5 lessons from designing a Public and Social Innovation lab

Senior consultant Jocelyn Bailey shares our top tips on setting up an innovation lab

We’ve been working with the Health Foundation for over a year now, designing an innovation and improvement lab that will work with the Q community, exploring systemic challenges in health and care in the UK. Designing an innovation function in an organisation or system is no straightforward task, and as the Q Lab is the first of its kind in the UK health and care system, we thought we’d share some of what we’ve learned through the process.

But first… why a ‘lab’?

There is a long history of corporations and organisations hiving off the innovation function, creating dedicated teams solely focused on R&D and coming up with new ideas, an experimental space freed from the limitations of day-to-day business. Applying the same logic to public and social innovation problems is becoming increasingly popular – only in this case, it’s not corporations trying to invent new products, but governments, public bodies, charities, and foundations, who recognise that their standard operating model is no longer sufficient for addressing complex social and public problems.

‘PSI labs’, as they are known (Public and Social Innovation labs), are proliferating rapidly across the world, and for good reasons. In the past, ‘experimentation’ used to refer mainly to scientifically minded people testing theories in a closed system. While that undoubtedly still happens, there is also a sense now that some of the big problems we are facing defy being solved at a laboratory bench.

The 19th and 20th centuries have left us with an incredibly complex ‘designed’ world: ‘the planet itself has been completely encrusted by design as a geological layer’. We have created complex assemblages of people, structures, objects, meanings – and we have to find ways to tinker with these to create change. But that’s not to say we want all of government (for instance) to throw everything up the air and start experimenting, there needs to be a balance between exploration and exploitation: finding the ideas that work, and spreading them.

There are various reasons you might want to initiate or explore the idea of a PSI lab:

And if you’re minded to start a lab of your own, here are a few reflections on the conditions for success.

1. Establish a clear aim

As Zaid Hassan (one of the forerunners in establishing and writing about Social Labs) told us – you need to work with the willing. To do that, you need a clear aim and set of values that resonate with people and draw them to your cause. And be honest. People will spot the ulterior motive hiding behind a more worthy-sounding goal.

2. Confront your own assumptions about knowledge

Many people and organisations – consciously or not – like certainty: there are facts that we can know, best practice we can establish, knowledge that we can harvest and spread. In some cases certainty is possible, but, as demonstrated notably by Dave Snowden with the Cynefin framework, complex problems don’t lend themselves to the establishment of objective truths, or even to being solved. In the context of social and systemic change, ‘facts’ become slippery and elusive. The appropriate response is instead an ongoing and imperfect process of exploring, proposing, probing. The concept of the PSI lab rests on this belief about the nature of working with the infinitely evolving question of the public and its problems. And it can be difficult for many organisations – used to being able to ‘know’ things with certainty, and dealing in specific forms of ‘evidence’ – to get comfortable with that.

3. Design it yourself (but learn from others)

There is no off-the-shelf model for a lab – the entity in itself needs designing in response to the thing it’s trying to do (as we did with the Health Foundation). But there is plenty of experience you can draw on. Much of it exists in the heads of practitioners, some of it is in blogs and online. Less exists in the academic domain, although there is some. Luckily, the practitioner community tends to be very open and willing to share – and it’s well-networked. Follow #psilabs on twitter to find out who’s doing what, or contact us for a few pointers.

4. Build the right team

In an exploratory inquiry process, which is the kind of process most labs would advocate, it’s important to have a team that can work flexibly together, holding a goal in mind but improvising around how to get there. As Prof. John Clarkson put it to us, ‘you need to build a team that knows what to do next’. Finding those people can be tricky, and they pop up in all disciplines – although creative disciplines tend to produce more of them.

5. Invest and be patient

Systemic change is a long game – so the sooner you start, the better! Zaid Hassan suggests that investment in tackling a challenge ought to be proportionate to the ultimate cost of the challenge. While that scale of investment just isn’t realistic for many organisations, giving a team (even if just a small one) the time and space to explore challenges and potential fruitful directions does require some resource. And although keeping momentum is important, projects can only proceed at the pace that relationships and trust develop. But by being clear about where you think you’re going, and using design approaches such as prototyping, you can find ways to create impact even within short spaces of time.

If you’d like to talk to us further about labs or have any questions around setting up a lab, please ask our lab experts below.

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