Putting the Social Into Social Labs
Why social labs? Why not “change labs” or “social innovation labs”?
There are many generic terms for labs floating around in addition to change lab, such as innovation labs, social innovation labs, societal innovation labs, leadership labs and so on. Indeed, in our work we had until now referred to the labs we ran as “change labs.” Why introduce a new term, “social labs”?
One of my key ambitions in writing “The Social Labs Revolution” was to try and provide real grounding for the practice of “lab” work that I have been involved in over the last decade and a half.
A strategy for doing this was through grounding the book into the concept of the “social” – which the associated field being the “social sciences.” This also allows “social” labs to be contrasted to “technical” or “natural science” labs.
In contrast, “change” is not an academic field and neither (really) is “innovation.” I believed that the terms “change lab” or even “social innovation labs” fails to sufficiently and clearly ground the phenomenon of “labs” in both a discourse or a field of practice.
For example, if I used those terms ie the “change lab revolution” – the book and perhaps the wider field would at best be associated with business or management consulting literature. This, for me, is an inaccurate representation of “labs” practice – in that business alone is too narrow a base of practice.
For the longest time I was in a constructive debate with my publisher about what social labs were. They initially wanted to position the book as being about a new methodology, not dissimilar to World Café or Open Space. I argued against this, saying that social labs were not a new methodology.
Eventually we came to an agreement that social labs were indeed not a new methodology, but a “big idea” or more accurately a new paradigm.
Steve, my editor, started talking about social labs as a “meta-idea” that actually connects the work of multiple BK authors. What does that mean?
Think of a traditional scientific or technical lab. They are not “methods” but rather places where multiple methodologies are applied to problems.
Traditional labs are of-course “places” but more than that they represent a paradigm for how we address a particular type of problem.
Similarly, social labs are a paradigm, a particular way of thinking about complex social challenges. Within social labs (just like any other labs) a wide range of techniques and methodologies may be used. So for example we may be World Café, or circle or Open Space or any number of methodologies.
Hence, we have scientific and technical labs to solve scientific and technical problems, we need social labs to address complex social challenges.
The second reason, which I outlined briefly in my book was that I saw “change labs” as “first generation social labs.” “Change labs are first-generation social labs. They’re prototypes because they draw on a relatively narrow base of approaches, whereas next-generation social labs draw on a much wider range.”
Are social labs a fashion?
Every second social intervention seems to be using the word “lab” to describe themselves. Does this mean that social labs are old news?
Are scientific, technical or medical labs old news? Yes, they are but of-course they are more relevant than ever. A scientist does not say, “oh not a lab, we used to have labs 100 years ago.”
Part of the challenge with labs is seeing them in light of market logic. I believe lab-practice is moving from a niche to a mainstream market. Life in a mainstream market is very different from life in a niche market, servicing early adapters and mavericks. I believe that with this shift from niche to mainstream, the market for our work and for labs will only grow.
We need to stop seeing labs as just another consultant driven fad or fashion, to seeing it as a new paradigm, a new way of addressing complex social challenges.
Going back to the analogy with scientific labs – there are many techniques employed in scientific labs – the idea of the lab is not a methodology but a paradigm, a way of thinking that informs a practice.