Labs in Place: Weaving Networks to Achieve Systemic Change

Designed by Karen Gomez, background image from LEDlab.

In 2015, Ecotrust Canada and RADIUS SFU partnered to initiate a social innovation lab to design, test, and scale solutions for a more vibrant and inclusive local economy in Vancouver’s inner city.

In the consultation phase, the team analyzed current literature on social innovation labs to develop a presentation of how a lab process might work in the Downtown Eastside (DTES). We then took this presentation to DTES community organizers and change leaders, where we quickly learned that adaptation, flexibility and continual iteration needed to become our mantra. A centralized, process-driven approach was not welcome in this particular community, and had the dangerous potential to entrench problematic dynamics already at play.  

This early lesson started the Local Economic Development Lab (LEDlab) on a path of iterating a social innovation lab model with the added characteristic of place. Our hypothesis is: when embedded in a community context, labs need to be respectful of preexisting relationships, networks, and change initiatives – and must adapt their role from process designers to network weavers, working in service of systemic change.     

Principles of Place-based Labs

Zaid Hassan (2015) describes social labs as multi-stakeholder change processes that are social, systemic, and experimental.1  The Social Innovation Lab Guide (2015) defines a Social Innovation Lab as a three-step process involving (1) Initiation, (2) Research and Preparation, and (3) the Workshops.2 While LEDlab embodies many lab-characteristics – such as problem identification, co-creation of solutions, rapid prototyping and continual learning – we felt compelled to re-imagine a lab model without highly structured workshop settings, where the inflow and outflow of participants could be more fluid.  

Below we share the principles of what we are now calling LEDlab’s place-based lab approach. These are our lessons learned from reconciling a more expert-driven social innovation lab process with our experience of working on the ground in the DTES community to create systemic change.

Please note: The principles below were gleaned from working in the DTES, which is a very rich and resilient community with a long history of activism and a difficult relationship with the research community. There are many people, places, and systems that may be open to more structured innovation processes, or which may present a different set of conditions, opportunities and constraints. The principles outlined below speak only to our current experience.

Daniel, past intern at the LEDlab, worked with the Downtown Eastside Market. The Market supports hundreds of vendors by providing a safe space to conduct business and allows them to earn extra income to supplement their income assistance. Image from LEDlab.

We embed ourselves in existing community networks and processes

Many labs seek to pull people out of their work in order to challenge assumptions and co-design new solutions. Our experience in the DTES suggests that in a neighbourhood and community context you can’t/shouldn’t pull people out of their work because it is EXACTLY their work and the ability to prototype within it that holds the substance and opportunity for solution-building. Convening of any kind is inherently exclusive – there are always people that are ‘in’ the group or the process and others who are not. In a community setting, the creation of any ‘exclusive group’, even when the group is convened for the good of the whole, can quickly become political and may cause real harm to relationships that exist between neighbours, friends, and colleagues.  

In a place-based lab model, we have learned instead to leave the community where they are and to embed ourselves into existing community networks and processes to identify high-impact ideas. We fundamentally think of innovation happening in and with the community, not about innovation happening in our lab.  

We build trust in service of systems change

We consistently ask ourselves: How can we add value? The answer is often surprising. Something as simple as sending a personal invitation to a meeting, calling a colleague to celebrate a win, or transitioning a network’s membership list to a listserv can offer tremendous value to a network. We often don’t place enough emphasis on the small acts of service that can build the trust within a network. The quality of relationships between people matter, and are so foundational to affecting systemic change.

We work at multiple scales, convening the ‘whole system’ in a responsive and emergent way

Interested in the incredible work of the LEDlab? They are hiring! Deadline to apply to their internship program is June 13, the internship is open to grad students only. Image from LEDlab

As ideas surface and gain momentum from various community members and stakeholder groups, the lab is able to responsively convene from across the system around a specific project idea or strategic initiative.  In this way, co-design is first grounded in community insights and felt needs. Second, we ask: who isn’t at the table, and bring together people with resources and mutual interest to develop out and test community-driven innovation.  

In the LEDlab model, there isn’t just one group of lab participants, but rather the lab is embedded in a multi-hub network, working on multiple solutions, where we play a bridging role across multiple networks, sectors, and scales. 

The Tapestry of Systems Change

Taken together, these principles inform a  lab model that sees itself as a platform for systemic change, willing and ready to respond to the emerging needs of the system in which it is embedded.

Recognizing that the DTES community is fertile ground for innovation, LEDlab’s work is two-fold:

  1. To keep our eye on, and give voice to, emerging ideas with the potential to contribute to the overall objective of creating an inclusive and vibrant local economy; and.
  2. To responsively convene new human groupings with the dynamic potential to create and implement innovative solutions. 

LEDlab is continuously creating and supporting social infrastructures to achieve new results. For this reason, our lab staff might more accurately be described as “systems entrepreneurs” – weaving their way across and through complex systems and networks, stitching together a vision and strategy for collective action. The approach is showing promising results in Vancouver’s inner city.

We welcome feedback from other practitioners, community members and academics. We look forward to adding to these principles and documenting the methodology in more detail as it evolves.

The author would like to thank Brenda Kuecks for her thought partnership and contributions to this blog.

Hassan, Z. (2014). The social labs revolution: A new approach to solving our most complex challenges. California, USA: Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Westley, F., Laban, S. (2015). Social Innovation Lab Guide. Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience. Retrieved from: https://uwaterloo.ca/waterloo-institute-for-social-innovation-and-resilience/sites/ca.waterloo-institute-for-social-innovation-and-resilience/files/uploads/files/10_silabguide_final.pdf

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Kiri Bird About Kiri Bird

Kiri Bird is a strategist, facilitator, and Manager of the Local Economic Development Lab. The LED Lab is based in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, & incubates community-driven solutions for a more vibrant & inclusive economy.

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