Das Konzept „Social innovation labs“ (Labore für soziale Innovation) ist ein global sehr schnell wachsendes Phänomen mit durchaus radikalen Ambitionen.
Aber wie setzt man es effektiv in der Praxis um? Im Juli besuchten Remko & Barbara die Londoner ‚Labworks‘-Konferenz um Antworten zu finden. Bericht auf Englisch hier:

A snapshot of the evening news: Refugee chaos, IS, piecemeal progress on climate negotiations. It’s astounding how our existing institutional frameworks are failing us. How ‘a little less worse’ has become the new good. How, in an age of abundance, we seem to be stuck in an age of endings. And it seems that it’s not just the politicians, bureaucrats and business moguls that are failing but the entire web of our collective life. It must be possible to do better. Yes we can! But how to build a new world in the shell of the old?

Questions like these are at the heart of a fast growing global phenomenon called ‘social innovation labs’. They come in many shapes and sizes. One common denominator is their ambition to break through the status quo and to do so by offering space for experiments and new connections. The Danish Mindlab explores new governance mechanisms for the 21st century. The Finance Innovation Lab attempts to transform the global finance system. Ushahidi’s I-hub in Nairobi is the heart of East Africa’s booming ‘tech for change’ scene. MITs game lab, Rockefellers I-teams, Chile’s ‘Laboratorio de Gobierno’, the list goes on. Have a look for yourself at the growing body of literature, networks, emerging critiques, toolboxes and lab-maps. In our book ‘Labcraft’, some of the world’s most prominent labs present first-hand account of their stories and approaches.

The narrative of labs comes with grand claims and an adventurous spirit. My interest is how that translates into a practice. If my own lab-practice is anything to go by: Messy, and erratic. Nesta’s labworks conference offered an opportunity for Barbara Hammerl and myself to step back. Inevitably, such gatherings veer towards the positive: successful case studies, new toolkits, eager funders. The struggles come out when the light fades and drinks are served. Here are a number of challenges we picked up from fellow lab practitioners

Systemic ambitions

The lab-lingo is spreading a lot faster than its substance. I was stunned to hear an Austrian mayor recently announcing living labs as the new standard for urban development. He then passed on the word to his urban planners who proceeded with the ‘we-know-best-hence-no-participation-necessary-thank-you-very-much’ speak. Cynics point out that labs are a perfect anti-politics machine. Much easier to control a tightly organized group working on your terms, than to deal with the claims of messy social movements. But even where intentions are sincere, resistance is part of the game. The search for new solutions, even when endorsed by high level policy makers is easily interpreted as a judgement of past performance at lower levels. The time and willingness to move beyond such initial positions is often in short supply, while ambitions are high and results are needed fast.

Experimentation and emergence

Building trust and going slow are often at odds with an emergent approach to change and urge to experiment. Design thinkers and systems change guru’s tell us to think out of the box, to try, fail and then fail faster. That’s how we learn and innovate. But playful formats or failed experiments easily squander initial political commitments and stakeholder involvement. It turns out too that working with emergence is well, bloody hard work. You have to kill your darlings, manage expectations, and practice new techniques. Then there is all the stuff we have to unlearn. Because of our educational background, most of us are still shaking off a long tradition of planning. At Labworks you could just hear it in the conversations: ‘how can we ensure this? How can we scale that? Where’s the data? What are the tools? How to hit those targets? If the problems your lab is dealing with are really complex, then the pursuit of answers to such questions is self-deceit and we know it.

Back to the life world

We know too that a major barrier to institutional innovation is the growing gap between the systems world and the life world of citizens. The storyline is that we find new solutions out there, in the spaces where problems meet the lives of ordinary people. But that too implies resistance that often starts within your own core team. Why go to that bus-station and talk with commuters when you can talk about them in meeting rooms? We can deal with the odd migrant organization, but surely you don’t want us to meet visit the Madrassah? Labs that start from bottom-up struggle to move beyond seeing government as a monolithic Kafkaesque entity. For civil servants, civil society is a forest full of protestors and booby traps. Better then to keep engagement at the surface and smother it in mapping studies, position papers, and questionnaires. My biggest lesson: rationality reproduces the status quo. The more adventurous stuff we try out such as social safaris, dialogue interviews and nature retreats, always require more persuasion at the start.

An Eco-systems approach to change

‘I must be doing something wrong’, you think, when a systems thinker like William Eggers points out that labs have to play an obvious role as a broker between problem solvers in innovation ecosystems. But nobody tells you how to find out how what that system looks like and how it works. Mostly, the two-dimensional drawings that emerge on google searches have very little to do with reality. Behind such silly pictures hides the real stuff: histories, cultures, power relations. Even if you eventually understand the gaps, breakdowns and possibilities, it’s far from obvious that your lab will be seen as a legitimate actor to step in. In any given system there is a critical mass of players caught in an equilibrium that reproduces the status quo. Unless you bring a bag of money or high level political support, your interest in the system is not likely to be reciprocated, at least not in the short term.


In this young field, there are only a handful of accounts of social labs that have documented their stories and processes. When you talk with experienced practitioners like Jennifer Morgan, Sarah Schulman or Lena Hansen, you learn that they have faced similar conditions and found, through lots of trial and error, ways to navigate them. You start seeing that effective lab practice is a craft. It’s a craft that, among other things demands rigorous processes of self-development and an ability to understand which tools to use when. It also requires the ability to bridge discourses, worldviews and interests across a wide variety of stakeholders. The question is what we are doing to nurture and capture this craft. Conferences, books and tool-boxes are useful but not enough. If the transformative potential of labs lies in their ability to break through the status quo, perhaps we need to first apply such skills to our own learning processes. We need deeper learning and we probably need it fast: more exchange, apprentice-ships, mentoring programmes, immersions, learning journeys. Labworks drummed up generous support from the most ambitious of global funders. Surely they could spare a dime, if we come up with a solid plan. No, that’s the old world, let’s rephrase: if we start experimenting right away.