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.

1 Hassan, Z. (2014). The social labs revolution: A new approach to solving our most complex challenges. California, USA: Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
2 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

On seeking, sharing and systems change

If there’s one sentiment I have expressed a number of times over the past 2 weeks, it is gratitude. SiG and our partners have been metaphorically swimming in inspiring stories told by Canadian indigenous leaders and stories told of social lab interventions that are positively transforming lives in different parts of the world, while building relationships with a host of change-makers that are in equal measure genius and humble. The only hard thing about all this goodness is choosing where to begin to make sense of all of the learning, translate the stories of successful change-making to a Canadian context, and offer some resources to adapt the best pieces of  work.

Thanks to the kickoff event of Social Innovation Canada 2014 featuring Dana Shen, Director of Family by Family from South Australia, I feel confident in offering a place to start. SiG has taken a look at Family by Family before — as early as 2011 — courtesy of the co-designer of the model, Sarah Schulman of InWithForward. Hearing about it again from Dana meant a deeper dive into the model and hearing about its impact and adaptation over time.

Here is a quick summary of what Family by Family does (I’ll leave it to Dana herself to explain it in full on video):

In 2010, The Australia Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) asked the South Australian government what they wanted to focus on in terms of better social service outcomes. The government asked for an intervention to bring down the high numbers of children in the formal protection system. TACSI, working with Sarah Schulman and Chris Vanstone, developed a peer-to-peer solution that looks astonishingly simple on the surface: families who have come through tough times mentor families experiencing tough times. Or in the words of Family by Family, sharing families mentor seeking families.

Watch Dana explain how getting to this solution was a learning experience in collaboration between unusual partners, in trust-building and in adaptation:

Family by Family: Australian social innovation in action – MaRS Global Leadership from MaRS Discovery District on Vimeo.

Following this MaRS Global Leadership presentation, Dana joined SiG and 160+ participants at SIX Vancouver, May 27-29, where we were privileged to hear an opening discussion between Dr. Frances Westley and Tyze Founder, Vickie Cammack. The conversation focused on the effects of culture on our spirits, our organizations and our society. In many ways I feel the key to Family by Family’s success was in taking the time to understand the culture it was entering – that of families experiencing difficult times and why change was so difficult to achieve.

The result of TACSI engaging with community in the design and prototyping of Family by Family was an equally deep impact on the so-called experts charged with delivering the program. Dana spoke to the benefits of Family by Family for the culture inside the public sector in South Australia, those delivering the program at Family by Family and the broader TACSI design team. So profound has been the impact, that TACSI and the government are looking for ways to scale the model.

During Frances and Vickie’s discussion, the conversation turned to a desire to understand resilience and vulnerability more deeply. Being open to exploring our own vulnerability also opens up opportunities to see and understand others. As Frances reflected, if you can’t touch the vulnerability in yourself, you can’t touch it in others either. And the result is that our fear of the “other” increases. We don’t have to look far to see fear guiding many interactions across cultures in the world.

Six Day 1 Musqueam Welcome and Interview with Frances Westley 125

Photo Credit: Komal Minhas for KoMedia

Following the discussion, Dana reflected on our shared journey — on the fact that we are all in this world together; that we all want similar things. As Allyson Hewitt said at the end of Dana’s MaRS presentation, we are always sharing and seeking change. And it’s not a one-way street.

The Family by Family program has seen sharing families — those willing to volunteer time to support those experiencing tough times — become seeking families themselves. These times of vulnerability are to be expected and need not be permanent. As a community acting together and understanding each other more deeply, we can become more resilient. Vickie Cammack may refer to this as a recognition of our interdependence. The Family by Family model is supporting a strengthening in community resilience. As seeking families achieve their goals, they increase their ability to share their experience and learning with others. At scale, the impact is a sea-change — this increased resilience enables the flow of resources, both personal and community, towards systemic change. We all seek support and understanding at different times in our lives. Being awake to this is not to be stuck, but to be open to others. In a second post about Social Innovation Canada 2014, I will explore what it means to know our own fears and desires better, as well as those of others with whom we experience conflict, thanks to the wonderful contribution of David Diamond at SIX Vancouver. The ability to understand others through understanding ourselves is the result of a deepening empathy. SiG is so pleased to be co-presenting a conversation with Bill Drayton, Founder of Ashoka, on June 19th at MaRS. Bill has turned his extensive experience towards supporting and promoting entrepreneurs fostering empathy in our world. You can see details on that event here.

Preparing for Surprise: Social Innovation Week Vancouver

THE WEAVE: LOCAL, NATIONAL and INTERNATIONAL 

“It’s a coming together of local and global social innovators, and an invitation to Vancouverites and visitors to join in exploring solutions for a better world. It’s a series of gatherings and conversations that aim to inspire the changemaker in all of us” – The Tyee Presents

Social Innovation Week is a coming together — a weaving together of the momentum and energies around social innovation and social enterprise in British Columbia, across Canada, and globally.

SIW-Partners-Vertical-140507-300dpiIt is the cornerstone of Social Innovation Canada, a national movement of events, collaboration and connection across five cities during May and June.

Hosted by BC Partners for Social Impact, in collaboration with over 20 organizations from across sectors and continents, Social Innovation Week Vancouver (#SIweekVan) is curated to inspire and explore the humanity of social innovation: culture, community, care, creativity.

The week (May 26-30) is a celebration of both place and space — a convergence around British Columbia’s social change and innovation drive and a convergence of global innovators and activists in Vancouver.

B.C. has always prided ourselves on our ability to tackle challenges. The whole rise of social enterprise over the last 20 years had a really serious impetus here on the West Coast, particularly in Vancouver” – Al Etmanski, BC Partners for Social Impact [The Tyee Presents: Social Innovation Week]

THE WEFT

“We are responsible, of course, for ourselves. But, as Emmanuel Levinas insists, if we are to claim a full and proper humanity, we must claim responsibility for the other” — Roger Silverstone, Media and Morality: On the Rise of the Mediapolis

The common thread bringing Social Innovation Week together – the soul of the week – is reflection and introspection on culture, culture shift, and narratives of care. As a curated series, the Week will be an immersive, reflexive, and learning experience, inviting each of us to consider the human spirit of social innovation — and our own roles as changemakers, community members, supporters, allies…people.

These themes are at the heart of the international conference, taking place in North America for the first time, in the middle of #SIweekVan: SIX Summer School 2014. An annual event, SIX (#SIXvan14) brings together leading social innovation thinkers and practitioners, grassroots activists, and policy makers from around the world to explore some of the key issues facing the social innovation field. This year, SIX will explore: How can we increase our impact? Shifting cultures, changing systems and preparing for surprise. 

THE WARF

I hope the average British Columbian would appreciate the ingenuity and creativity that has existed in this province for thousands of years — that has never gone away” — Al Etmanski [The Tyee Presents: Social Innovation Week]

The ideas that will enliven the experience and thinking of Social Innovation Week touch on our connectedness — to each other, to our communities, to ourselves, to the present and to the past — such as…

humility & generosity • vulnerability & resilience • assumptions & beliefs • power of narrative • collaboration • cross-generational dialogue  • love & power • hospitality • inspiration & engagement • belonging & tradition • creativity • performance • community

…and the tensions, resonance and dynamics between them.

The Spirit of Haida Gwaii by Bill Reid

The Spirit of Haida Gwaii: The Jade Canoe by Bill Reid.   Collection of the Vancouver Airport Authority (YVR), Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Tony Hisgett

“Here we are at last, a long way from Haida Gwaii, not too sure where we are or where we’re going, still squabbling and vying for position in the boat, but somehow managing to appear to be heading in some direction; at least the paddles are together, and the man in the middle seems to have some vision of what is to come…”

- The Spirit of Haida Gwaii: The Jade Canoe by Bill Reid. Collection of the Vancouver Airport Authority (YVR), Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Tony Hisgett

SI-Week-Banner-140423 (1)

THE FABRIC:

SOCIAL CONNECTEDNESS

The Week culminates on Friday May 30th with Connect Vancouver, a day of free, family-friendly fun featuring an Ideas Jam and Urban Outdoor Festival. The Ideas Jam will be a space for Vancouverites and visitors to work through tough questions in order to re-imagine:

  • business
  • sustainability
  • schools
  • belonging
  • sharing
  • arts
  • policy
  • generational equality

The capstone of the week will be the Urban Outdoor Festival, presented by Gen Why Media and CityStudio – an evening celebrating the integration of culture, creativity, ingenuity and social innovation, where we reimagine social connectedness in an outdoor evening of conversation, celebration, public art, an urban fire and music in Vanier Park.

Check out the full event listing for #SIweekVan + The Tyee Presents Feature.
May 26-30, 2014
Join the learning and celebration. Come together!