Building Social Labs

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

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

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

But what is a “stack” I hear you say?

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

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

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

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

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

Seth Godin spells out the differences between these two approaches:

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Seth Godin