All posts by Leo

Guest post: Falling into the “program” trap

Guest post by Mali Bain from WellAhead; a lab focused on helping integrate wellbeing into school communities in British Columbia, Canada.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story about the person who falls into a hole in the street. He walks along the street, falls into a hole, and climbs out to the same spot where he started. He walks back along the street and falls into the hole again. In fact, he continues falling in the hole, climbing back out, and returning back to where he started, until finally someone shows him a parallel street, a different way to get where he’s going.

We had heard this story told in the context of addictions research, or when describing habits that are seemingly permanently fixed. It illustrates how habits and ways of being are deeply entrenched in certain ways of thinking. In reflecting on WellAhead’s past year of work, we have begun to see how we may have fallen into some of these habits ourselves.


In the research and design phase of WellAhead, one of the key challenges or ‘holes’ identified was that mental health and wellbeing was approached as a ‘program’ to be implemented in the school setting rather than as a way of being, a cultural shift. Such programs had a range of efficacy, and were costly and difficult to scale across all schools. In addition, because programs were often developed and delivered by people outside the school, they were not being integrated into school communities. There was a sense that districts and communities needed to be part of the visioning and action towards change rather than simply recipients of solutions. From this, it was hypothesized that engaging a range of stakeholders in an emergent, participatory process might be more effective than imposing a highly defined program.

Fast forward eight months: WellAhead has worked with six districts to support them through a social lab-like process focused on everyday practices to support social and emotional wellbeing. As we reflected on this past year, we started thinking:

  • This year wasn’t perfect: there were SO many learnings, and also some key elements that had impact: what can we keep and what can we remove from the ‘WellAhead process’?
  • How can we refine our tools and share them in a more final version – perhaps in a guidebook? How can we have more schools and districts ‘take on this process’?
  • How can we encourage this process to happen in more places, even without our support?

These are good and thoughtful questions, but they are all problematic in one way: they are program- thinking, replication-oriented questions. We were making the assumption that the process we had taken on must be repeated & refined, rather than asking what set of processes/collaborations/actions would lead to the most impact in the long term on social and emotional wellbeing.

Here we were: seeing ourselves as a program, as an intervention that had been piloted and soon ‘should’ be happening across districts.


We had fallen into the very trap that we had set out to avoid.

Rather than seeing ourselves as neutral conveners with a desire to learn more, alongside and from districts and programs, we were looking for ways to replicate our model and get more schools to adopt it.

So where does that leave us now?

  • We’ve developed a deeper empathy for the program mindset: when one has developed something that shows promise, it’s hard to let go and accept that perhaps the program itself isn’t crucial to achieving the end goal.
  • We’re more consistently asking whether our actions are building capacity, or whether they are actually establishing a reliance on us to provide a solution. This may require a greater focus on supporting the work of others rather than doing the work ourselves.
  • We’re looking more closely at provincial-level work and action that can help increase the integration of wellbeing in schools at a system level, and the best role we can play in that sphere.
  • We’re looking at ways to build upon the learnings from this past year to add value to existing efforts in this space – perhaps by convening with other school-based processes to identify the key elements of our respective approaches that seem to have impact. This would be a departure from the ‘fidelity’ mindset we had fallen into.

Stay tuned for more about what we’ve tried this past year, what worked and what didn’t, and what we can learn from all of this to further our shared overall goal: sustained integration of wellbeing into school communities. What do you think? Do you recognize elements of the story above in the work you’re doing? If you have your own reflections on falling into a trap you set out to avoid, we’d love to hear about it!

This post was originally published on the WellAhead blog.

Announcing The Grove 3547 – A Next-Gen Social Lab in Chicago

Chicago is one of the great American cities.

Sitting on the shores of Lake Michigan, Chicago is the largest metropolis of the Mid-West, the third largest city in the country. It was home to the legendary Daley Machine. It was in Chicago’s Grant Park that Obama gave his victory speech. It’s a city where the blues found a home in exile. It’s home to the White Sox. It’s now home to the beleaguered Mayor Rahm Emanuel. It’s home to the Southside and the Westside and the Northside. It is not New York and it is not LA. It is Chicago.

Unfortunately Chicago is in deep crisis. The crisis has long, dark roots, from being the most segregated city in the country, coupled with decades of corruption, systematic disinvestment, all resulting in a city being torn apart by structural racism.



One person we interviewed in the pre-conditions phase for Grove remarked,

“I don’t think that I’ve ever lived in a city where there is a bigger distance between what people think of the city, what the North-siders think of as Chicago and what a South-sider thinks of as Chicago versus what a West-sider thinks of as Chicago. There is this shared existence and this shared destiny. It’s shocking to me that you’re not paying more attention. It’s not funny that this part of the city is awesome and the city you live in is incredibly impoverished. There is more social dissension in Chicago than LA, New York or any other city in America. That should bother you.”

It’s in this context that we have launched Grove 3547.

The Grove is a new social lab asking the question “How can we work together to support young people in Chicago to develop resilient livelihoods?”.

The Grove is focusing it’s activities in three neighborhoods, from 35th street to 47th street, in an area known as Bronzeville.

Diagram of a 4 month 'Minimum Viable Lab' structure
Minimum Viable Lab – structure of a single 4 month Lab cycle. Courtesy of Roller Strategies.

The Lab is a partnership between The Chicago Community Trust (CCT) and Roller Strategies, to tackle some of the complex challenges that are being faced in Chicago. While there’s also so many bright sparks of hope, just a few of which are outlined in this post from CCT, they do not together constitute a strategy with a hope of shifting Chicago from its current trajectory.

All of this begs the question, how does Grove hope to impact such a vastly complex challenge?

Why is Chicago in crisis?

One way of understanding what is happening in Chicago is through the lens of multiple capitals. As human beings living in complex systems, maintenance of systems that make life liveable requires multiple forms of capital.

Just as individuals need food to sustain ourselves, societies need capital flows to sustain themselves. We’re not just talking about financial capital, but social, human, intellectual, ecological and physical as outlined in Social Labs Revolution. When these capital flows stop, we start digging into our capital stocks – just as a hungry person’s body starts breaking down stores of fat. If after we have consumed all our capital stocks, we have not managed to generate new capital flows, the inevitable happens. Our bodies collapse and our communities collapse.

See How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse for more.

What will success look like?

Grove 3547 is attempting to show, on a modest scale, that the citizens of Chicago are able to generate new capital flows to sustain their communities.

Success means diverse stakeholders, from young people, to residents living between 35th and 47th street, as well diverse professionals from across Chicago, take collective action.

Success means that 6 people sit around a table and build something together.

Success means creating value on the ground, however small, for the young people aged 20-24 struggling to find channels for their spirit and creativity.

Success means creating new physical capital – even if that’s in the form of a pop-up that runs for 2 months, that provides services in Oakland, Douglas and Grand Boulevard.

In the coming weeks and months we will be reporting back on progress from Grove 3547 regularly.

We will also be creating opportunities for all of you to engage in conversation with the Grove 3547 team. If you’re keen to find out more about Social Labs, this is an opportunity not to be missed – so keep an eye out on the blog and your inbox.

Click here to see who the Grove 3547 Team are.


Post by Zaid Hassan, Engagement Lead of Grove 3547 and CEO & Co-Founder of Roller Strategies.

Systems Change : A Snapshot Of The Emerging Field

“As we hurtle towards a human community of 9.7 billion people by the year 2050, coupled with new technologies and the growing challenges of our planet’s carrying capacity, there is more and more discussion of systems and how they change or are created. The post-war era has witnessed an unprecedented growth of global, national and regional systems but systemic challenges like climate change and inequality are undermining the viability and resilience of our 20th century systems.

It’s against this backdrop that a movement is starting to gain traction. A community of practitioners trying to shift incumbent systems no longer fit for purpose and build new ones that work for our current reality.

But this field is nascent and largely unsupported. In this publication we have created two maps designed to shine a light on the work of this group of pioneers. We offer these with the hypothesis that the field will be better able to organize itself if it can see itself more clearly. Our theory of change? A clearer picture leads to greater connectivity, connectivity leads to stronger networks, and accelerates the best initiatives we so badly need if we are to effectively shift systems.” 

Excerpt courtesy of Rachel Sinha & Tim Draimin’s Mapping momentum : a snapshot of the emerging field of systems change.

Image courtesy of Mapping Momentum Report
Image courtesy of Mapping Momentum Report

The manifesto that Rachel Sinha and Tim Draimin open the report with, feels like it resonates through the Social Labs community, so we thought we would share this report with you all.

It’s a useful yet quite short report which names some key parts of Systems Change – starting with Roles and moving into Challenges, and ending with reflections. It seeks to build a common mental model for people working in the field, as well as share some insights for people who may be on the fringes.

Image courtesy of Mapping Momentum Report
Image courtesy of Mapping Momentum Report

Get the free PDF download at the SI Generation website.


If you want to dive deeper, we heartily recommend having a read of more of Rachel’s excellent work, such as over at

We also suggest having a read of the recent Forum of the Future post about Systems Change capability, and our own post about Systems Mapping.

Network & Systems Mapping For Social Labs

We are often asked about specific parts of Social Labs practice on social media and at our workshops.

One important aspect of any Social Lab, is understanding the context a Lab Team is developing solutions for.

A grounded approach to getting started in building a picture which everyone can see, is called Systems Mapping.


“The system map is a visual description of the service technical organization: the different actors involved, their mutual links and the flows of materials, energy, information and money through the system.” – Service Design Tools


What is Systems Mapping useful for?

1. Making Systems Explicit

When you’re working with a range of stakeholders (as per a Social Labs approach), it’s important to get all of the wisdom, knowledge and assumptions out on the table (or walls!) early to start building a shared picture and mental model of the challenge and it’s context.

By physically mapping together, you will gather new information. It will of course still be incomplete (it’s impossible to map complex systems completely in this way as they are dynamic and ever changing) but they will be a better resource and foundation to work with than starting from a place where everyone can only see their part of the system.

One of the vital aspects is that the mapping gives the space to challenge assumptions and mental models which may be incomplete or incorrect.

2. Seeing Connections & Gaps

As you build the physical map, you will gain new perspectives which you may not have seen before. This is an opportunity to investigate the inter-connectedness of a system; the relationship between people and organisations for example.

You may also start to see clusters, as well as people or organisations with less, or no connectivity to other parts. This can be an opportunity for spotting important levers for change, which can form a response or prototype later in the Lab.

It is also important foundational work to better understand intended consequences you’re aiming for, as well as unintended consequences which may occur and may need to be protected against.

3. Finding Ways To Intervene

The process of creating the map is important for group alignment, but the value of the map increases over time, if it’s updated, as more understanding of the nuances of the map develop.

As well as focusing on the ‘nodes’ of the system (e.g. people, organisations, resources, etc), it’s important to pay attention to the relationships which bond them together – are they weak or strong? Are they long lasting, or fresh? Paying attention to this level of detail, can help build a greater sense of potential points of leverage, such as resources which are under utilised, people’s skills which haven’t been made use of, or strong relationships which can be a vehicle for introducing new ideas.


“All models are wrong, but some are useful.” — George E. P. Box


How To Create A Systems Map?


Resource: Systems Practice – The Omidyar Group

This guide is a useful addition to people looking to practice systems analysis as there’s surprisingly few “How To’s” out there. The guide focuses on a range of dynamics in a system, and can be paired with a tool like we feature below, as a grounding exercise in the early stages of a Lab to build a picture of the system you’re working in.

Download it here.



“None of us see the system. We see our own part based on our own background and history. And we all think we see the most crucial part.” — Peter Senge, Accelerate 2014


Resource: The Systems Game (Reos Partners)

This facilitator run sheet aims to help you run a group exercise which tunes them into the idea and practicalities of Systems, through a simple immersive game and reflection process.

Get the runsheet here.


Article: Leverage Points – Places To Intervene In A System (Donella Meadows Institute)

This excellent article looks at the common talk of systems analysts – Leverage Points – and the fallacies that can build up around the value of finding them, versus the value of acting on them with good strategic responses.

Read the article here.


“Folks who do systems analysis have a great belief in “leverage points”. These are places within a complex system where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” – Donella Meadows


Tool: Kumu

This is a digital tool which we’re increasingly seeing used for stakeholder maps and more. It’s a very user-friendly tool which allows you to not just use images and colours to identify different ‘nodes’ (or people in a stakeholder map), but also allows you to articulate the relationships between the nodes, as well as search across the whole map.

Get your hands on your free Kumu account here.


“Never confuse a model with the complex reality
underneath.” — Luc Hoebeke, Making Systems Work Better


Systems Mapping Case Study

To ground Systems Mapping in a practical example, we spoke with our friends at Lifehack, who work on youth mental health in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Lifehack recently shared the first version of their network map which includes people, organisations, and recent projects which have emerged from the Lifehack community.

Stakeholder map for Lifehack New Zealand
Image courtesy of Lifehack – see the post here

We spoke with Gina Rembe (co-Lead of Lifehack) about the process and are sharing this Q&A to help you learn more about their experience:

Q) Why did you decide to create a systems map?

A) I decided to map out our universe because somebody brought to our attention the noticing that we rely on collaborative relationships to create impact. We try to foster that culture amongst the people we’re working with in our programmes, by encouraging people with a similar passion or approach to work together — so mapping our network would help build a picture of our community and become more effective at ‘knitting the system’ proactively.

Q) This looks like an extensive map, how long did it take to create?

A) My colleague and I made a start on paper a couple of weeks ago. Then last week, I started on Kumu by myself and quickly looped in the rest of the team. We then spent about sixty minutes on it together and got the majority into place. So probably something like 4 hours in total?

Q) What were the top learnings from the process of creating this map?

A) What we learnt in the process was how far out from us many of the organisations are. Our really strong connections are between the people within them, or connected to them.

It’s another way of seeing the importance of personal connections in our work, and how those connections overlap with other players in the system.

Visualising it all creates clarity, and made us realise that relationship-building and collaboration is something we pay a lot of attention to, and that it ripples out into the communities which we work with. Several of the projects which have emerged from our community have a similar ‘DNA’ to how Lifehack convenes and creates space for people, but a narrowed focus in on a particular area – such as Shift (young women’s exercise) and Mindfulness for Change (mindfulness for health practitioners) – so giving them a map to shortcut the path to finding other like-minds and projects, is a big win.

Systems Mapping - Lifehack Fellowship Retreat
Image courtesy of Lifehack

When we started mapping things, we realised how many amazing relationships have begun because of Lifehack’s work – from people travelling the country to collaborate on new projects, to people who have connected through our Fellowship financially backing one another. Getting that onto a map is really really hard, so we’re building it up slowly, and working out how best to document the relationships as they grow and change.

Q) Have you done much mapping before? Is it something Lifehack uses a lot day to day?

A) We’ve done some small mapping projects in the past – for example this one which showed all the initiatives we were undertaking – and we used the Reos Systems game to introduce people to the idea.

I think it features quite a lot throughout our work, but not always explicitly as a practice of “mapping a system”. However we use Theory of Change, or investigate ‘problems in our communities’ with our Fellows and how they interlink, as well as stakeholder mapping featuring strongly in our programs. So, our version of system mapping is often more about the relationships and causality – such as root cause analysis – rather than explicitly trying to create a map as the outcome.

Q) What will you do with the Map next?

A) I’d like to see it as something that’s useful to us and useful to others. I hope it’s something we update and grow, and use to articulate our reach into NZ communities, as well as supporting our work to build stronger collaborations and partnerships.

We’re also always experimenting with how best to articulate and tell the story of our impact. Traditionally this is really hard with community-building initiatives like Lifehack – but in this case, we were able to share the map with our Stakeholders as part of our evaluation, to demonstrate our reach and networked/community-building approach. Potentially if we track and map the strength of the connections and relationships, then over time perhaps we can use it as a win-win tool which helps us do our work better, AND demonstrates our impact. We’re still working out best practice ways of doing this though – any suggestions welcome!

Big thanks to Gina Rembe for sharing her insights from Lifehack’s experience with systems mapping!


Bonus article: Systems Innovation Discussion Paper by Nesta

Systems Mapping - Regenerating Community
Systems Map, courtesy of Nesta

The paper features several types of Systems Maps (such as the one above, borrowed from the report itself), as well as some interesting commentary on changing systems.


Guest post: Tāmaki Mental Health and Wellbeing Programme

Guest post by Hamish Lindop from Aotearoa New Zealand.

Case Study Banner

I’m currently an Advisor at Auckland Libraries, with a background in education and librarianship. In the last couple of years I have been on a learning journey, starting from the point of how libraries might enable communities, particularly youth, to innovate and tackle local challenges, but morphing into how libraries become connected up organisations to deeply understand local challenges and then collaborate with people, groups and organisations in their community for positive social impact.

It started with conversations with Sam Rye, from Lifehack about how to enable youth innovation. Then, early in 2015, around the time I was looking for a research topic for my final project to complete my Masters in Information Studies, at the suggestion of Sam I read “The Social Labs Revolution”, which had a catalytic effect on my thinking. I had been feeling so weary about the big hairy problems of the world, and nothing seemed to be able to put a dent in them. When I read the book, I saw a practice that could finally speak to complexity, and being a library practitioner at Auckland Libraries, I wanted to see how community libraries could empower communities to develop the capacity to solve their own complex social challenges at community scale, using Social Labs practice.

I discovered Tāmaki Mental Health and Wellbeing Programme through the Design for Social Innovation Symposium 2015, where they held a “surgery” to explore their practice with symposium participants. I wanted to do a case study on the programme because it was underpinned by Hassan’s principles of Social Labs practice, and was a place-based initiative, so it seemed a good fit to explore how a social lab might work in a library. My report had a lightweight case study, which I’ve expanded through recently interviewing Oliver who is one of the key people at the programme.

The Programme’s vision, which was co-designed with the community, is as follows: “Our vision is an experience of mental health and wellbeing focused on the wellness of the whole person in their family, whānau & community, over the whole of their life, supported by integrated services that are relevant to Tāmaki.”

Tamaki Co-design Workshop from Tamaki Wellbeing on Vimeo.

A Proto-Social Lab

We talked about how the programme in its current incarnation is a Service Development Hub, not actually a Social Lab as such. The service development hub has five work streams, each with a design challenge, but not all being tackled simultaneously. The design teams display diversity of perspectives within the health system, for example in one team there is a GP, a consumer representative, a developmental evaluator, a facilitator, and a couple of practice liaison nurses. Oliver also talked about the developmental evaluator “proxying in” user perspective, as she was doing a lot of interviews at the same time. This provides the design teams with rich information about the connection between the way they operate and how this impacts the way people experience the service.

The Hub is funded by Auckland District Health Board (ADHB), and so it is centred on health, but I was interested to see that it seemed like an intermediate step towards a Social Lab that aspires to work at a fully systemic level. The Hub currently only looks at the health bit of the system, so parts of the problem which led away from the health space were initially parked; for example in the framing stage when people told them that housing was one of the things causing them stress, they put it to one side since their current mandate doesn’t cover the housing sector. But one of the current work streams has a design team including representation from Tāmaki Regeneration Company who are strong stakeholders in the housing sector, as well as other stakeholders that are focussed on both the health and social components of their challenge, and this will test the waters for a wider, more systemic engagement.



They used co-design (PDF) a lot in the framing stages, having a co-designed vision which was developed through workshops with the community: 100+ engagements to identify themes, a second round of co-design workshops around idea generation which created 700+ ideas, and 32 high level project proposals. This indicates a strong commitment to empowering the community in the redesign of services which impact them. The co-design of a vision contrasts somewhat from Hassan’s model of defining, within the core team, the challenge that the lab will tackle, and then refining this challenge as stakeholders and potential lab participants are engaged in discussion during the preconditions phase. This “co-design from the outset” distinguishes the Tāmaki Program from the model outlined in Social Labs Revolution to some degree; community are empowered to co-design the framing of the challenge from the very beginning. It echoes the Co-Design Lab team’s concern that a rich diversity of stakeholders be involved very early in the framing of the challenge.

Tamaki Wellbeing Program in action

However, Oliver questions himself on how much co-design, validation, and checking is enough, especially as the design process continues over time. There seems to be a tension between doing enough the right amount of those things whilst not exhausting the people they are designing with, with ongoing requests for participation. I was talking to Co-Design Lab about this the other day and they were saying how they try to give the participants something valuable to them for participating, for example for parents of 0-3’s, holding a children’s party gives the parents some space to breath, and makes them more amiable to participation. The Tāmaki Program uses their space in this way, inviting community groups to use the space for a considerable proportion of the time, to build good will.


Developmental Evaluation

Oliver talked about what an important part of their practice the developmental evaluator was. She sits in on sessions with the design team, observing, taking notes, and asking key questions to stimulate deeper thinking. She produces 2,000 word summaries after every work session, which the group then reads and reflects on, and this will set the direction for the following session. Things that the evaluator notices can be picked up on and expanded upon through prototyping, for example it might be something small like figuring out the best way to text people, as they’ve received feedback that this is how they’d like to be contacted. Oliver also talked about how as the facilitator he could receive real time feedback that would alter how the session ran; at times the evaluator would take him aside for a few minutes and talk about something that needed addressing, and he’d go back in and adjust accordingly; this seems like a powerful tool to enable the facilitator to keep things on track.

This is a great primer on Developmental Evaluation from JW McConnell Foundation (PDF).

Developing Local Solutions

An interesting aspect of the Tāmaki Mental Health and Wellbeing Lab is its focus on local solutions. The team recognise that solutions need to be tailored to localities which have individual characteristics. When they were talking about what learnings they would take from the lab work, they emphasised how they can learn approaches to designing solutions for communities which are transferrable, but they can’t develop a one-size-fits-all “model” which can be scaled or exported directly to other communities; this would deny the unique characteristics of each community that need to be tailored to and ultimately create a blunt instrument.

This ties in well with the theme of “empowering communities”, in that one sense of empowering communities can be in terms of giving them opportunities to participate in the redesign, through co-design, of the services that they use to best meet their needs; the community can design “radically local” services, so as not to be trapped by “diseconomies of scale” as discussed by O’Donovan and Rubbra (n.d.), where large, one-size-fits-all government services fail to cater to the specific needs of any particular community well.



Oliver talked about an actor’s map being developed by the lab, showing strong and weak connections between primary health care, community organisations, Auckland District Health Board(ADHB), and non-health agencies. He described how this was a human-centred map, with people in the middle, and services around the outside, rather than placing, say, the ADHB at the center of such a map. This builds a picture of the ecosystem of services and organisations that sit around the people of the community.


Shift in Language, Shift in Thinking

When I asked Oliver how important shifting attitudes was in the work of the programme, he said that was “the main stuff”. He talked about how they used the question “is that person centred?” as a cornerstone question to keep coming back to as the group worked together. A change in the language that the team was using was critical to shifting the attitudes, for example “referrals” became “introductions”, where one service provider would introduce a client to another, transferring the relationship to the new provider and giving context to the interaction. He described how later in the process, the group was calling each other out on the language they were using, so it sounds like a culture shift had occurred in some way. We also discussed how people working in the system have to get to understand the user’s perspective experientially. Oliver also described how it felt like they were force feeding human-centred design to a system that “is and isn’t ready”. I wonder if this is the state of play for most service organisations nowadays: there is a recognition of the need for human-centred practice, but considerable attitudinal organisation-centred baggage.


Working with Local Libraries

The team had found from community feedback and observation that local libraries were “a bright spot for inter-service connection”, but when Oliver interviewed Panmure library staff he didn’t see too much of that in relation to health. However library staff did talk about a new collaboration between the library, ADHB, and Plunket, an early childhood service provider, to provide a touchpoint for a seamless support service in the library where mothers ranging from antenatal right up to three years old could come and get support. This sparked an idea for him about shifting Manaaki House, a local community house, from being a place to go just for help from specialist mental health services, to a place where people can go to get support for a wide variety of support for physical or mental health, or social issues, and is an ok place to go and be seen in the community. When I met with the team during my research project we discussed an interesting and previously unforeseen possibility: lab teams wanting to engage local communities could partner with local community libraries to activate them as community co-design spaces for design challenges which would impact that community. The team reflected on the potential to get constant feedback from the community as the lab operated in the library space. This finding is echoed with the Co-Design Lab team, who are exploring ways to work with the local library and use the space to engage the community with codesign on their challenges.

However, when I visited again recently, I think this idea had slipped off the radar a bit, so I brought it up again, discussing the idea of using the library space to engage people in the community. It seemed odd to me that they were offering up their space for community groups, and were paying rent on a space right across the road from the library, when one of the major functions of the community library is to offer space for community groups to meet. “Walk-up” Co-Design activities could be set up so that interested stakeholders could bump into their challenge and engage with it at any time of the day.

Oliver talked about how it’s really difficult to do “intercept” interviews, for example out on the footpath, and this relates back to how the interaction is framed; Mark Buntzen might say that in terms of the SCARF model (PDF), the intercept method may create an “away response” for most people, where they feel intruded upon and therefore less likely to participate willingly. But the library could be potentially a good space to use for engagement because people are coming in and out all the time, and there is an expectation that one will “bump into” new ideas in the library space, and engage with them if they are interested.

Walk up Co-design would be quite different from typical Co-Design workshops, where a group come together in a very focussed way, but instead there would be the advantage of being accessible any time the library is open, and in a high foot traffic space.



One particular interview with a social innovation expert was a turning point for the project. He really challenged the premise of the research project, asking what it was that the strategy of Social Labs was meant to achieve. The point was that it was a strategy, not an outcome, and I had been confusing the two up till that point. After a bit of thought, I managed to articulate that the outcome was actually community empowerment (which I subsequently went back and wrote into the front of the report). He then proceeded to challenge the viability of that strategy to achieve that outcome in that context, and provided other alternatives, such as community asset mapping, open space technology, and so on.

Currently Auckland Libraries is understanding how we can connect with our communities through an iterative feedback loop between the community library and its community, with human-centred design and co-design as enabling tools. I have been thinking about how we could engage with communities in a wider way by infusing service design with soft systems techniques and Theory U to get a rich, multi-perspective, shared understanding of design challenges, and look for ways to develop new services as part of a local service ecosystem, part of an “ecosystem of innovation” as Scharmer suggests in Theory U; It’s not really just about “what would a social lab in a library look like?” anymore although I think the principles that I’m considering are the same as those underpinning Social Labs. Libraries are in a unique position in communities to be the connector between diverse strands; what would it look like to achieve shared understanding and deep collaboration between diverse actors around local design challenges, like supporting early childhood children and parents, enabling youth employment, and more? I’ll be exploring this through u.lab starting in September; what lies for libraries at the bottom of the U?

Editor’s Note:

Thanks to Hamish for sharing his journey into Social Labs and his developing understanding in this space. Picking up on the conclusion, we’d like to add that Social Labs are a strategic response to complex problems, aimed at increasing the likelihood of successfully tackling those problems. Social Labs offer an alternative approach, not just to planning and development, but also to implementation of solutions.

Toward Evaluation For Complexity

“For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” – H.L Mencken

Evaluating Social Labs has to be done in the context of the complexity they seek to address.

There’s an emerging field of Evaluation which is grappling with how you design and develop appropriate evaluation programmes when you’re working in the field of complexity.

Being too reductionist can drastically underestimate the kind of value and change that a Social Lab is creating. The multiple ‘Capitals’ generated by a Social Lab help to name some of the areas that might be paid attention to:

Social Labs - Multiple Capitals (Social, Human, Financial, Intellectual, Natural, Physical


We also wrote a little about hacking your way to world class Evaluation last year, which is worth a read to get some principles in place to set up well.

Take a deep dive into Evaluation for Complexity

If you want to dive deeper into the realm of developing an evaluation program for Social Labs, or other interventions which are operating on a complex problem, then we also suggest checking out FSG’s Report entitled “Evaluating Complexity : Propositions for Improving Practice”. Here’s a slide which sums up the 9 tenets of Complexity and how to address it with Evaluation:

List of elements of complexity, and how evaluation practice should match it
Image courtesy of FSG’s “Evaluating Complexity” Report

Read “Evaluating Complexity : Propositions For Improving Practice” here.


See An Example

We’ve been writing about the importance of Storytelling in the Social Labs space, because we feel it’s a vital way of communicating the deeply human experience of a Social Lab.

That said, we also have been scanning the horizon for great examples of communicating the practice and value of intervening in complex challenges. One of our favourite reports is from Thicket Labs in New York:

Visual communicating difference between CYI initiative and school
Image courtesy of Thicket Labs Case Study

In Thicket’s Case Study on Chinatown Youth Initiatives,  they lay out some really interesting graphics which explore how the CYI program compares to other benchmarks of programs/initiatives which affect their lives. In this graphic, you can see visuals which show CYI Vs School, based on data collected with cognitive mapping techniques.

We feel this is a relatively novel way to communicate the impact of initiatives working in a complex, dynamic environment. However, with most forms of impact evaluation, this is just a snapshot in time.


The Future of Evaluation for Complexity?

Where the future heads, we don’t know – but we do recognise the importance of evaluation programs which actively thrive in complexity (FSG gave some good starting points on how to achieve this).

As for communicating the outcomes of these Evaluation programs, it seems like there’s a long way to go to moving beyond snapshots in time, and instead begin to present real time reporting on how initiatives are creating impact.

One example of how the multi-capital approach is being used in Evaluation and Reporting is in Integrated Reporting, which is well worth a look.

In theory, with technological advances, we should be closer to seeing some form of Impact Intelligence Dashboard emerging to help us become more proactive and responsive to the dynamics of complex challenges.

Social Labs On Big Beacon Radio

In the wake of global conflict, we collectively ask, “what can be done to help solve the problems that face our world?”

In this episode, host Dave Goldberg interviews Zaid Hassan—strategist, facilitator, and author of “The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving Our Most Complex Challenges.”

Join Zaid and Dave to better understand how strategic responses and social labs help to bring about social change. Also, listen in to consider how these methods might be used to bring about more effective change in higher education.

This week, Zaid (founder of Social Labs) was on Big Beacon Radio.

Listen to the show here!

Also check out this social media round up from the Big Beacon Radio team!


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.