March 19, 2018
Change Labs are becoming an increasingly popular methodology across the world to address complex social, economic and environmental problems. There are scores of labs in Canada tackling food security, early childhood development, energy transition, affordable housing, water management and racism.
There are even several more “permanent” lab platforms, such as the MaRS Solution Lab in Toronto, the Government of Alberta’s Co-Lab in Edmonton, and REOS Partners Social Lab group that facilitate lab processes for other groups.
While there has been a great deal of experimentation with Labs, the field is still highly emergent. Most practitioners rarely document their approaches, systematically evaluate them, or share their learnings and failures with others. As a result, most Lab facilitators, participants, and those who support them, largely improvise, struggle with the same basic ideas and practices, and often find themselves unable to generate the kinds of results they are so eager to see.
The Social Innovation Lab Methodology, the LabWISE initiative and the end-of-project evaluation of the LabWISE represent happy exceptions to this general pattern.
The SI Lab, developed by the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation & Resilience, is an important addition to the field of Labs. While the SI model has a mix of common and unique features (e.g., the nemesis exercise, the emphasis on working across multiple scales of a problem), it is arguably the best documented Lab model around which provides would-be Lab facilitators and participants with a detailed description of its key ideas, phases, activities and techniques.
The LabWISE program, a one-year initiative supported by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, provided diverse social innovation teams with training and coaching to integrate some or all of the SI approach in their work. It appears to be the first – or certainly one of the first — structured effort to build the capacity of lab practitioners in the country.
The End of Project evaluation of LabWISE, completed in late 2017, was a formal assessment of a lab approach and capacity building program. Not only did it provide capture the experience, learning and results of the Lab participants, facilitators and sponsors, it also surfaced questions and insights that are relevant to the larger field. Some of these include:
- When are the strengths and limitations of Labs compared to other change methodologies (e.g., collective impact, social justice campaigns)? When and how can they be used in combination?
- What type, scale and pace of outcome should we expect in a Lab?
- Are labs meant to be one-time change efforts, or should they be organized as multiple cycles of system analysis and experimentation?
- What are the minimum processes, skills and resources necessary that a Lab needs to be effective?
- What do lab practitioners want in an effective capacity building program?
These three things will not revolutionize the field of change labs by themselves. The SI Lab is a very promising, yet still evolving methodology that may work best in select situations and conditions. The LabWISE program was a preliminary experiment that demonstrated the value of providing lab practitioners with support, and also uncovered a lot of areas for improvement. The End of Project assessment was modest in scope and did not include a longer-term follow up to track longer-term results.
However, in a field that desperately needs practitioners to document their approaches, evaluators to be more structured in their assessment, and capacity builders to be more committed to developing comprehensive supports to social innovators, they represent the kind of effort that all advocates of Labs should match – or hopefully exceed – if Labs are ever going to be the type of powerful change methodology that we all want them to be.
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