All posts by Sam Rye

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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

We are also hosting an intensive on-line course applying the LIAB tools through weekly webinars, learning teams and one to one coaching. In addition to putting the tools out there, we want to support people with adapting and applying them in their own context.


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

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

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


Downloadable Resource: “Lab-In-A-Box”

These documents are free to download on the Roller Strategies website.


Reflections On Designing An Information Stack

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

Yet that’s our dominant response — strategic planning.

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

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


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


For more information, check out the Fieldbook for a quick grounding in what characterises social labs.


What is a Stack?

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

Labs Stack


The Information Stack

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

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

NY Times Journalism Floor


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

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


Reflections on designing an Information Stack

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


1) Context is vital for design.

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

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


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


2) Focus on behaviour not tools.

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

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

For example:

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

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


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


3) Design the whole, but show the parts.

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

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

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

A schematic for an Information Stack

Probably not.

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


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


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

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

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


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


4. Prepare to be wrong.

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

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

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

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


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


Next Steps

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


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


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

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

On Prototyping

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prototyping Mindset

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

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

Prototyping Methods

To actually embark on prototyping is easy.

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

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

Here’s some must-reads about Prototyping Methods:

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


Managing Prototyping

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

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

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


Further Reading

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


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

Three Social Labs To Watch in 2017

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

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


The Edmonton Shift Lab

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

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

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

Check out The Edmonton Shift Lab here.


The Grove 3547

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

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

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

Check out The Grove 3547 here.



Place - European Migrant social lab
image courtesy of Place

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

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

Learn more about Place here.


(Free) Bonus Resource

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

The value of storytelling for social labs – eyes on Chicago

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

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

We’ve curated some of the action from social media on storify here:


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

Storytelling as a means to share updates about the lab

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

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

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

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

Story as a means of prototyping

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

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

Some insights about prototyping with stories from the team:

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

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

Storytelling as a vehicle for change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do this?

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

A social lab is a… portfolio of prototypes

Welcome to our first in a series of posts exploring different aspects of social labs and the practice which drives them. This post is focused on one of the outputs of a social lab: a portfolio of prototypes.

This post looks at this topic through the lens of Grove 3547, which is a next-gen social lab in Chicago, focused on building resilient livelihoods for young people. Grove 3547 is a partnership between The Chicago Community Trust and Roller Strategies.

You can keep an eye on the posts as they are published here or sign up to our newsletter for updates in your inbox.

Why a portfolio of prototypes?

When you’re addressing complex challenges, the likelihood is that there is no clear picture of a ‘best way to intervene’, so instead of coming up with one single intervention, developing it and then finding that it doesn’t work, a social lab increases the likelihood of success by creating a portfolio of different responses (prototypes).

These prototypes are then field-tested, tweaked and improved, or discarded with the learnings from testing them then embedded into a new prototype. This iterative approach is a much more low-cost, effective way of developing, testing and evaluating the impact of each prototype, and working out how to respond, versus the likes of strategic planning responses which have very high failure rates.

Why focus on outcomes?

One of the questions we’re most often asked about social labs, is “if we invest in a social lab as a strategic response to a complex challenge, what are the outputs and outcomes?”.

The answer is that social labs generate multiple layers of value.

Executed well, social labs generate a range of different types of value, best described by Zaid Hassan in ‘The Social Labs Revolution’, when he talks about ‘The Capitals’.

In this article published by The Bridgespan Group, four capitals are identified:

  • physical capital (new services or infrastructure)
  • human capital (new capacities and skills)
  • social capital (increased trust and collaboration)
  • intellectual capital (new knowledge and learning)

These outputs are created both by the activities of the lab itself, such as new connections and training participants in certain skills and methods, but also by the participants as they form teams and start to create responses.

The participants form ‘lab teams’, who then generate a portfolio of prototypes to address the challenge set by the social lab. These prototypes often characterise the physical capital generated by the lab, but they will also play a significant role in creating the impact which will characterise the outcomes of the lab.

If prototypes are outputs, what about outcomes?

Before lab teams form and develop their prototypes, it’s difficult to say what the outcomes of a social lab will be.

Any organisation, consultant or initiative which claims they can guarantee outcomes to a complex problem is essentially misleading you, as no one can predict precisely how people and social systems will respond to a new intervention. This is why planning-based approaches have such high failure rates – they’re predictive, in a time when increasing complexity means that predictability is reducing.

Just because you can’t predict outcomes, doesn’t mean there aren’t any. In fact, a social lab like Grove 3547 will have outcomes associated with each of the prototypes (more about that in a bit), as well as the lab itself generating its own outcomes through storytelling and events. Social labs act as platforms for tackling complex problems over the course of years, by supporting multiple cycles of these Lab teams to generate prototypes, test them, and improve them.

Creating prototypes at Grove 3547

Practically, the Grove 3547 went through a process to support the first wave of participants to generate their prototypes. Here’s Nathan Heintz, Grove 3547 coach, on how it unfolded:

“Earlier this year, our team at Roller and The Chicago Community Trust cast a wide net, reached out to the community and engaged with the local community to find people who were up for a challenge. The resulting participants of Grove 3547 are a group of activists, entrepreneurs, students, community leaders, representatives from local institutions and concerned citizens.

Before the participants joined us, we conducted 50 long-form dialogue interviews and spoke with people at countless nonprofit organizations, research institutions, legal firms, youth development and educational resource centers, and colleges. We asked the people we spoke with to join us in a creative, collaborative process to try and shift the social challenges impacting the South Side. And the response was overwhelming.

When we came together during the kickoff workshop in September, only a few people in the room knew each other. At first, there was a certain amount of tension between the participants. But as we began the process, interviewing one another, brainstorming together, getting to know each other, and sharing our perspectives on what’s wrong and what’s needed on the South Side of Chicago they began to see that they shared a great deal of common ground and a number of common visions.

We saw participants of the Grove begin to resonate and reflect one another’s perspectives, see that their perspectives were shared across the entire social system and they began to gel into teams. On the afternoon of the second day of the kickoff workshop, the Grove teams did a clustering exercise, brainstorming solutions to what’s happening in their neighborhoods. Out of this exercise five teams formed, which are now known as Bronzeville Bridge, Bronzeville Voice, Bronzeville Steam, Justice/Just Us, and Bronzeville Live, all with a common purpose of helping young people develop resilient livelihoods in Chicago.

The teams of Grove 3547 are working on mentoring programs, art and music spaces, restorative justice centers hosting dialogues between youth and police, and youth leadership projects empowering young people to establish and run their projects and programs.”

About the Grove 3547 teams

At this stage of the lab (not yet half way), the teams have been developing their first prototypes and exploring how best to test them. Here’s a short video about Johnny Hart, who is part of the Bronzeville Bridge team:

Bronze Bridge: Pop-Up Recording Studio for Emerging Artists In Bronzeville from Grove3547 on Vimeo.

Here is a short overview of the other teams and their prototypes, which can be found on the Grove 3547 site here, to give you a sense for the sorts of projects which may emerge from a social lab:


Our group is working on creating the space and opportunity for young artists in Bronzeville to deepen their skills and develop a creative livelihood. Two ideas that our group is currently testing are:

A pop-up recording studio. We’re building a pop-up recording studio so that young musicians can have a space to refine their sound and translate their skills into finished products, demos, and albums. This prototype could evolve into a cooperatively owned Bronzeville record label or a musician owned recording studio providing a safe culturally-relevant space to work on music and sound-based art.

Our other idea is a visual arts space providing studio space, training and materials to young artists who wish to refine their craft into a profession. We’re going to start by offering immersive trips to art studio spaces throughout Chicago to meet with professional artists and visit programs with youth from Bronzeville to get their input as to what kind of program is most needed in the neighborhood.


Bronzeville Live wishes to ensure that young people in Bronzeville have a voice in how Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) work to support them in developing resilient livelihoods.

We’re convening a series of events not only to connect youth with CBOs but also to get in touch with their richest and deepest thoughts and feelings about what is needed in their communities. We want to support young people in participating wholeheartedly as leaders in the process of creating change in Bronzeville and beyond.


As our group set out to work together in supporting young people in Chicago to develop resilient livelihoods, many of us continually returned to the question, “Have we asked and listened to the young people in what they need to be resilient?” Many programs and initiatives for the young adults often were not designed with the input of the young people. This dynamic, while well-intended, has the potential for irrelevance and disconnection. Our theory of change is that as listen to the young people of Bronzeville to express what they view as assets in their community, we can begin to create the space than ask what they envision to be fully engaged in their community.

As young people become more engaged in civic life, they can hope for a healthy, more resilient life. They will then feel empowered to create more opportunities. We hope to do this by organizing a series of meet-ups in the Bronzeville community. Our initial focus is to process of engaging the young people —and as we gather more data, we will evolve into an output directly created by and for them. Maybe it will be an urban garden or a mobile sound studio or a public art gallery—whatever it is, it will be driven by the ideas of Bronzeville’s young adults.


Bronzeville STEAM has come to understand that a significant barrier hindering resilient livelihoods for young people (ages 16-24) in Bronzeville is a disconnection from their history and the cultural significance of their community. This disconnection has led to civic disengagement and a lack of opportunity.

Our team aims to help them make the connection through heritage/cultural immersion as well as technology and digital storytelling tools. Long-term we are exploring the possibility of establishing a internship or fellowship experience. This fellowship would be designed to increase leadership skills and foster civic engagement through training, cultural exploration and opportunities to celebrate Bronzeville’s history, art, culture, commerce and business.

Near-term our goal is to establish a day-long program to empower young people to better understand, tell and document the stories of Bronzeville. Participants will explore various historic sites, businesses and cultural institutions. The program will culminate with participants engaged in a our pop up “maker’s lab” where they will use digital tools to document their experience through photography, videos, audio podcasts, t-shirts, and other digital storytelling tools.


We believe the burden of creating a safe environment cannot sit squarely on the police. It must be a shared responsibility.

We seek to gather people together, across sectors, to work on community safety as a shared concern. After collecting over 75 surveys from various Bronzeville residents and stakeholders we learned that the primary participants in this effort should be youth and police.

We are working on hosting an initial gathering with youth and police in a community-based location to create the foundation for a safe space for the community to actively participate and take responsibility for a Safer Bronzeville!

Outcomes of Grove 3547

It’s too early to tell what the outcomes of these prototypes will be. Typically an evaluation approach which is focused on emergence is the best way to track the teams work over time, and establish the impact they have. We’ll report back in the future with updates as they’re available.


If you’re keen to read all the parts of the Grove 3547 project, than sign up for our newsletter here.

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.