A Global Meeting of the Minds: The Road Ahead for PSI Labs

SiG Note: This article was originally published by MaRS Solutions Lab on June 17, 2014. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.
 

“Who in this room thinks they’re a contrarian?”

IMG_7602-1024x454On May 26, at the Labs for Systems Change event at MaRS, Geoff Mulgan, CEO of Nesta, opened his keynote address by asking the audience this question. Many of the event’s attendees raised their hands, which fit the Labs for Systems Change mindset. Lab practitioners are required to look at complex societal problems from unconventional perspectives to produce creative and impactful solutions and, according to Geoff, “contrarians naturally disagree with things and [out of this] instinct, they are able to generate better ideas.”

Labs for Systems Change brought together many outside-the-box thinkers to discuss, debate and challenge the new field of labs. The event resulted in abundant discussion on topics including functional lab challenges, lab values, institutional structure and new ways to impact public policy.

“Contrarians naturally disagree with things and [out of this] instinct, they are able to generate better ideas.”

Global labs gathering

Labs for Systems Change is the public portion of this year’s Global Labs Gathering, a now annual gathering of public and social innovation lab (PSI labs) practitioners from around the world. The event was the third and largest gathering yet and was organized by the MaRS Solutions Lab, in partnership with Social Innovation Generation (the first meeting was held by MindLab in Denmark; the second by Kennisland in the Netherlands).

Labs for Systems Change brought together 50 international guests and 100 participants from across Canada. Designers, policy-makers, academics, consultants and lab practitioners all convened at MaRS to explore, expand and define the lab landscape. Distinguished members of the Canadian federal government and members of the Ontario Public Service were also among the attendees. The event was livestreamed in North America, Europe and Asia.

The notable lineup of guests included Frances Westley, Director of the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience; Jari Tuomala, Partner at The Bridgespan Group in New York City; Christian Bason, Director of Innovation at MindLab in Copenhagen; Beth Simone Noveck, Director of The Governance Lab at New York University; and Adam Kahane, Chairman of Reos Partners North America, among over 40 eminent international guests.

First Roundtable discussion on lab approaches

These guests participated as panelists and keynote speakers on three topics: the state of public and social innovation labs; design for public policy; and labs, governance and technology. Table discussions on lab approaches, the organization of the lab and the future of labs were also held throughout the day. These interrelated topics helped guide the event towards a productive conversation about the past, present and future of the labs field.

Current lab challenges

Although Geoff emphasized contrarianism as a quality that lab practitioners should have, it was not the only quality he spoke of. His more controversial point came from his understanding of Niccolò Machiavelli’s works on political strategy. Geoff suggested that guile—that is, “cunning in attaining a goal”—is another quality that lab practitioners should have. His remark garnered a good laugh, but it also piqued the interest of the attendees, as guile would certainly come in handy when embarking on the long journey toward public-sector intervention and policy change.

Geoff Mulgan reflection talk

Laughs aside, the need for new strategies for approaching systems change through policy interventions is very real; it is a need that was reflected by the large number of lab practitioners and public-sector innovators at the event. Labs for Systems Change created a platform for further developing the field of systems change labs by bringing together key players in the field to discuss the issues commonly faced by labs, as well as core concerns such as values, institutional structure and the future of this growing field. Moreover, many significant challenges were raised during the event, including prototyping, scaling, defining the metrics of success and change, creating a sustainable business model, and facilitating more networked ways of learning between labs to better share the key lessons learned along the way.

During the first panel, the institutional structure of labs (that is, whether labs should exist inside or outside of government) was a point of contention. Labs designing citizen-centred, bottom-up processes and using tools such as big data and social physics are able to gather data outside of government. However, when labs are looking for resources, governments seem to be the key stakeholders and funders. Increasing funding options through outside sources like venture capital might be a way forward for some labs. Nevertheless, other attendees suggested that being inside or outside of government shouldn’t matter, as long as labs were producing an impact.

Future lab challenges

Christian Bason talk

According to Christian Bason, Director of Innovation at MindLab, viewing policy as an impact instead of a strategy may “require having to change the entire policy.” This might be one of the unintended consequences, whether good or bad, of systems change. If governments are ready to be open about addressing their challenges, labs need to help them to “expand the range and types of tools that government can use and expand, or create new tools if [current] tools are ineffective,” he said. This ties into the idea of envisioning a new future for society through systems change lab experimentation and, as Christian explained, showing government how to “stop resisting change and [instead] embrace it.”

This need resonated among event attendees. Labs and practitioners should be more than neutral facilitators. They should have a concrete vision of their purpose and use it to guide their decisions. Whether that vision is like that of Gabriella Gómez-Mont, Director of Laboratorio para la Ciudad, who views Mexico City’s citizens as being not “22 million mouths, [but] 22 million minds,” or whether it is like that of Adam Kahane, who believes in checking one’s biases at the door before getting involved in a project, having a concrete set of values or a manifesto can be beneficial to any organization or field. Having a vision provides a general foundation from which to grow.

If governments are ready to be open about addressing their challenges, labs need to help them to “expand the range and types of tools that government can use and expand, or create new tools if [current] tools are ineffective.”

Overall, Labs for Systems Change was an incredible learning experience. The event was a forum for lab practitioners, policy-makers, designers, academics and consultants to interact and share their experiences in a collaborative environment. With so much cross-pollination of lab processes and systems change ideas, the potential for positive outcomes is immense.

Moving forward, lab practitioners will need to address the key challenges facing labs, including defining metrics, scaling solutions and building sustainable business models. Moreover, labs as a field should create a repository of systems change interventions, in order to share information on what works and use these interventions as concrete examples of lab results. Both of these actions will do more to enhance the field than simply spreading lab processes, as more is not always better and even an unintentional decline in quality due to quantity could hinder rather than help this relatively new field.

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Lessons From Being At the Cutting Edge – TACSI

Next week, The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) is Toronto-bound for Social Innovation Canada 2014 (#socinncan) – an event series that is bringing together leading social innovators, social entrepreneurs, and social financiers to exchange learnings and continue to foster a global culture of social innovation.

TACSI will be bringing unique stories and questions to the table. With a co-design approach that is transforming family-services, a knack for unusual partnerships, and first-hand experience of the risks and hurdles in solution seeking, TACSI will share their lens on social innovation in action during #socinncan (on May 22nd at MaRS) — a process that is always learning in action.

C/O TACSI: Our Co-Design Process

C/O TACSI: Our Co-Design Process

Unusual Partners

What does it look like to bring government, designers, service-providers, and families into the same design process? TACSI calls it Radical Redesign: “…an approach that operates bottom-up and top-down in, with and for communities to generate, test, and improve ideas at an interaction and system level” (Radical Redesign/ Family by Family Report, 2011).

Seeing a big gap between government approaches to social problem solving (top-down), community approaches (bottom-up), and “solutions'” end-users, TACSI brings together a range of unusual partners to foster positive social impacts, with the end goal of closing that gap and affecting systems change.

Social impact work is the only work we do at TACSI. Since 2010 we’ve been developing a methodology for building solutions that create change, are financially sustainable and are grounded in what the community wants and needs. We call it co-design, we use it every day and we’ve used it to create award-winning and money saving solutions like Family by Family — TACSI, Innovation Support (Our Offers)

What does successful social innovation look like? TACSI’s flagship solution, Family by Family, is a celebrated program that “was co-designed with families and is delivered by families” with unprecedented results:

After One Year: 90% of the families in the program achieved their goals.

After Three Years: Cost benefit analysis showed “that the program saves $7 for every $1 invested by keeping kids out of state care.”

But measurable (quantitative) results rarely tell the whole story or reflect the ongoing shifts and transformations within communities. TACSI’s own reflection on success focuses on people’s view of a good life:

We don’t think success should be measured in terms of services or systems, but in terms of more people living the lives they want – Radical Redesign/ Family by Family Report, 2011 

This form of measurement— a lot messier to ‘measure’ and to understand — demands a constant process of learning, listening, and making connections to what is ‘good.’ 

TACSI: The Seven Questions
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C/O TACSI Radical Redesign/ Family by Family Report

1 GET READY
What team fits the problem?
2 LOOK & LISTEN
What are good outcomes?

3 CREATE
What ideas could improve outcomes?
4 PROTOTYPE INTERACTIONS
What interactions shift outcomes?
5 PROTOTYPE SYSTEMS
What supports new interactions?
6 VALUE
What value does the solution create?
7 GROW
How can we spread the solution?

Are we doing good?

Being at the cutting edge, being innovative, having impact, and ‘doing good’ are not necessarily, or inherently, synonymous. How do we keep track of what is good (and for whom) during solution-design, when other metrics and terms (impact/change/transformation/efficiency/systems) often end up dominating our discourse?

Last summer, sociologist Sarah Schulman (In With Forward) reflected on the social solutions she helped develop with TACSI in 2011-2012, during a webinar for our Inspiring Action for Social Impact series.

Sarah Schulman asks, Are we doing good? from Social Innovation Generation on Vimeo.
 

Risks, Failures, Hurdles

Social innovators can’t wear rose coloured glasses if they are committed to rosy results for their clients and end-users. 

As a sociologist myself, the question “Are we doing good?” invokes an ethic that process and results cannot be evaluated in isolation — the means need to be as just as the ends. Putting results in context — both quantitative and qualitative results — demands digging into the risks, recognizing and analyzing hurdles, and identifying and learning from failure quickly. It’s an emergent and imperfect process that requires facing and preparing for fallibility head on, without the glamorization of ‘good intentions.’

As one TACSI/Family by Family team member put it:

There is nowhere to hide in the social innovation world. You have to stand behind your ideas, be prepared for them to sometimes fail and be able to admit that they did. You have to be brave enough to do things differently, often with no previous framework to work from.”

Mobilizing Experiences, Learning in Action

May 22nd TACSI will be diving deep into their approach, lessons, stories, and success as part of our Inspiring Action for Social Impact series, MaRS Global Leadership, and Social Innovation Canada.

Register here to learn more, join the conversation, and gain key insights from Australian Social Innovation In Action!