Why 'Social Labs'?

Why Social Labs?

One of the questions I have recently been asked about The Social Labs Revolution is why “social” labs? Why not “change labs” or “innovation labs” or “leadership labs” as these terms are already in circulation?

My intention in picking the word “social” is to provide a counter-point to laboratories that are rooted in the natural sciences, that is, traditional scientific, technological, medical domains.

While we’re familiar with biology, chemistry and physics labs, we have no particular conception of what a social lab might look like. Laboratory experimentation in the social sciences might conjure up images of psychological testing, such as in the infamous Milgram Experiment or worse, the idea of social engineering. The idea of an experiment raises the issue of who the subject of experimentation is, leading to all sorts of ethical dilemmas.

This begs the question, what exactly is the “social” as a domain, in contrast to the natural sciences?

According to Bruno Latour, “When social scientists add the adjective ‘social’ to some phenomenon, they designate a stabilised state of affairs, a bundle of ties that, later, may be mobilised to account for some other phenomenon. There is nothing wrong with this use of the word as long as it designates what is _already_ assembled together, without making any superfluous assumptions about the _nature_ of what is assembled…problems arise, however, when ‘social’ begins to mean a type of material, as if the adjective was roughly comparable to other terms like ‘wooden’ ‘steely’, ‘biological’,…At that point, the meaning of the word breaks down…”

What is he talking about? The “social” according to Latour should not be used as an adjective. The “social” is the product of a process, or a series of historical processes, the social is what could be thought of as an “assemblage.”

Terms such as “change,” “innovation,” or even “leadership” are relatively plastic and imprecise in defining a domain of action. The word “social” subject to the caveats expressed by Latour locates the work of change more precisely. It also gives us indications as to the process-orientated nature of the work we engage in. While designating a historical “assemblage,” the “social” also indicates how changes comes about, via processes leading to new “assemblages.”

Imagine a bell ringing in a school, children pour out of their classrooms to head for their next class. “Where are you going?” one of them asks another, “Oh, I’ve got social lab now.” Upon entering the class called the “social lab,” students are organised into small groups of four. “Where are you guys going today?” says one. “We’re off to the urban farm, what about you guys?” “Ack, we have to go and interview people at the local supermarket,” comes the reply with a mournful face.

In the scenario above, school children learn about how systems change through very simple exercises. These exercises do not require special equipment and nor do they need to take place at scale. Teaching children about convening teams, about disciplined observation, about the design of space, about prototyping, fundraising and agile processes are all relatively easy to do. Imagine that these activities are not simply based on abstract classroom learning but that students actually work on real issues that impact them, attempting to make real changes within their context.

I believe that we are living in a particularly fruitful time in history for social labs. Our spaces of experimentation are vastly different from previous eras of social engineering. Instead of a technocratic class experimenting on the unfortunate masses, we live in an era where partnership with broad strata of society is now possible. Our networks have extended inter-connectivity far and wide…and this is only increasing. True partnership still requires sensitivity, skill and trust-building. But no longer can we credibly hide behind the claim that we know better and so must exclude people from self-determining their own lives.



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