What are Social Labs?

This is the first in a series of introductory blog posts to help readers understand the fundamentals of social labs.

“There are no cheap tickets to mastery. You have to work at it, whether that means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously casting on your own paradigms and throwing yourself into the humility of Not Knowing. In the end, it seems that power has less to do with pushing leverage points than it does with strategically, profoundly, madly letting go.”

– Donella Meadows


“We have scientific and technical labs for solving our most difficult scientific and technical challenges. We need social labs to solve our most pressing social challenges.”

– Zaid Hassan


So what are social labs?

Let me answer with another question. What is a medical laboratory? What, for example, is the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT? It’s a medical research institute, or what we could think of as a lab, but what else is it? Here are some descriptions from their website:

“The David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT is the epicenter of a highly collaborative e ort to ght cancer in ways it has never been fought…”

“The Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Cancer Center, is a state-of-the-art cancer research facility as well as the hub of cancer research on the MIT campus.”


“The Koch Institute brings together biologists and chemists along with biological, chemical, mechanical, and materials science engineers, computer scientists, clinicians and others, to bring esh perspectives and an interdisciplinary approach to advancing the ght against cancer. This multi-faceted group of investigators is at the core of the Koch Institute’s mission to develop new insights into cancer, as well as new tools and technologies to better treat, diagnose and prevent the disease.”

So the Koch Institute is:

  • a laboratory
  • a space for multi-disciplinary collaboration – a new strategy for combating cancer and inside this space a practice, a way of doing science, of fighting cancer, is undertaken.

Similar a social lab can be thought of as:

  • a laboratory
  • a space for multi-disciplinary collaboration
  • a strategy for addressing a complex challenge

And within the space of a social laboratory, a practice, a way of addressing complex challenges, is undertaken.

Social labs are not tools. Inside social labs, a variety of tools are used and deployed, but using a social lab as a tool represents a misunderstanding of the nature of a laboratory.

If you wanted to get a little metaphysical, then social labs are part of a paradigm, a paradigm of experimentation as a way of understanding the world. If you like, it is a paradigm of experimentation, of how to address our most complex challenges. It is an alternative paradigm to the strategic planning paradigm that’s dominant today. “Social labs” therefore represent one form this paradigm can take.

The Sustainable Food Lab stands out as the first large-scale, multi-stakeholder social lab experiment. Organized in 2004, the lab is a platform for corporations, governments, farmers’ associations, and NGOs to work together to accelerate the incorporation of environmental, economic, and social sustainability into the world’s food production systems. The group took two years to develop a shared view of their challenges and devise a series of experiments to test solutions. Out of that work came a number of changes in large corporations’ procurement practices, increased support for small-holder farmers, and more sustainable farming practices. Ten years later, the Sustainable Food Lab continues to be a platform for innovation.


What Social Labs are not

Labs most traditionally can be thoughts of as physical spaces. But they are also institutional spaces that support particular practices, such as research and innovation. The dominant institutions that are currently tasked with addressing complex social challenges are arguably failing because they are not supportive of the types of practices needed to crack these challenges.

What makes a lab a lab is:

  1. The focus on a specific challenge or domain
  2. A stable space supportive of the practices required to address that challenge and
  3. A disciplined practice of experimentation.

Social labs are different from traditional labs, in that they require a team that reflects the social diversity of the challenges they’re addressing to do the work. In other words, social labs are different in that they are not run by teams of scientists or technocrats, but diverse teams of stakeholders.

According to this definition then social labs are not:

  • Programmes
  • Projects
  • Networks
  • Co-working spaces – Incubators
  • Accelerators

And of-course, simply branding something a “lab” does not make it a lab.