All posts by Leo

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.

An announcement from

Dear Friends,

The platform was launched in 2014 to support the publication of The Social Labs Revolution.

In 2016 we launched Roller Strategies to work on more effective strategic responses to complex social challenges.

After 18 months of being in the fray and delivering labs we are making some changes. 

In the short term this means that this platform will continue as the Social Labs Blog. Over time, our intention is to evolve the blog into a full-fledged, peer reviewed, open source journal. Our belief is that as the field matures we want to be supporting a standard for learning. We hope to make this platform one of those standards. 

We will no longer be facilitating a community of practice around social labs. We want to be part of the community of practice but no longer facilitating it. 

This also means we will be parting ways with our community champion, Sam Rye, who will be moving on to explore his own practice in Victoria, Australia where he is based. If you would like to contact him, you can reach him on Twitter or Linkedin.
In the meantime, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us and we will continue to share our work and stories on the blog. 

Your sincerely,

Angela, Cari, Leo, Sarah, Sam, Nathan, & Zaid 

PS. you can go to the Roller Strategies website for more information. 

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).

The Six or Seven Axioms of Mass Social Change


(Photo: activist Nnimmo Bassey performs “We Thought It Was Oil But It Was Blood” against a gas flare, Eastern Niger Delta)

By Zaid Hassan

Margaret Meads Gift

The anthropologist Margaret Mead gave us the gift of what can protestbe called Meads Axiom, “”Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”” While I have heard this quote being used hundreds, if not thousands of times, I personally haven’t had much of an understanding of how it happens to be true. It seems to be an article of faith, at least amongst social activists, hence an axiom in the technical sense. My intention here is to corroborate it with my personal understanding of mass social change.

On good days my work involves enthusiastically trying to form and catalyse such groups. On bad days I curse and wonder where these small groups of thoughtful, committed people are and what they’re waiting for. Regardless of what day it is, I feel that Meads Axiom provides us with a compelling vision for mass social change. It deserves attention. This essay is animated by a burning desire to understand what could be thought of as the mother of all axioms, at least when it comes to mass social change. I propose a series of lesser axioms, all drawn from trying to understand how Meads Axiom operates in the world.

Despite the tidiness of Meads Axiom, mass social change is not usually a nice linear process. There are, of course, situations where social innovation follows a linear path, for example with the take-up of an innovation (See Chapter 9 of “Believing Cassandra” by Worldchanging contributor Alan Atkisson). But these situations are rare when it comes to social systems which are complex and stuck. My colleague, Adam Kahane, in his book “Solving Tough Problems” explains,

“Problems are tough because they are complex in three ways. They are dynamically complex, which means that cause and effect are far apart in space and time, and so are hard to grasp from first-hand experience. They are generatively complex, which means that they are unfolding in unfamiliar and unpredictable ways. And they are socially complex, which means that the people involved see things very differently, and so the problems become polarized and stuck.”

When studying mass social change as a phenomenon there is always a temptation to order events as they happened, in a timeline. Then by implication we assume that one thing follows another and one thing neatly causes another. A very real danger for those wishing to learn from historical social change is the trap of seeing social change linearly. This is a trap is because we know (for example from research on complex systems) that social change, that is changing a complex system, is less about planning and more about creating the conditions for change. To mangle an old adage, no plan survives contact with reality. Mass social change is messy, unpredictable and often ugly.

Modern institutions are not well suited to the work of catalysing social change because they suffer from a touching need for linear and predictable processes. Such processes in turn demand that risk be minimised and a plan be proposed, which is often used as a script rather than a point of departure. If we’re being honest with ourselves, then we’d recognise when the function of a plan is purely psychological comfort in the face of unpredictable and frightening change.

Some appetite for risk is, however, a key capacity required of anyone with a commitment to sustained social change in such turbulent times. If this appetite does not come naturally then it must be built slowly over time, like an immunity. As James P. Carse, in Finite and Infinite Games puts it, “To be prepared against surprise is to be trained, to be prepared for surprise is to be educated.”

Risk therefore should not be confused with recklessness or blindness. Risk can be understood, embraced and internalised as an intrinsic quality of the systems that we’re dealing with. It cannot be banished and any attempt to do so should be treated with the same sympathy that any other pathological condition demands.

I fell headfirst into the trap of seeing social change as a linear process. I wrote down what I saw happening, one step after another. It took me a little time to see the obvious and to realise that while such an approach might make me feel like I have a handle on my subject, it was largely an illusion. Instead, I offer an unbundling of Meads Axiom in the hope of prompting further dialogue and thought.

Change happens.

Or to be more precise, positive social change happens often.

Deeply entrenched and traumatic social problems can cause despair. When problems appear to go on for decades with no resolution in sight, it is easy at adopt an attitude that things do not, will not or cannot change. Everything however is subject to the law of entropy, everything decays and everything will die. This is true of institutions, regimes and reigns of injustice. When confronted with monolithic systems that seem to defy time, we are in, fact, confronting our own attitudes towards our own mortality.

While it’s true that the existence of an unjust system may be extracting a high price from the people subjected to it, and that should always drive us, there is a more fundamental question that requires attention. Are we willing to see our work as bigger than ourselves, as a generational project if need be, in the faith that things will change? The attitude and commitment that such a position would entail is rare and becoming rarer still. While not a requirement per se, the adoption of such attitudes can liberate us from the paralysis caused by life under the weight of soul crushing social problems.

If we’re willing to look beyond the concerns and demands of our own mortality, or do whatever else it takes, in order to believe that change is possible, then this is what we will see. The Quit India Movement, the Civil Rights Movement and the collapse of the Soviet Union are all outstanding examples of mass social change where systems that seemed timeless either collapsed or changed beyond imagining.

A stuck system is like a black hole.

Stuck social problems, or stuck systems, like black holes, rarely come into being overnight. Often they are the result of long historical processes. A system might be stuck because those in power are benefiting from the status quo or it might be stuck because there are fundamental disagreements as to how it should change.

One way of understanding the increasing “stuck-ness” of social systems is to visualise them as sending out signals during the course of coming into being, as they progress in their development as problems. In the early phases of a problem, the signals from a system may be very localised, visible and audible only to those inside it. A defining characteristic of a “stuck” system is when all signals being sent from it are somehow being blocked or ignored. They arc out into the world but before getting too far, they fall back to the surface. People outside the system, not directly affected by the problem perceive little. Often people within the system, those directly affected, become attuned to the very same signals trying to escape. They have lived with the problem so long that they come to believe it as being an unalterable state of affairs. In other words they forget the axiom that ‘change happens.’ The problem, by all accounts, has been left to its own devices, to evolve as it may, into increased conflict which potentially generates louder and more powerful signals.

A black hole, is by definition black, because no signals from it can ever escape its gravitational field (although apparently we have just discovered light coming out of a black hole – go figure). We see it as a hole, as a non-entity. It does however make its presence felt, because it has a lot of mass and hence we are affected by its strong gravitational pull. We can know it exists in other words, and how big it is, without knowing much more about it. The space inside a black hole is known as a singularity, and it is a place where the laws of physics, the laws of the universe break down. We do not know what laws operate inside of a black hole. We only know that they are very different to anything we know and understand. Similarly, when a stuck system is left to its own devices it enters into a phase where all known laws break down, when the most unimaginable things can and do happen.

Luckily stuck problems are not black holes, they are only like black holes. As the problem grows in complexity, intensity, and urgency, the strength of the signals emanating from the system grows, and sometimes force their way into the public consciousness. They break free of the gravitational pull of the stuck system. Eventually these signals, in the form of eye-witness accounts, refugees, news reports and so on from the system, may become so strong and urgent that action of some sort becomes necessary, as in the case of Darfur or military action in the Balkans. At this stage the problem can be seen as more akin to a crisis or all out warfare. Or the signals may be recognised too late, as was the case in Rwanda.

While these examples bring to mind extreme conflict situations, these very same characteristics arise at many scales, from small organisations to rural communities. It would be a mistake to assume that “mass” social change only occurs at national or global levels.

Unlike a black hole, which is the product of the laws of physics at work, a stuck system is the product of human processes. This means that its qualities, such as the fact that signals do not escape its gravitational pull, are somehow man-made. We can change them. In the situation of stuck-ness, there is essentially something people are somehow choosing not to see, not to feel, and not to do.

The first move towards change is usually undemocratic.

A stuck system, like a black hole, contains massive energies. These energies can be seen as that which is stuck. They are frozen. The first move that sets these energies into motion, like cutting a stretched rubber band, has been called a “power move” by systems thinker Barry Oshry. The power move then is one where tremendous energies are unleashed.

What’s more it’s usually an individual who, waking up in the middle of the night, get it into their head that they must do something. Oshry claims that the thought of what to do comes with great clarity. Even if such individuals are politicians who seemingly have a mandate from the electorate, this first move is often seen as a betrayal by many people. (And it rarely makes sense to ask permission in order to do something that will be perceived as a betrayal.) As Oshry points out, Abraham Lincoln, Anwar Sadat and Yitzak Rabin are good examples of politicians who went beyond their official mandates in order to change a situation that was dramatically stuck. All three were shot for their troubles.

The first move, an act of self-nomination, is profoundly undemocratic. It’s “paradigm shattering” because it changes the rules of the game. It’s a move made by an individual tired of endless committee meetings and discussions that change nothing. It’s the move made by a seemingly helpless individual simply and profoundly tired of being subject to power, the logic of which is beyond their rational understanding (think of all those moments of anonymous bravery during periods such as the Holocaust). To make the first move is to risk everything, it is to make the ultimate wager.

Fraught with risk and danger, the first move is made by an individual who finally sees, in a moment, that they actually have it within themselves to change a world. The defining act of leadership, the first move, increasingly, is rarely practiced by those who call themselves leaders and is more usually found amongst those that don’t.

The group is smarter (but not braver) than the individual.

When a previously stuck social system suddenly becomes “unstuck” a river of possibilities start to flow. It’s almost as if the system instantly shifts from being a solid to being liquid. In order to cope creatively and constructively with the energies of a liquid system, a vast array of decisions need to be made, usually in a short space of time. While such changes appear to be sudden for many people, for those working to create them, they are often the product of many long years of work and not sudden at all but long overdue. Such moments exemplify the idea of the “tipping point, ” when a system shifts from one state to another.

It’s in such moments of historic flux that we see dictators seizing power or billionaires being created (the oligarchs of Russia are a good example). These are individuals who have seized the moment for their own benefit. For individuals, however, to know how and when to act for the greater public interest during such periods is much more difficult. Few, if any individuals, regardless of how talented or dedicated they are, can turn chaos into positive social change within the complexity of a roiling liquid system. This alchemical task is much better suited to the genius of the group.

A very particular and peculiar set of qualities are demanded of a group in order to intelligently cope with such a situation. The group needs to be characterised by something that has recently been labelled “collective intelligence, ” which can be thought of as the ability to act with a single intelligence or will. Collective intelligence arises out of the process of diverse and dissenting individuals working well with each other within the context of a group.

On the other hand a group that displays schizophrenic qualities, such as being of two minds, will not be able to capitalise of the possibilities of the moment. Instead of acting, they’ll spend all their time trying to figure out what they themselves think of the fast-changing situation. A group which is homogenous will not exhibit collective intelligence either, rather it will exhibit group-think, that is, a form of collective blindness.

The existence of a group which can display such demanding characteristics also points to the non-linear nature of mass social change. It’s virtually impossible to bring into existence such a group in the short and confused moments after a system becomes liquid. The group needs to be built over a long period of time, with patience and skill.

It’s usually the case that any number of lesser opportunities are what practically bring the group together in the first instance. It’s working on lesser opportunities that the group develops the capacities to take advantage of a window of historic opportunity. The defining moment in the life of any group is that historic moment where they are called to act in an instant, with perfect trust and co-ordination.

Ideas (and viruses) acquire people through small worlds.

The most effective way for an epidemic, either of ideas or viruses, to spread widely is through people who don’t know each other well. Every time we meet an individual we know only slightly, we’re coming into contact with an entirely distinct web of social relationships from our own. While somewhat counter-intuitive, in a network the existence of a “light dusting” of weak social links makes the world a small place.

We all have a tight cluster of relationships around us, if these clusters are then weakly connected to each other, we get what is called a “small world.” A small world is a particular network architecture within which every member of a network is connected to every other member through a short number of connections, say six degrees. Airports are small worlds and this is why they are such dangerous places as far as the spread of disease goes. Every stranger that comes (weakly) into contact with a diseased individual is a vector to an entirely different part of the globe, into an entirely different cluster of relationships (often urban). If everyone in an airport were going to the same place or if people didn’t live in dense urban clusters then stopping a modern epidemic would be child’s play. Malcolm Gladwell calls the individuals which provide the weak ties between clusters “connectors.” They can also be thought of as “carriers.”

All social change is a change from one state to another. Where mass social change is concerned, a tipping point can be thought of as that point when a phenomenon shifts from being localised, that is, affecting a relatively small number of people, to affecting a relatively large number of people – in a very short period of time.

The presence of a minimum threshold of connectors along with a number of dense clusters is what determines if an epidemic or an idea will tip or break-out of its point of origin.

Meads Axiom Redux

For a small group of thoughtful and committed people to change the world, they must believe that change is possible. They must be ready to act the moment a stuck system becomes liquid. They will only be effective if they display collective intelligence. Finally, they must live in a small world.

Further Reading

Solving Tough Problems” – Adam Kahane

Leading Systems: Lessons from the Power Lab“- Barry Oshry

Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Theory of Networks“- Mark Buchannan

This article was originally published on on 25th July 2005

Image: By the author

Prototyping Our Future: Social Labs For A Sustainable, Regenerative & Thriving Future

Guest post from Joshua Cubista:

Fifty years ago we were invited and challenged by the grand designJC 1 scientist and evolutionary strategist himself Buckminster Fuller to “Make the world work, for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.” Decades later humanity faces systemically increasing global, complex, and accelerating social and ecological challenges. In the face of such challenges Social Labs offer a collaborative remedy to traditional planning and silo solutions as a way of prototyping, innovating, relationship building, and developing the capacity of collaborators as agents of collective impact and contribution.

As the field of Social Labs evolves so too does our research and practical knowledge; in service to this evolution I would like to introduce to you Prototyping Our Future: Social Labs For A Sustainable, Regenerative & Thriving Future a guidebook dedicated to emerging Lab designers, facilitators, and maverick artist change makers.

Prototyping Our Future incorporates academic and field research including interviews with leading Lab and Sustainability practitioners exploring questions such as:

JC 2Q: How can Labs be designed to move society toward a truly sustainable future?

Q: What could be strategic operating principles for designing and facilitating labs?

Q: How can Labs address systemic root causes and foster long-term innovation?
JC 9Part one explores the Sustainability challenge that we face in
ourworld today and emphasizes the need for new models,
prototypes and visions of the future that inspire and engage people in meaningful work and play; models that move us from fragmented to collaborative leadership.

Part two focuses on Sustainability Principles as a scientific and radically systemic means of articulating the boundary conditions within which people can envision truly Sustainable futures.

Part three highlights Backcasting from Sustainability Principles
asone effective method for envisioning and innovating toward Sustainability, the emphasis here being on prototyping and taking strategic action toward the future we want to create rather than trying to predict or forecast future events in the midst of increasing complexity.

Part four provides an introduction to the field of Social Labsexploring in brief its roots, definitions, and highlights some examples from the field.

Part five presents key findings from field notes, research, and
interviews which are offered in synthesis as an iterative model integrating the processes of Defining, Designing, Acting, and Evolving within a Lab including strategic questions practitioners can explore when designing Lab and innovation spaces.

Part six and seven offer reflections upon the Practice of Prototyping Our Future and present a set of Guiding Principles distilled from this research that can be seen as way points along the journey of experimenting, innovating, and prototyping through Social Labs:


JC 8In summary Prototyping Our Future takes the pulse of current trends in the field, offers reflections through research synthesis, and explores the system conditions for creating innovations that lead toward Sustainability. Prototyping Our Future is a freely downloadable guidebook and is licensed under Creative Commons as a free culture resource so feel free to iterate, re-mix, or mash-up to your hearts content along the collaborative path toward systemic leadership.

JC 7


Receive Your Copy:

About Author: Joshua Cubista is an international experiential designer and facilitator with a focus on personal, social, and systemic leadership capacity building:

Prototyping Our Future is based upon the Master’s in Strategic Leadership Towards Sustainability thesis: Designing Labs For A Sustainable Future
By Ana Carolina Rodrigues, Joshua Cubista, and Rowan Simonsen

Special thanks to all contributing interviewees, Raquel Luna Viggiani for guidebook photography, and Zaid Hassan for his generous contributions to this research.



Social Labs Revolution – Notes from a Masterclass in New Zealand

Guest post from Gina Rembe, Chelsea Robinson & Ingrid Burkett (illustrations):

In May 2015 the Lifehack team in New Zealand had the opportunity to learn from and with Zaid Hassan, author of The Social Labs Revolution (2014) and Louise Marra (Auckland Co-design Lab, New Zealand) along with a cohort of people they convened around a two-day Master Class on Social Labs. In partnership with our dear friend Ingrid Burkett in Australia, we have put together a little summary of what we learnt in that beautiful beach-side gathering.

Two worlds: A and BA and B Worlds

First vs Next Generation Social Labs

Two Generations

1st 2nd Gen

Working on the Preconditions of a Social Lab

A multi-pronged approach to bringing the Lab together will result in a more resilient organisation.  By bringing together the corporate world, government and the community sector it makes it harder for either of them to pull out, as the ownership is shared – much more so than merely having two partners, and as such increases likelihood of long-term existence.

Zaid also talks about the source of funding as being a separate role to that of the convenors. Philanthropists might contribute to the funding of the Lab – but as such aren’t involved in the convening.

Characteristics of Labs

Crafting the Invitation

A crucial part to the puzzle seems to be the invitation that contributes to the partners showing up to support the Lab. What is their role in the problem, and the interest in improving it? Looking at the Sustainable Food Lab, what’s the role really for a key player like Unilever?

Position the price tag of a lab as 1% of the cost of inaction

Some projects might cost millions to bring to life and sustain over years, however, that number is most likely to be only a fraction of the cost of inaction that incurs by not doing anything about the issue. By trying to formulate an argument around convening a social lab on social inequality, one might consider the money currently being spent to maintain the status quo: increased stress of lack of funds in lower socio-economic backgrounds, the number of doctor visits due to mouldy and cold homes, increased domestic violence due to the mounting stress in households. And on top of thinking about the primary costs of inaction, also consider the secondary cost: potentially poorer performance in school due to a lack to nutritious food, inadequate supply of materials for a positive learning environment, inability to access opportunity to the same levels of others. Even by combining conservative figures for the primary, secondary & tertiary cost of inaction, any wicked problem is likely to cost the country millions of Dollars. By often only taking 1% of said figure, one would end up with millions that could spent by trying something slightly different, like a social lab.

Gathering the people who have the mana to convene can often taken years. Building the right, meaningful relationships, the domain knowledge and getting the support of some important elders is half the battle of gathering the right kind of support.

Diversity & size of team

According to Zaid’s experience, a lab team of about 34 people is a good group size. However, diversity in team members plays a crucial role in ensuring richness of conversations, variety in prototypes, and evolution in personal views in the light of the issues.

Challenge vs Strategic Direction

The challenge states the overall challenge, so the wicked problem in question. The strategic direction talks about the ‘how’, in terms of the way the challenge is going to be tackled. So they could be compared to the vision & the mission, one of which looks at the overall objective, and the other one states the way in which the objective could be achieved. There are multiple strategic directions for each wicked problem, and by focussing on one, it becomes easier not only to focus, but also to assess the success of the Lab.

Whilst the challenge might be food sustainability, the strategic direction could be looking as diverse as supply-chain logistics, ocean health, land acidity, bio-diversity etc. Similarly, if climate change is the challenge, then potential avenues through which the challenge could be addressed can be as diverse as public transport, local food production, or educating climate-change deniers.


Lowering the risk of failure through genuine innovation

The Social Labs practice looks at prototyping a variety of solutions, which are low in cost and low in risk. Its cumulative effect still results in change, however is a lot less risky that multi-million Dollar projects with rigid plans and no space for iteration based on the interim learnings of the projects.

That’s not to say that all prototypes will results in a positive change – and individuals prepare a failure scenario that allows teams and supporters to determine if the prototype should cease to exist. Preparing a failure scenario ahead of time, prior to emotional attachment to an idea, means that people will learn to recognise when the prototype is no longer likely to result in a positive outcome. That’s of course not to say that experiment teams don’t learn something in the process.

You can’t cook an egg in your bedroom – the role of space

During the social lab process, the role of space is important. Not only on a conceptual level – in terms of the type of space that’s created to foster trust and collaboration – but also in physical terms. Field trips – full-immersion, spent in the communities affected by the wicked problem in question – play a crucial role in the Sensing part of the Lab. Given the diversity of the team, opposing views play an important role in surfacing possible approaches & changes in opinion and views. Zaid talks about the role of the bus, used to transport the cohort to the field as part of the sensing journey, as a crucial physical space that contributed to the outcomes of the lab. A bus journey that should have taken six hours ended up taking sixteen – resulting in unexpected heated arguments between individuals from the community, non-profit world and corporate executives. Arguments like those, sustained by being constrained to a small physical space, contributed to the outcomes as by-product.

Getting into action in the innovation layer

Once the Lab is convened, funded and the team assembled, the active Lab phase is Theory U-shaped and around 3 months long.

Second Generation Labs are designed in “stacks” rather than simply linear design challenges. The stack contains layers such as the governance layer or the innovation layer, where all the team work and processes live and breathe.

The energy & Shape of the Lab Team’s work
Observing & Sensing ~ What’s really going on?

The first phase is based around Sensing – experiencing the problem and learning all about it, both from a desk-research point of view as well as by immersing the cohort in the problem out in the field. The group needs to be split up and sent out into the world to be alongside people who have different perspectives on how the complex issues are playing out in real peoples’ lives. Given the gravity of any complex wicked issue, this eventually results in a ‘it isn’t possible to do anything about it, the problem is just too large’ feeling amongst the Lab team.

In order for this phase to be successful, there is capacity building needed for the Lab team to appreciate how to gather data in an effective and insight-focussed way. Using Ethnographic approaches as well as community research approaches, the team gets upskilled in interview, observational and other data gathering techniques.

The Lab team is also diverse. People within the team learn from one another as much as they learn from the external world through the process of making sense of all the information together, and seeing it from one another’s perspectives. The length of this phase is between 6 and 7 weeks long.

Reflection & Retreat ~ What do we make of all of this?

Just when it all feels too big and the team hits saturation, the Lab kicks into its second phase, which is more reflective and internally-focused.

The Lab convenors provide a deep space for reflection, again both conceptually and physically, by taking the cohort to a remote location, for example a retreat centre, in a natural setting. This is a residential space in which the Lab team focusses together for a week.

Following a few days of sharing the experiences, stories, data and insights from time in the field, the individuals retreat to three days of isolated time to reflect. The focussing question of the gathering is “Based on what you’ve seen and heard, what do you feel called to work on?”. This  isolation could be in tents, separate and in solitude, yet in proximity, of one another for safety and ease of logistical support in terms of food and checking in with the Convenors.

At the close of this residential time, the group re-gathers to discuss what personal realisations, ideas and commitments are coming up for each person. What are you called to do, for who? What ideas do you have about beginning to take action in that space? How will you know it’s creating value? With these emerging crystals of insight, the Lab begins to prototype.

Protoyping ~ Let’s try our most promising ideas

Kicking into the next phase of Protoyping is a time to work out the synergies between different individuals to form teams around different approaches. People may want to work on the same problem but form very different perspectives or angles so it’s important to allow space for teams to negotiate their shared understanding of the approaches they want to take together.

Half the length of the lab time is spent prototyping, so let’s say in this case if sensing is 6 weeks long, reflection is 3 weeks then prototyping might be 9 weeks.

The prototyping phase is about iteration, fast trials, getting quickly from concept to testing, and not being precious about ideas that fail. Zaid said “Ask a scientist about hypotheses he has let go of in order to know how good a scientist he is”, and suggests that it is essential for the lab teams to hold their ideas lightly so they can test properly. Objectively discarding failed test ideas is the way we improve the likelihood that the lab will create interventions with impact.


Facilitating the lab space

The importance of good facilitators

The process of a social lab is so dynamic and filled with divergence, convergence, emergence, emotions, turmoil and teamwork challenges that it needs to be calmly held.

Having strong convenors in the room, and intergenerational participation can ensure that conflicts feel productive as opposed to like road blocks.

Sharing learnings

As an iterative approach, much of the outcomes are intellectual capital-based: sometimes what you learn from running an experiment is the bigger outcome than the thing you build. However, sharing the learnings across the cohort in the prototyping phase is essential in making sure that further iterations take into considerations any learnings. Regular get-togethers by Lab teams, no matter whether it’s in a short & intense, or longer & more intermittent lab, are crucial so that teams can share learnings to benefit the longer-term goals of the Lab.

This can be pre-determined intervals that create the space, physical and conceptual, to talk about failures, learnings and suggestions for the future.

Using agile

As the prototyping phase begins it’s time for the group to learn about the technique and skills of Agile project management. This is a methodology which stems from the technology development sector and is very appropriate for managing short loops of design, implement, test, measure, learn, change, redesign for the prototype ideas. Within Agile, there is very little planning ahead, very little “3 month plan” style thinking, and instead it’s focussed on “what do we need to learn this week, how are we going to learn that” with a heavy investment in reflection & debrief meeting after short implementation trials of prototypes.


Guest Blog: Five Lessons From the Water Innovation Lab

By Karen Kun from Waterlution

In Autumn 2013, Waterlution hosted the second Water Innovation Lab (WIL 2013) in Alberta, enhancing our learning from the first WIL in 2010. WIL 2013 was designed to bring together young leaders and multi-sector professionals from across Canada to learn, connect and collaborate on approaches for a dynamic water future. WIL 2013 took place over 6 days in the Canadian Rockies, away from usual creature comforts and limited internet usage, to promote one of our design features of “ disconnect from what you do everyday and connect with who and what is present”.

Our top five lessons from WIL 2013:

  1. MIXING: Combining unknown ingredients can create something unprecedented.
    Bringing in participants and resource guests* with the “less obvious” water connection took a lot of time, energy and personal attention yet it was worth it! Innovation comes from people asking interesting questions while being part of a unique shared experience. Then mixing that people/place combination with creativity and coming away with ideas, companies and projects never before imagined.
  2. BALANCE: At WIL 2013 magic happened in the spaces between chaos and order. The Lab design sought balance between: differing perspectives; the expected and surprises; comfortable routine and new challenges; as well as structure/schedule and play/openness for new ideas and connections to emerge. Opportunities for playfulness and time in nature were key components in the overall design.
  3. OPPORUNTIES FOR PRATICE: Learning to practice and practicing what we learn. Participants of “Stream 2 – Strategic Conversations in Water Work” played a pivotal role in closing the Lab. By providing opportunities for practice we witnessed their enjoyment, experienced their skills and celebrated their confidence.
  4. BUILDING TRUST: Trust in one another and trust in the process.
    From our experience we know it’s important to spend several days and nights together to build trust among participants (most of whom were strangers prior to the Lab). There is something exhilarating about being surprised. Before the Lab everyone was pushing for an agenda, wanting to know what was going to happen when and where. We provided enough of an agenda for participants to come; yet there were still a number of unknowns. Quickly, participants trusted us enough to convene despite not having all the answers of what the Lab entailed.
  5. CHALLENGING: What’s an experience without a challenge?
    Often the Lab was very much about challenging participants to step outside of their comfort zone. As hosts and conveners, Waterlution also challenged ourselves to do something we had never done before in the Lab design. We realized that if we were asking others to embrace layers of discomfort for transformational learning, then we needed to embrace the same ideology and spread it in every aspect of the design and process.

For more information about WIL 2013 click HERE.

To see videos from WIL 2014 click HERE.

*Resource guests are stand-out leaders, who provide expertise, provoke and engage throughout the Lab process.

Guest Blog: Five Lessons From The Policy Lab on Designing for Impact

By  Derek Miller, Director, The Policy Lab & Lisa Rudnick, Senior Researcher, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR)

For over a decade, we have been collaborating to find ways of helping organizations achieve better impact by design. The term “design” here has a double meaning.

 We help teams with the act of designing policies, programmes and projects because these are the mechanisms of change relevant to organizational and state conduct. However, “impact by design” also suggests intentionality because, to achieve something “by design” is to achieve it on purpose. [1]

The way we approach policy design, therefore, is to treat it as a creative and collaborative process that is carefully managed to ensure and track the movement of knowledge into solutions in an accountable and responsible way. This makes policy design akin to other design processes — like those we see in service design, or social innovation — but also one distinct in having a rigorous commitment to the transparent use of knowledge. This knowledge, becomes the raw material of policy design.

In our work together ( Miller of The Policy Lab, and Rudnick of UNIDIR), we engage in highly political and (usually) culturally diverse environments, including those ravaged by war and conflict. We are positioned at the dynamic nexus between the social innovation community and the policy community.  The following five lessons therefore respond to some of the challenges we have observed and met from this vantage point:

1. It’s not about innovation, it’s about impact:

In the public sector innovation does not have inherent value. Policymakers and planners are primarily motivated to achieve impact in their areas of responsibility. Whatever accomplishes that in an accountable and responsible (and predictable) manner is preferred. A commitment to “innovation” rather than “impact” can misdirect creative attention and confuse the relationship between social innovators and policymakers.

2. The purpose of designing policy is to advance the public will: Civil servants are agents of change within a democratic — not a market — paradigm. They are accountable to the people who have entrusted them to execute their instructions. Social innovators must understand the workings, practices and commitments of these people within this paradigm to be effective in working with them.

3. Solutions must be more than user-friendly, they must be organization-friendly: There is no use to being “user-centered” if users needs cannot be addressed because of organizational constraints . Only designs that strategically support organizations to provide for user needs will achieve impact.

4. Not just any design, but evidence-based design:[2] Bad policy design can cause unspeakable harm. Creativity must be governed by responsibility and accountability. That means showing how decisions are informed by knowledge, and designs are built from evidence. Far from limiting innovation, this is what makes innovation possible. Because innovative ideas that are not grounded in reality are not really innovative at all.

5. Those designing policy must be committed and accountable to doing no harm:[3] If the design or the social innovation communities are entrusted to help design policies for social impact, then they need to establish and abide by new criteria to help them “do no harm.” Both our processes and our outcomes must try and assure the greatest social good while causing the least social harm. Such an agenda is still not active in our professional communities.  We must be more than creative and systematic agents of change: we must be responsible agents of change.

There is an exciting and potentially seismic change taking place in the way problems and solutions are being brought together in today’s world. These are not our only lessons at The Policy Lab. They are, however, five useful ones when designing for impact.

[1] Our first major lecture on design and public policy was presented at the London College of Communication in November, 2010. That lecture was later published as Trying it on for Size: Design and International Public Policy, in Design Issues, Vol. 2, Issue 2, pp 6-16, Spring 2011. A link to the original lecture:

[2] For a discussion of evidence-based programme design see, for example, our publication with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research: A Framework Document for Evidence-Based Programme Design on Reintegration, 2012:

[3] Our first lecture on the ethics of design for public policy was given at the University of Gothenburg, October 2010: