The rise and potential of social innovation labs (or “social labs”) can no longer be overlooked. Today, they take many forms and are housed in diverse sectors, including civic, private, academic, and government. They all share the goal of bringing diverse stakeholders together around complex social challenges. But what does a “social lab” even mean?
Social labs are not workshops or conferences; they may not be associated with an actual, physical “laboratory;” and they look and act differently from standing councils and commissions. Social labs, as articulated by Zaid Hassan in his book the Social Labs Revolution, are intensive, experimental platforms for addressing complex social challenges, from homelessness to water scarcity, with three core characteristics:
1. Social: They bring together diverse stakeholders, who represent the “full multi-layered reality of the system,” to work collectively as a team towards a common objective or goal.
2. Experimental. They are ongoing and sustained efforts that evolve and adapt overtime. The team takes an iterative and agile approach to addressing the challenge, prototyping a portfolio of interventions to see what might have the greatest impact.
3. Systemic. They do not tackle symptoms, but seek root causes by starting with a shared understanding of the system they are trying to change.
These characteristics make social labs incredibly challenging to launch, let alone maintain. But at the same time, they represent the most powerful levers for generating transformative change on complex social challenges. Our friends in Canada, are leading some of the most successful examples of social labs, as seen in Vancouver’s CityStudio, Alberta’s CoLab, and the MaRS Solutions Lab.
Realizing a better future inherently depends on our ability to think in systems, collaborate across sectors, and manage adaptively. Social labs give us a platform to do all three.