Converging on Social Innovation Labs

In June, our SHIFT Team joined McConnell Foundation, Radius SFU and a number of other convening partners in Vancouver along with social lab practitioners from across Canada for two days of connecting and learning. The event, CONVERGE: Canadian Lab Practitioners’ Exchange, brought together actors from multiple sectors who share a passion for tackling our most wicked problems and experience working with systems change and innovation, using an approach called “Labs”.

What are Labs and why did people from across the country spend two days talking about them? I like the description Reos Partners use for what they call “Change Labs” (also sometimes known as Social Labs, Innovation Labs, or Solution Labs):

The Change Lab is not a single methodology. It is a collection of methodologies and approaches which, when collectively and skillfully applied to a complex challenge in a particular social system, can enable the people in that system to bridge cultural and institutional differences, see together what is needed for a systemic intervention, and work together creatively and generatively to bring about new realities in the system as a whole. In this way, The Change Lab produces four kinds of innovation outputs in complex social systems:

  • new insights about what is needed,
  • new relationships between diverse actors with a stake in the system,
  • new capacities for leadership and collaboration, and
  • interventions or actions which address the complex challenge by acting upon leverage points at the individual, organizational, and systemic levels.

As someone who has been working in community economic development (CED) and community engagement and organizing for my whole careers, I’ll admit this Labs fad sometimes feels a bit contrived. Many of us in these fields believe that community and system change requires both individual and cultural or collective changes to our attitudes and beliefs, our practices and the structures we create (the policy, organizations, finance regimes, etc.) We have worked the “both/and” of top-down and bottom-up community organizing and advocacy for decades. We know that it takes time, relationships and trust to build a shared understanding and solutions. We have always used a variety of tools, methods and approaches depending on context and capacity. And we have always known that it takes all the stakeholders including those who are affected to arrive at meaningful, enduring change for the better. Are Social Innovation Labs just a shiny new coat of paint on a bunch of old methods?

I’ll confess now to my conversion. Thanks to the incredible connections and conversations at CONVERGE, and the usual ruminations that follow those events, I am over my Labs cynicism. I see now that sometimes we do need to reinvent our work as a way of reflecting new, and deeper understandings about how things work and what kinds of interventions can help to SHIFT them. For example, we did not have Theory U to draw on when I started out 30 years ago, and Meadows didn’t publish her Leverage Points theory until 1999. Our experience over the years has to count for something, or lead to something new, and in this case it is something called Labs. This new branding creates a space for inquiry and invention that perhaps we (okay – I!) have lost around our tried and true methods. It opens doors to new ways of seeing and thinking and being for us as social change practitioners. It can encourage our own experimentation as we learn from and adapt the experience of others. And we do need new language, or perhaps a new paint job, to help us communicate those new understandings. So – practitioners too are part of the systems we desire to change, and we are also building the road as we travel it. We don’t all agree on everything in this new/old field, so we will be holding our own uncertainty for some time to come it seems. What an exciting time we have ahead! 

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