Social Innovation Labs

SiG sees the field of social innovation, design or change labs (and the associated tool kits and processes) as an extremely promising platform for generating new solutions to complex social and environmental challenges. There are various prototypes and models active around the world and under development across Canada.

We are developing this page as a simplified one-stop resource centre highlighting links to key tools documents, web sites, emerging insights to support a community of practice interested in advancing this field.

In June 2016, Joeri van den Steenhoven, Director of the MaRS Solutions Lab delivered this presentation for Innoweave. It is a terrific introduction to the field.

We have created a downloadable 2-page document with a list of labs, practitioners and links to reports. You can download the paper here, or view the page here for online access to the resources. Also, visit our Canadian Lab Stories page to follow the progress and learning of practitioners actively exploring these methods for change.

Canadian Lab Stories

Learning As We Grow is a series of short interviews that provide a snapshot of lab activity happening across Canada. Put simply, labs are intense meetings of diverse groups of people who are searching for breakthrough solutions to serious societal challenges. This project emerged out of the desire to acknowledge and capture what’s taking place on our home turf. We see these videos as a chance to share and celebrate early learnings on Canada’s journey with labs.

View Learning As We Grow here

Social Innovation Lab Guide

labBeginning in 2011, the team at the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience, led by Dr. Frances Westley, convened a series of conversations and learning exchanges between Christian Bason of the Danish Design Centre (and formerly of MindLab) in Copenhagen, Banny Banerjee of d.School at Stanford University in California, Luigi Ferrara of Institute Without Boundaries at George Brown College in Toronto, and Bryan Boyer, formerly of Helsinki Design Lab in Finland.

During 2014, they were also fortunate to partner with the MaRS Solutions Lab, its Director Joeri van den Steenhoven, and his team in the delivery of two Lab processes. These experiences afforded them the opportunity to work closely with and learn from the Solutions Lab, and to test elements of the methodology proposed in their Social Innovation Lab Guide.

Download the Guide here

This Guide to a Social Innovation Lab is offered as a resource to peers, colleagues, practitioners, leaders from all sectors, and concerned citizens – all who have and/or will participate in change-making processes. One hope for this work is that these ideas on social innovation and these recommendations for new practice will result in a greater sense of urgency for those who work on what often seem like impossible aspirations for a different, better world. Probably our greatest hope is that these ideas help to transform the impossible into the possible.

Follow the Rabbit: A Field Guide to System Design

CoLab, 2016

This Field Guide is designed to support budding systemic designers to facilitate and lead systemic design projects.

It’s designed for systemic designers who have basic familiarity with SD concepts and are looking for some practical tips and tools to put theory into action.

While this Guide was designed with Government of Alberta staff in mind, the content applies across a range of issue areas, sectors, and intersections.

The Guide goes through a systemic design project from concept to implementation. It takes you through the workshop planning process, and discusses workshop roles and client relations.

Download the guide here

Change Lab/Design Lab for Social Innovation

Frances Westley, Sean Geobey, Kirsten Robinson
January, 2012

In this paper the authors propose the creation of a Social Innovation Change Lab, what such a permanent process would entail and what it would aim to achieve. They discuss the multiple theoretical origins of Change or Design Labs, as the confluence of group dynamics and group psychology, complexity theory, design, and computer modelling and visual language.

Change Labs provide a physical and intellectual space designed to encourage and facilitate cooperation and the co-creation of meaningful and innovative solutions to complex problems. We discuss the previous and current use of Change or Design Labs, and the possibilities contained in recent and ongoing advancement of visualizing and modelling technologies, with an eye to how a social innovation-oriented Change Lab would fit a genuine need to develop novel solutions to complex problems.

Download the paper here

Labs: Designing the future

Lisa Torjman, Manager, SiG@MaRS
February 2012

Participatory, user-centric approaches to solving problems are gaining momentum as alternatives to traditional organizations. Among these approaches is the innovation Lab, a creative, multi-disciplinary environment that employs a proven and repeatable protocol to seek disruptive, potentially systems-tipping solutions.

Labs: Designing the Future examines the Lab’s roots in complexity, networked collaboration and design thinking. It shows how Labs focus on problem-solving in a highly experimental fashion within a neutral space. The paper offers a review of several Lab models in action around the world, highlighting the Lab’s role in addressing the complex challenges we collectively face in the 21st century.

View the Report here

Change Lab

Reos and SiG

On July 21-22, 2011, Reos facilitated a hand-on workshop to introduce the Change Lab approach to 110 social innovators. The participants worked through the lab process in 16 teams on 16 different complex social challenges.

In 2012, the J.W.McConnell Family Foundation supported the production of a booklet called The Reos Partners Change Lab for the Innoweave Knowledge Sharing Platform. The topic of this booklet is the Reos Change Lab, an approach to creating and navigating change and transformation in complex social systems. While this is not a how-to, it is an in-depth exploration of the Change Lab approach, as well as the principles and tools which underwrite the work at Reos Partners.

Powering Collaborative Policy Innovation: Can Innovation Labs Help?

Helle Vibeke Carstensen & Christian Bason
January 2012

Abstract: There is nothing inherently new in the idea of cross-cutting collaboration, joined-up government and networked governance (Pollitt, 2003; Hartley, 2005; Mulgan, 2009). However, in the last decade, new forms of internal units have been set up within public sector organisations with the explicit purpose of supporting innovation efforts. And in at least one case, such a unit has evolved into a permanent governance network designed to foster cross- governmental innovation.

We start by discussing the underlying change logic of innovation labs. The article then examines the history, role and functioning of Denmark’s MindLab, an innovation lab that today is part of the Ministries of Business & Growth, Taxation, and Employment. We emphasise how the development of MindLab over time reflects a typology of different generations of innovation labs. Finally, we reflect on potential future directions for platforms for collaborative innovation in the public sector.

Download the PDF Report here

A SiG Report on Mindlab

Allyson Hewitt, Director, Social Entrepreneurship at MaRS and Director, SiG@MaRS
March 2012

The SiG collaborative was very pleased to welcome Christian Bason from Mindlab to Canada last year on a cross-country tour that saw him present on his Lab model to audiences in Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver.You can see Christian’s presentation on our 2011 Inspiring Action for Social Impact archive here. This March, Allyson Hewitt returned the favour, visiting Mindlab and speaking with their staff about SiG and our investigation of lab models for development here in Canada.

Download the Report here

Backgrounder: Optimizing A Public Sector Innovation Platform

Tim Draimin, Executive Director, SiG National

Public sector innovation is a top-of-mind subject in government hallways across Canada. Innovation in the public sector has taken on new urgency as austerity budgets accelerate the necessity to re-think how government services can be re-thought or even how in some cases the system can shift from service delivery to tackling root causes that have given rise to the demand for services.

Ambitious public sector reform necessarily will range from new policies, to new ways of engaging with provincial and national innovation ecosystems, and to creating innovation Labs that support change makers inside government.
As John Kao says, innovation needs a home where the professional innovation discipline can enhance opportunities for new solutions to emerge as people meet, interact, experiment, ideate and prototype.

Download the Report here

Design for Social Innovation

Today, social innovation is generating a constellation of small initiatives. Nevertheless, if favourable conditions are created, these small, local social inventions and their working prototypes can spread. They can be scaled-up, consolidated, replicated and integrated with larger programs to generate large-scale sustainable changes. To do that, new design competencies are needed. Indeed, social innovation processes require visions, strategies and co-design tools to move from ideas to mature solutions and viable programs. That is, they ask for new design capabilities that, as a whole, can be defined as design for social innovation.

DESIS is coordinated by Ezio Manzini and is an international network of schools of design and other design-related organisations specifically active in the field of design for social innovation and sustainability. DESIS is increasingly looking at the role of design in the lab process. We have listed 3 of their latest publications here.

DESIS Brochure

Making things happen Social Innovation and Design, by Ezio Manzini (April 2012)

Design Schools as agents of (sustainable) change, by Ezio Manzini (May 2011)

Building Community Connectivity

The Four Rooms: creating a learning ecology for systemic transformation

The Living Wholeness Institute

What does it mean to truly transform our systems ourselves included so that they are deeply sustainable, at all levels?

Our damage to the planet and to our humanity has led to unprecedented depletion of both our biosphere and ethnosphere. Yet, as we witness many of our human systems and institutions topple under revolution or struggle to stay relevant, we also see an explosion of innovation in sciences, technologies, social entrepreneurship and the emergence of new organizing patterns. People and communities are becoming conscious of the need for systemic change not tinkering part of the system but transforming whole. We are realizing that we have to regain the responsibility for many aspects of our lives which we have outsourced to experts. So we are marshalling resources and are innovating to create new realities that are based on new forms of leadership and power sourced from within ourselves.

Download the full report here

The Value of Creation

Our colleagues at found this cool video and we thought it might help you visualize the design methods used in some Labs.

Labs and Links

Every month we share interesting links we’ve been reading online in a series called Microtainer, compiled by Satsuko Van Antwerp and Hyun-Duck Chung. Get caught up and follow along here.

Top Lab Sources


Sitra, Helsinki Design Lab

United Kingdom

United Kingdom

Reos Partners
United States

United States


MIT AgeLab
United States

d.School at Stanford
United States

Finance Innovation Lab
United Kingdom

Society for Organizational Learning

Cambridge, USA



Ethik Eco-design Hub

Montreal, Canada


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