

Lab vs Factory- You work at one, or the other.

At the lab, the pressure is to keep searching for a breakthrough, a new way to do things. And it’s accepted that the cost of this insight is failure, finding out what doesn’t work on your way to figuring out what does. The lab doesn’t worry so much about exploiting all the value of what it produces—they’re too busy working on the next thing.

To work in the lab, is to embrace the idea that what you’re working on might not work. Not to merely tolerate this feeling, but to seek it out.

The factory, on the other hand, prizes reliability and productivity. The factory wants no surprises, it wants what it did yesterday, but faster and cheaper.

Some charities are labs, in search of the new thing, while others are factories, grinding out what’s needed today. AT&T is a billing factory, in search of lower costs, while Bell Labs was the classic lab, in search of the insight that could change everything.

Hard, really hard, to do both simultaneously. Anyone who says failure is not an option has also ruled out innovation.

– Seth Godin

What are Social Labs?

This is the first in a series of introductory blog posts to help readers understand the fundamentals of social labs.

“There are no cheap tickets to mastery. You have to work at it, whether that means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously casting on your own paradigms and throwing yourself into the humility of Not Knowing. In the end, it seems that power has less to do with pushing leverage points than it does with strategically, profoundly, madly letting go.”

– Donella Meadows


“We have scientific and technical labs for solving our most difficult scientific and technical challenges. We need social labs to solve our most pressing social challenges.”

– Zaid Hassan


So what are social labs?

Let me answer with another question. What is a medical laboratory? What, for example, is the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT? It’s a medical research institute, or what we could think of as a lab, but what else is it? Here are some descriptions from their website:

“The David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT is the epicenter of a highly collaborative e ort to ght cancer in ways it has never been fought…”

“The Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Cancer Center, is a state-of-the-art cancer research facility as well as the hub of cancer research on the MIT campus.”


“The Koch Institute brings together biologists and chemists along with biological, chemical, mechanical, and materials science engineers, computer scientists, clinicians and others, to bring esh perspectives and an interdisciplinary approach to advancing the ght against cancer. This multi-faceted group of investigators is at the core of the Koch Institute’s mission to develop new insights into cancer, as well as new tools and technologies to better treat, diagnose and prevent the disease.”

So the Koch Institute is:

  • a laboratory
  • a space for multi-disciplinary collaboration – a new strategy for combating cancer and inside this space a practice, a way of doing science, of fighting cancer, is undertaken.

Similar a social lab can be thought of as:

  • a laboratory
  • a space for multi-disciplinary collaboration
  • a strategy for addressing a complex challenge

And within the space of a social laboratory, a practice, a way of addressing complex challenges, is undertaken.

Social labs are not tools. Inside social labs, a variety of tools are used and deployed, but using a social lab as a tool represents a misunderstanding of the nature of a laboratory.

If you wanted to get a little metaphysical, then social labs are part of a paradigm, a paradigm of experimentation as a way of understanding the world. If you like, it is a paradigm of experimentation, of how to address our most complex challenges. It is an alternative paradigm to the strategic planning paradigm that’s dominant today. “Social labs” therefore represent one form this paradigm can take.

The Sustainable Food Lab stands out as the first large-scale, multi-stakeholder social lab experiment. Organized in 2004, the lab is a platform for corporations, governments, farmers’ associations, and NGOs to work together to accelerate the incorporation of environmental, economic, and social sustainability into the world’s food production systems. The group took two years to develop a shared view of their challenges and devise a series of experiments to test solutions. Out of that work came a number of changes in large corporations’ procurement practices, increased support for small-holder farmers, and more sustainable farming practices. Ten years later, the Sustainable Food Lab continues to be a platform for innovation.


What Social Labs are not

Labs most traditionally can be thoughts of as physical spaces. But they are also institutional spaces that support particular practices, such as research and innovation. The dominant institutions that are currently tasked with addressing complex social challenges are arguably failing because they are not supportive of the types of practices needed to crack these challenges.

What makes a lab a lab is:

  1. The focus on a specific challenge or domain
  2. A stable space supportive of the practices required to address that challenge and
  3. A disciplined practice of experimentation.

Social labs are different from traditional labs, in that they require a team that reflects the social diversity of the challenges they’re addressing to do the work. In other words, social labs are different in that they are not run by teams of scientists or technocrats, but diverse teams of stakeholders.

According to this definition then social labs are not:

  • Programmes
  • Projects
  • Networks
  • Co-working spaces – Incubators
  • Accelerators

And of-course, simply branding something a “lab” does not make it a lab.

Sanctuary vs. Brutality: Notes from a “Rapid Action Lab” in Chicago

The following post was submitted by Chelsey Rhodes.

*The following is a reflection from a “Rapid Action Lab” organized and facilitated by United Way of Metro Chicago and Roller Strategies, that took place July 13-15th, 2017, with 66 participants from the neighbourhoods of Little Village, Brighton Park, and Austin.


“Our meeting venue [Chicago Teachers Union Center] is a brick and mortar example of ‘Unity is Strength.” – Jose Rico, United Way of Metro Chicago [Photo credit: Isaac Guzman]

“Not all violence is hot. There’s cold violence too, which takes its time and finally gets its way… Putting a people into deep uncertainty about the fundamentals of life, over years and decades, is a form of cold violence. Through an accumulation of laws rather than by military means, a particular misery is intensified and entrenched. This slow violence, this cold violence, no less than the other kind, ought to be looked at and understood.”

-Teju Cole

The concept of Sanctuary (n.: a sacred or holy place; a place of refuge or safety) is a very old tradition, with roots in the Biblical notion of hospitality towards the stranger, and in medieval times the provision of protection for fugitives.  The Sanctuary tradition in the U.S. grew from the establishment of key safe harbours for those fleeing slavery, in what came to be known as the Underground Railroad.  Later, churches acted as safe meeting places for activists in the Civil Rights Movement. 

In the 1980s, the Sanctuary Movement (the interfaith branch of the broader solidarity movement) became a ‘new Underground Railroad,’ providing safe passage and refuge for people fleeing U.S. imperialist intervention and bloody wars in Central America.  Sanctuary has been a kind of conscientious resistance to unjust laws; it has served as both a moral and political action.  Sanctuary scholar Elizabeth Allen points to its venerable role in human history, calling it “an escape valve for society when the law can’t meet the deeper demands of justice.”

Sanctuary Cities (also states, counties, and campuses) are the latest outgrowth of the Sanctuary Movement.  There is no precise legal definition, but generally Sanctuary Cities try to enhance access to services for undocumented people, and limit the cooperation of local authorities with federal immigration officers.  

As the global migrant crisis grows and waves of reactive populism, white nationalism, and xenophobia increase, Sanctuary Cities have become an increasingly polarizing issue and many (like Chicago) are struggling to live up to their mandate.  In January, Donald Trump signed an executive order attempting to withdraw federal funding from so-called Sanctuary Cities, and has given expanded powers to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

This context has produced an urgent need to strategize about the creation of actual safety for undocumented people and families in the face of hostile federal immigration policy. This led to envisioning the Safer Through Unity “Rapid Action Lab.”


Wither Sanctuary?

A Rapid Action Lab (RAL) is a social lab designed for conditions that demand an urgent response (see diagram above).  It is a model that can be adopted and adapted across many contexts- for instance in communities struggling to create neighbourhood-level safety/ sanctuary. The idea is to quickly put resources into the hands of people who are locally embedded, in existing organising networks, and therefore are best-placed to create solutions and act on internally-driven priorities.  

In July, 66 people came together to respond to the challenge question: “How can we work together to support children and families to be safe from violence and deportation in their neighbourhoods?” These people were drawn from the Chicago neighbourhoods of Little Village, Austin, and Brighton Park.  Over the course of a 3-day kickoff workshop, 6 teams formed and developed prototype interventions to address this challenge. 

During the first day of the workshop, participants focused on developing a deep, shared understanding of the system.  Stories quickly began emerging regarding the topic of state violence.  Participants described children being afraid to go to school, fearing their parents would not be at home when they returned. A recent article in the New Yorker reported this very thing happening, following 4 mothers who had been targeted and detained for minor traffic violations or decades-old deportation orders. A Guardian article that discusses Trump’s new fast-track, secretive deportation courts describes conditions in the private detention centres as “horrible and brutal… people would rather go [back] to a place that they know is dangerous, where they have no family, where they might be tortured.”

As the lab progressed, participants discussed a kind of bureaucratic brutality at the City level related to the allocation of funds and services.  During a heartbreaking morning in a park close to the lab venue, several parents remarked that their children had never had the experience of playing safely on a nice playground like that one.  Later, a participant referenced “Downtown Chicago- which has a lot of money but they don’t give it out to people who need it.”  Another lamented that, “Money generated from our community… sometimes we don’t see it back in our communities.”

Zaid Hassan (Roller Strategies) and Jose Rico (UW) demonstrate a Dialogue Interview in the park [Photo credit: Isaac Guzman]
By the end of Day 2, participants were moving towards team formation (the ‘innovation’ of a Rapid Action Lab produces a group of diverse teams composed of people with deep knowledge of the issue and context, who can begin having an immediate impact).  One group brainstormed the following interventions: “Organize actions against ICE, mayor’s office, and other officials; identify areas of sanctuary for undocumented people; create and fund a local food cooperative; train police to work with youth and families in a less hostile manner; create a rapid response network for deportations; “know your rights” workshops on protecting yourself from law enforcement; organize community to pressure City to de-fund Chicago police department and direct funding towards schools and health care.”

The narrowing and focusing process led to 6 teams developing initial prototype ideas and action plans (stay tuned for more details in the upcoming Kickoff Workshop Report).


A team from Little Village develops their prototype model [Photo credit: Isaac Guzman]

Thinking in Dark Times

The word “brutality” took shape in my head early in the lab, when participants began discussing ICE officials performing what they called “dragnet raids.”  These occur when officials target people with deportation orders but sweep up any undocumented people in their path (there are an estimated 11 million undocumented people in America, or 3.5% of the population).  At this point I could not help thinking of ICE agents as mini-Eichmanns, rounding up Jews in the night (there were an estimated 11 million Jewish people living within Nazi Germany’s sphere of power).  Some may protest that I am stretching analogies here- people aren’t being deported to literal death camps- but not if we take “slow, cold violence” seriously.

With one day left in the lab, I went with my colleagues to the Seminary Co-op bookstore near the University of Chicago, and picked up a collection discussing the work of Hannah Arendt.  Her writings (including her controversial report on Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial in Jerusalem) have experienced a huge resurgence in the wake of the last U.S. election.  

Arendt admonishes us that we cannot retreat to private life and claim neutrality when plain evil is happening, that we cannot rationalize actions or follow commands we hold to be wrong, and that “crimes remain crimes even if legalized by the government.”  Thinking, and judging, helps to defend reality from the “political lie”- the fictional constructions and ideologies that serve to obscure reality. 

Arendt is talking about a very specific kind of thinking, which she refers to as “thinking in dark times.” That is, “When everyone is swept away unthinkingly by what everybody else does and believes in, those who think are drawn out of hiding because their refusal to join in is conspicuous and thereby becomes a kind of action.” 

This, of course, was always the underlying thrust of the Sanctuary Movement.  In contrast, Trump has so distorted reality that he would proclaim the building of a wall to keep people safe by keeping vulnerable people out- a kind of perverse, inverse Sanctuary.

Does the death (or attempted killing) of the Sanctuary Movement represent the death of thinking in America? As Arendt might say, the system itself has obliterated (political, critical) thinking- the ability to engage in dialogue with oneself, to be self-reflexive, to imagine oneself in the shoes of another.  Dark times obscure the light of knowledge, and thinking goes to die.

Arendt pointed out that what was most incredible about Eichmann was not his evil but his thoughtlessness.  Ordinary people become complicit in extraordinary harm and violence when they fail to think about the ways in which evil is systemic.  Arendt seems to say that collective violence is perpetrated not by vicious sadists but by normal people following the dictates of bureaucracies, and without “intentions” in the usual sense (she also clarified that people are not mere cogs in a machine, and agreed with the court that Eichmann should be executed… to read Arendt is to sit with seeming contradictions, like koans).

This “thinking”, in the Arendtian sense, is a core capability for anyone attempting to address complex social problems- labs practitioners, community organizers and activists, nonprofit workers, social innovators, and so on (Roller Strategies points to the core capabilities of “Power and Systems” and “Self-Awareness”).  

I have been in environments with an institutional mandate to ‘solve complex challenges’ (e.g. poverty), and yet this collective capacity was so underdeveloped that there was a kind of allergy – and violent reaction- to any attempt at thinking-out-loud.  To think and speak about these things is to puncture the story we tell ourselves about ourselves; we would like to avoid thinking about ‘who we think we are’ at all. The result of this was not just failure, but (to steal a phrase from Zaid Hassan) “traumatic failure.”  The impact, of course, is felt most by communities who have already been made deeply unsafe. This kind of well-intentioned brutality is ubiquitous throughout civil society.

In order to create a truly safe society, we need to risk thinking; and then acting on this thinking.  It remains to be seen whether more radical approaches, i.e. those that reach root causes, and really leverage social change- will be funded.  In general, potentially transformative ‘experiments with power’ are confined within grassroots social movements, and don’t receive the grants or big foundation money (which is often intertwined with powerful corporate or state interests). 

It is still an open question whether donors or funders are willing to take the kinds of risks needed to create change, or will retreat into non-thinking and their own illusions of safety.  After visiting Chicago and witnessing the work of Safer Through Unity, I am tentatively hopeful.  As usual, the best kind of thinking is happening nearest to the ground.  

The growing global refugee crisis and the increased hostility towards migrants suggests that what is needed are full-scale, long-term Social Labs expanded over multiple neighbourhoods and cities, which requires a much bigger funding commitment.  To start, an expansion of the RAL model to other neighbourhoods in Chicago would be an important step towards reversing brutality, transforming conditions of violence, and achieving a true City of Sanctuary.

              And we will have to face ourselves,

              Face our sense of justice

              To include all life


              We will need to nourish our imagination

              To include a new equality

              And summon our souls, our heart and our minds to a justice,

              which includes all life

                                           -Lee Maracle, “Blind Justice”

“Safer Through Unity” participants [Photo credit: Isaac Guzman]





Berkowitz R, Katz J, Keenan T (Eds). Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics. (2010).



Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. (1963).

Gonzales, Roberto. Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America. (2015).

Walia, Harsha. Undoing Border Imperialism. (2013).

Butler, Judith. “Hannah Arendt’s Challenge to Adolf Eichmann.” (2011).

INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. (2009).

13th – American documentary on the intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration. Directed by Ava DuVernay. (2016).

Lab-In-A-Box: Developing a mature practice model for next-gen social labs


What does a current practice to address complex challenges look like from the inside?


This post is an interview with Cari Caldwell from Roller Strategies, who has been working on an exciting initiative to codify and publish the current social labs practice of Roller Strategies. At the end of this interview, you’ll find downloadable resources which package the v1.0 of this work, released under creative commons license.


So, to learn more about the Roller team’s drive to codify and publish their practice, read on….


Q1: Hi Cari, can you tell us a little about yourself, and your role with Roller?

A: I’m a co-founder of Roller and excited to be working currently as Director of Practice. I’m a facilitator, coach, entrepreneur and hot yoga junkie and I currently live in Colorado with my sons Conor and Luca, and our dog Rowdy.

I have said for a while, that for me Social Labs are the only game in town. What this means to me is that having been involved with many convening, engagement, leadership, organizational change and participatory processes – I find them all important but all insufficient. Few efforts have a strategy for long term serious shifts. Even fewer build the conditions for actual systems change. So I am thrilled to be part of the Roller team and working to bring this practice forward toward a mainstream future along with the whole Social Labs community.


Q2: We’re really excited about the work you’ve been doing, can you tell everyone a little about it?

A: Sure. We have been working on capturing and documenting our most current Social Labs practice. We affectionately call the project “Lab in a Box” (LIAB). We set out to codify our own practice and additionally wanted to make it available to anyone who wants to use it. When it’s finished, it will contain a full set of tools, capabilities, maps, protocols, workshop designs, checklists, sample documents and a field book. As the field of working with complex social challenges is still quite young and developing, we feel strongly about being part of the growing community of practitioners working to help the practice mature and find ever-better ways to produce more real, long-lasting results.

Our work with LIAB is not saying there is ‘one right way’ to respond to complex challenges. At the same time, as with any developing field, standards of practice support the field to mature, provide quality and consistency. The other end of the spectrum is ‘wild west’ where anything goes and can be a lab or a response to a complex challenge. So our work also tries to set out and open a discussion for standards of practice.


Q3: We were delighted to be able to support you to work with the social labs community to shape this. Can you tell us a little more about that experience?

A: As we were getting a first set of tools complete for LIAB, we wanted to sense check them with a small group of practitioners who could give feedback based on their Labs experience. We held two video calls where we had small groups join us and walk through the tools offering their feedback and ideas (huge thanks to Chelsea Robinson, Joshua Cubista, Ashley Dryburgh, Claire Buré, Mike Kang, and Gina Rembe!). We were really pleased to hear many people say they found the tools useful, some wished they’d had them a month ago, and everyone appreciated the work that is going into articulating the practice.

Some key questions and ideas that came from the sessions included:

  • How can we balance the tension between codifying the work and calcifying the work? Meaning how can we, in the way that we share and represent the practice with LIAB, offer it as ‘a’ way to do Social Labs but not have people relate to it as ‘the’ way to do Social Labs?
  • How can we support people to take what we have done and are sharing and not relate to it as rigid map but take it and innovate from it, improve on it and make it their own?
  • How can we show the iterative nature of Social Labs in our maps (check out our next iteration and see if it helps!)
  • How can we make the role descriptions more alive and personal?
  • As LIAB goes on-line how could it become a place where practitioners can add their own approaches so that we can build our community practice shared space?
  • How does it contribute to a knowledge commons for social labs practitioners?
  • We also heard further suggestions for additional roles and capabilities that could be included in LIAB.


Q4: What’s next on the horizon for this work?

A: We are working at the moment to finalize a 1.0 version of all the preconditions tools and delivery cycle tools. The next release will include preconditions tools like an organisational culture assessment, a convening partner assessment, Lab risk assessment, protocols for defining the lab challenge and preconditions, and protocols for selecting and onboarding early lab roles.


Q5: What are the biggest questions you’re holding about social labs practice at the moment?

A: One of the questions I am holding right now, coming out of an organizational development background, is how can we best support convening organizations to be effective at solving complex challenges? Many Labs are convened or sponsored or housed in more traditional organisations for whom prototyping, experimentation culture is not indigenous.

I’m really asking how can we set up the right relationship, conditions and practices so the Lab can thrive and not be hampered by dynamics and old school default ways of working. As I mentioned, in the next LIAB release we will include an Organisational Capability Assessment which takes the core capabilities talked about in the Core Capabilities Model below and provides an inventory for a convening or sponsoring organization to be able to assess its own cultural readiness and capability to support a Lab. Watch this space!


Reflections On Designing An Information Stack

When you’re addressing complex challenges, such as unemployment or climate change, writing a 5 year plan doesn’t really help. Situations change faster than a plan.

Yet that’s our dominant response — strategic planning.

Even the likes of Forbes magazine highlights that leading research shows 70% of strategic plans fail (article).

Thankfully there’s another practice in the field of addressing complex problems, known as Social Labs.


Social labs are a strategy for increasing the likelihood of success when tackling complex problems.




What is a Stack?

To help pay attention to all the ‘moving parts’ of a social lab, we talk about a number of ‘stacks’ which characterise different aspects of a lab’s functions.

Labs Stack


The Information Stack

For the purpose of this article I want to focus on the Information Stack. Recently I spent a month focused on designing, integrating and reviewing this stack for the launch of Grove 3547. The Grove is a social lab in Chicago which supports young people to develop resilient livelihoods.

Simply put, an information stack is concerned with the documentation, storage, activation and sharing of information within a social lab.

NY Times Journalism Floor


I often liken an Information Stack to floor of journalists in the New York Times. Within that floor, you’ll likely have people creating and publishing stories, storing a variety of data, and people working to push those stories out into the world. The floor will also have people who are out looking for new stories, as well as sharing information that has come to light recently with the managerial team, so that good decisions can be made. This thin slice of the newspaper operations has links with all the other operations of the paper, to help it continue to move smoothly.

This stack needs to take into account how information will be captured, stored and moved through the other stacks, such as evaluation data getting to the facilitation team (Innovation Stack), lab stories moved out into the stakeholder community (outside the Lab), or financial reports moved down to the Secretariat to aid decision making (Governance Stack).


Reflections on designing an Information Stack

Working on Grove 3547 was the first time I’d explicitly designed a stack, so all of these reflections are raw and through a beginners lens. That said, I’ve worked in communications, digital organising and social labs for a few years now, so I’m comfortable with the domain.


1) Context is vital for design.

As I set out to design this stack, I found I had to write myself a brief. My brief had to take into account a wide variety of contexts, including the ubiquitous Who / Why / How / When / What / Where?

What I rapidly found, was that building personas, scenarios and ‘Jobs To Be Done’ for a wide range of these scenarios was the best way to proceed, as there’s too much fuzziness in what will happen in the lab to engineer a suitable solution from a standard brief.


We need to embrace the complexity of a social lab, and design a core infrastructure which people can live into.


2) Focus on behaviour not tools.

Whilst information stacks are inherently going to lean towards the digital, I suggest a focus on the user’s experience rather than the next exciting tool on Product Hunt.

That said, I believe in having an in depth knowledge of a bag of tools, ready for when the need arises, as it really helps to know what’s possible.

For example:

Have a prototyping team which wants an easy way to record videos of their screen with their voice over the top to demo a digital service?

There’s an app for that. It’s called Loom, by the way.


Our role as designers is not to force people into behaviours which fit our whims, it’s to make their lives easier.


3) Design the whole, but show the parts.

Very few people need to see the entirety of an information stack. In fact, it will likely confuse them if you do show it to them.

When you want to show people around an office space, you give them a walk through tour, not the blueprints.

The same is true of an info stack. For example, does this schematic make sense to you?

A schematic for an Information Stack

Probably not.

But if I told you: “if you’ve taken a photo of a flip chart you were working on at the second Studio, you would drop it into your team’s Google Drive folder marked ‘Studio 2 & Sprint 3’”, you might have more success.


That’s because most people navigate the world through the lens of their own behavioural triggers and mental models, not an abstract blueprint of a whole system.


After taking all the scenarios and users into account for Grove 3547, this was the model I came up with, but no one in our team needed it, once I’d set up the digital structure.

Instead I created a series of cheat sheets for each of the roles I foresaw, with how they could navigate the digital structure and some examples from scenarios which might emerge in the lab. In addition, if they needed help I ran briefings for each person, to increase uptake amongst the lab community.

Social Labs are already challenging environments where people are asked to learn a lot, fast…


If you want people to enjoy the play, don’t show them everything that happens backstage.


4. Prepare to be wrong.

Most likely you will be wrong with something in the stack. People have a habit of using things in ways which the designer did not foresee.

Designing an information stack to be in place before the lab starts, means that you will have to make some assumptions and leaps of faith before you will even meet most of the participants. Co-design (an approach to design attempting to actively involve all stakeholders in the design) may well not be an option.

So, when people do start using what you’ve created, they’ll find a different way of doing things, which may suit them better. That’s fine, don’t take it personally. Note it, and integrate it into future iterations of the stack (here’s an article I wrote about looking out for those gems).

So don’t over engineer this. Just design a minimum viable solution. You can go a long way with Google Suite (document creation and storage) and Mobilize (communication for groups).


Review how the stack performed midway through and at the end of the first cycle, then iterate to improve it, based on the main pain points.


Next Steps

The social labs space is still in its relatively early days (15 years or so), so we’re breaking new ground with this work, even for next-gen labs.


I’m keen to share my thinking and reflections with the social labs community as I know I struggled with how to manage Information Stacks whilst working at Lifehack in Aotearoa New Zealand. It was definitely a level up for me to sit down and consciously think it through at Grove 3547, rather than just evolve something on the fly. These are just my musings and I’d love to get a good debate going about what ‘good practice’ looks like for this work.


I’m glad we’ve got a 1.0 design for information stacks for Roller now, a place to iterate and improve from. We’d love to open source more of this work beyond the blueprint I shared above.

This story was originally posted on our Medium Collection by Sam Rye.

On Prototyping

When we face complex challenges, it is difficult, if not impossible to predict how they will respond to any form of intervention. We are seeing increasing complexity of challenges, with the growth of a hyperconnected world – whether it’s by communications, economics or global environmental patterns.

Intervene today in youth mental health and, despite ‘evidence’ of how an intervention performed 5 years ago, it will likely respond in a different way this time. Predictive planning approaches to complex challenges are decreasingly effective in today’s world, which is where social labs come in.

Social labs operate within the paradigm of Prototyping, not Planning. So that begs the question, ‘what is prototyping?’, and ‘how do we do it?’

What are the top 5 things I should read about prototyping?

It’s a familiar question which we’re often asked, so we decided to share some of the key texts and resources we tend to send people.

This list isn’t exhaustive, in fact it’s a prototype of it’s own making. So please do jump in on the comments and share other articles and resources which you’ve found useful yourselves.

Prototyping Mindset

To get started with prototyping, it’s important to recognise that it’s not simply about the act of creating the model of a service or a system. Prototyping can actually be a lens through which you see your work – much like for many years people thought the world was flat, this formed their actions, beliefs and ideas.

To go deeper into the ideas of a Prototyping Mindset, here’s some must-reads:

Prototyping Methods

To actually embark on prototyping is easy.

Think of it through a child’s eye – they ‘make believe’ that something is real all the time. Two blocks become a castle. A box becomes a fort.

Prototyping is about making an idea or concept tangible – whether that’s through writing, drawing, storytelling, sculpting, digital mockups, or some other approach. Prototyping is also not just about the act of making something real, but also about learning something from this process – most commonly in social labs, this is about either testing feasibility, or putting it into people’s hands to get feedback on the idea, or test demand.

Here’s some must-reads about Prototyping Methods:

Also a special mention to “Probes, toolkits and prototypes: three approaches to making in codesigning” by Liz Sanders & Pieter Jan Stappers, which is behind an academic journal paywall.


Managing Prototyping

In the previous section, we mentioned that Prototyping is about more than creating, it’s about learning.

This throws up the question ‘how do we capture all this learning?’. Well this is an ongoing area of interest for many people in nearly every sector – Public, Private, Foundations, and indeed in social labs too. Taking into account the increasing complexity, solutions need to be found which quickly capture the learnings of the ‘small bets’ of prototyping, whilst also ensuring the ‘big wins’ (and losses) don’t get lost in the fogginess of time.

One social lab in New Zealand shared this account of their efforts to manage prototyping & experiments:


Further Reading

There are also some important longer form resources for you to gain further insight from. Why not check out:


There’s much more to be said about Prototyping, so why not jump into our Facebook Group to start a conversation, share resources we should know about in the comments, or write us a note if you’d like to share a guest post on the subject.

Three Social Labs To Watch in 2017

There are endless thought pieces about how bad 2016 was. However, over at Social Labs, we’re ever hopeful that globally, we’re able to start tackling complex challenges with better approaches – from the biggest foundations, to those working at the grassroots of social change.

2016 brought some glimmers of hope with some exciting new labs launching, and some existing labs making further headway. Here’s three social labs to keep your eye on in 2017, as well as a bonus resource for people interested in social labs practice.


The Edmonton Shift Lab

The Edmonton Shift Lab - social lab on intersection of racism and poverty
image courtesy of Edmonton Shift Lab

The Edmonton Shift Lab launched in 2016, and we were privileged to have some of the team join us for our Vancouver Course to support them with the design stages, and to give them some tips on how to steer the ship over the coming months and years.

The lab is focused on the intersection of Racism and Poverty in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. They’ve shaped a strong base with the local community to get early support, and their website has some great descriptions of the work they’re trying to do, and what they’re learning.

Check out The Edmonton Shift Lab here.


The Grove 3547

Grove 3547 - social lab focused on resilient livelihoods in Chicago
image courtesy of Grove 3547

The team at Grove 3547 have just completed their first 3 month ‘cycle’ with their lab teams working on a broad range of prototypes to create resilient livelihoods in Chicago’s south side.

We’re impressed with the use of video to tell the stories of the journey thus far, and we know there’s an exciting announcement in the pipeline from Grove 3547 soon as well.

Check out The Grove 3547 here.



Place - European Migrant social lab
image courtesy of Place

Place is an exciting new European initiative which is responding to a very hot topic, which has been a major factor in elections and the likes of Brexit. It’s starting in Paris in 2017, but there are also chapters brewing in Berlin, Greece and London.

Place takes a positive frame on migration (proven around the world in various studies) which seeks to support migrants to rapidly take part in creating their own livelihoods and support structures.

Learn more about Place here.


(Free) Bonus Resource

If you’re interested in the paradigm which underpins social labs – Prototyping, not Planning as a way of responding to complex challenges – then you should read this excellent article from Zaid Hassan, published in Social Kritik.
Download Now

The value of storytelling for social labs – eyes on Chicago

“Storytelling is what connects us to our humanity. It is what links us to our past, and provides a glimpse into our future.” – Jon Ferreira

In November, we hit the road and headed to Chicago to spend some time at Grove 3547, a next-gen social lab focused on building resilient livelihoods for young people.

The time in Chicago led us into various conversations about the value of storytelling in social labs.  What struck us was the multiple levels at which storytelling was needed, could be used, and the effects it could have.  This is a short look into some of the layers at which storytelling was at play, and reflections.

Storytelling as a means to share updates about the lab

Unsurprisingly, this was our entry point into the conversation, and a first major noticing about how Grove 3547 were attempting to get the word out about what was happening in their lab. The Grove deployed roving social media coverage to live tweet particular quotes, Instagram behind the scenes footage from the film-maker’s studio set up, and live stream some of the group presentations. These are tactics often seen more at conferences than social labs.

So why work so hard to get the word out? After chatting with the team, it was clear there was a few reasons:

  • to enable serendipitous connections with the wider community of Bronzeville and Chicago, thus supporting the lab teams to open doors for their prototyping work
  • to build awareness of the Lab amongst potential future applicants
  • to create a permeable layer of the Lab which would enable it to be increasingly shaped by its stakeholders

This led us to another realisation as we were watching the pratice presentations of the lab teams on Day 1 of the Studio; story was being used as a way to rapidly prototype and iterate the projects in the lab.

Story as a means of prototyping

Whilst some programs, such as incubators and accelerators, often hammer their participants on pitching and presentation skills, this wasn’t happening at the studio. The teams were giving their presentations as updates to their peers, getting a little feedback, and then going back to work.

This wasn’t ‘story as sales’, it was about finding a narrative for their projects’ progress midway through the lab. Communicating progress is half the battle when you’re prototyping, as things often don’t move in a linear fashion.

Some insights about prototyping with stories from the team:

  • If a prototype is about learning something about your idea, as it comes into contact with a user or stakeholder, then story is a simple and cheap way to do this.
  • Prototyping is about rapidly updating and changing your ideas, so stories are one of the cheapest and fastest ways of doing so
  • Some people get lost in the jargon of prototyping, and find it hard to create a sketch or a 3D model of their idea. However if you ask them to ‘tell you a story about how someone would experience it’, then they naturally do so. Give them some feedback and ask them to adapt their idea with this new information, and tell you the story again, then they’re already prototyping.

This is a great way to get people started, and reinforce the value of a prototyping mindset.

Storytelling as a vehicle for change

The final layer we noticed, was the value of storytelling as an ongoing lever for re-shaping the future of a community.

To some extent, our communities and societies are shaped by the dominant narratives which are told and re-told over time. Whether it’s about a region being ‘innovative’, a community being ‘full of discontented young people’, or a neighbourhood being ‘creative’, we collectively shape the stories of the places which people grow up in, and live their lives in.

So, how do we start telling new stories? New stories of hope and excitement, of resilience and possibility?

One way is that the awareness of what’s happening in a neighbourhood becomes widespread. So for example, if a social lab is running in a neighbourhood and you’re out there effectively telling people about the lab and sharing what’s going on, over time you will build a new shared narrative about the community.

But for most social labs, at some point they will close down (maybe to come back another day in another form). With all the value that comes out of a lab, much of it will be diffused into a community – much like a space program generates a wide range of new products, services and skills in a nation, the mindsets, skills and connections travel with people onward in life. But we think there’s an interesting opportunity to go a step further: an open archive of stories and insights which will last the test of time.

With change in the ease and affordability of media creation and storage, most labs should be able to create a website, and publish a series of videos, blog posts or the likes, to share the stories of participants, learnings from the lab teams, and what is possible because of the work of this lab. Not as marketing, but as a social archive, which anyone in that area can access and build on.

Much like IT developers have open source libraries which other developers can borrow from and build on, social labs could be creating their own open source archives which can continue to affect change even after they close their doors.

Why do this?

  • Social labs are strategic responses to complex problems. By nature they are experimental and the results of their work are emergent (much like technical and scientific labs). To create an ongoing asset which can affect change, seems like an important investment to make.
  • Using story as the ‘musical notes’ of communicating what social labs are doing so that others can learn and build on your work, may be a shortcut to making change faster.
  • Who else is doing this? We’ve seen Grove 3547, Shift Edmonton, WellAhead, Lifehack and are actively looking for others, as well as supporting people to do so through our platform.