All posts by Leo

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: http://www.academia.edu/801116/Trying_It_on_for_Size_Design_and_International_Public_Policy

[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: http://www.unidir.org/files/publications/pdfs/a-framework-document-for-evidence-based-programme-design-on-reintegration-396.pdf

[3] Our first lecture on the ethics of design for public policy was given at the University of Gothenburg, October 2010: http://designleadership.blogspot.no/2011/03/guest-post-derek-miller-design-ethics.html