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.




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