Social Innovation Labs in Support of Community-Campus Collaboration
In this blog, David and Ben talk about Edmonton’s Skills Society Action Lab and its relationship with the University of Alberta’s Community Service Learning program. They discuss some of the successes and challenges of their work together.
David: I distinctly remember the first time I walked through the Action Lab at Skills Society of Edmonton (Skills). Skills was, and still remains, one of the largest disability rights and service organizations in Edmonton and is known nationally for their leadership in social innovation field building. As a new Director of the University of Alberta Community Service-Learning (CSL) program, I was keen to meet the staff, including my co-author, Ben Weinlick, who had successfully worked on Community Service-Learning (CSL) programs at Canadian post-secondary institutions in the past, exploring citizenship actions and rights for persons with disabilities. I walked through the lab space, and quickly realized the potential. This space and social innovation lab methodologies could help CSL create new modes of community-university research and learning partnerships. And CSL could support Skills Society by utilizing the space and lab facilitation services.
In our early conversations, however, it became apparent that we could do much more than that. We constructed a Community-Based Research (CBR) project, with Skills as the co-investigator, to generate new knowledge about how, and under what conditions, CSL’s often small, community-based partners might most productively and authentically partner with university researchers to drive social change.
With funding from another University-based partner, the Kule Institute for Advanced Study, which invests in interdisciplinary work, and the Edmonton Community Foundation, we set to work to do the following: convene a sample of CSL partners to explore their understandings, concerns, and desires for research; to creatively design new ways of collaborating between organizations; to inclusively develop a set of organizationally specific research questions; and to prototype new modes of virtual and face-to-face connections between community innovators and university researchers.
Ben: The Skills approach included traditional qualitative techniques for data collection and interpretation, including interviews with specific organizational staff and then thematic analysis. The approach was aligned with CBR and Participatory Action Research to engage participants fully at all stages of the research process, mindful of the power differences between universities and (often small) community organizations. Yet, it was human centered design thinking and methods of social innovation labs that provided the catalytic innovation in our process, resulting in deeper insights from participants.
What CBR mixed with social innovation lab approaches looked like
During the lab workshops the team introduced and utilized participatory design tools to make sense of the core issues participants were trying to address, and to assist them in prototyping pathways forward. Here are some of the tools participants used:
World Cafe Conversations, Visual Explorer picture cards, Journey Mapping, Interviewing, User Personas, Service Design Canvas, Dotmocracy and participatory prototyping.
Between lab workshops one and two, CSL leaders visited research participants and conducted interviews to explore the research topic in more detail. For Lab session two, we combined traditional research and lab methodologies, visualizing interview themes, and inviting participants to ‘dot vote’ on key themes. Participants validated what the team heard in the interviews, and collectively prioritized what was most important to focus on when generating potential research collaboration pathways. Combining traditional research methodologies with social innovation lab approaches provided more robust sense making of the issues, and opened up participatory ideation, and prototyping of solutions.
As an example of sense making made visual, in Lab session one, participants used a journey map tool to explore the “journey” of their organization through a complex challenge that they were working to tackle. By breaking down each step of their research journey and identifying key experiences in their journey, participants identified their preferred ways of researching, sharing insights, and building new knowledge together.
Journey Mapping Tool Lab participants used
Teams exploring in the CBR Lab the ways their organizations go about researching and problem solving complex issues they face.
David and Ben: So what did we achieve for our research participants? One of our greatest and least told outcomes is that our CBR project changed the way many university-based units were interacting with each other. CSL and the Kule Institute for Advanced Study have repurposed and reassembled their resources to more clearly target the research needs of community organizations, creating new funding pathways to scale their work across new networks of researchers and communities.
Through prototyping in the CBR Lab, participants laid the foundation for the user experience and what features need to be considered as we create a new digital interface that links community research questions, generated in our study, with campus-based researchers. Crucially, CSL will steward this resource to make sure the knowledge and questions from community partners are not exploited by academic researchers who do not share the same values of democratizing the research process and achieving community impacts simultaneously with academic outcomes.
Our CBR highlighted the need for better collaboration pathways to emerge between the academy and community, through both a digital connection space as well as face-to-face human collision space is important. As such, we are also in the process of building on insights from the CBR Lab where participants prototyped what might be meaningful for face-to-face explorations between researchers and community organizations. To do this, CSL and KIAS are currently in the process of creating a ‘Connect Café’ to enable community knowledge makers and innovators to engage in person with interested academic researchers; an analog, face-to-face accompaniment to the portal.
We know that CSL is a trusted pathway to CBR partnerships that move beyond the confines of the academic term. We also now know that the Social Innovation Lab methodologies we have been using produce better research ‘data’, or are methods uniquely suited to the co-production and communication of knowledge that achieve much of our desired social impact. Despite the distinct origins of CSL, CBR and Social Innovation Lab discourses and practices, we found that all these methodologies can combine for the benefit of community. When the critical voices of the social sciences and humanities meet the pragmatic and optimistic dispositions of the social innovator, things start moving!
The model of community-university partnering here for research oriented outcomes has the potential of being repeated with a number of different university and community actors. Initial feedback from our presentation at the C2U Expo in Vancouver suggests there is a strong demand for these kinds of collaborations, and we’re excited to explore these as we move forward together.
For the narrative reports from our exploration, visit
To learn more, visit the University of Alberta’s Community Service-Learning (CSL) program and Skills Society Action Lab.