How Social Innovation Labs Contribute to Transformative...
Amira Bliss

Amira Bliss Associate Director, The Rockefeller Foundation

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October 01, 2014

How Social Innovation Labs Contribute to Transformative Change

Social Innovation Lab Gathering at Bellagio

This post is part of a series that illustrates the value of innovation labs in accelerating solutions to complex social problems, sharing lessons from the Foundation’s Innovation Lab effort from various perspectives.

Through The Rockefeller Foundation’s Social Innovation Labs project, we’re exploring what labs are and how, when, and why we might use them to address complex social problems. Many different types of organizations run labs. Some are part of larger organizations, like UNICEF Innovation Labs or the BRAC Social Innovation Lab. Others are independent, like InSTEDD. According to The Bridgespan Group, preliminary estimates indicate that the sector is relatively small—approximately $150 million per year—and fragmented, with a majority of the labs in the global north. While still early in its development, the innovation lab sector is growing quickly in response to increasing demand—about 70 percent of the labs were founded in the last five years.

With the recent release of a couple of books and articles about social innovation labs, The Rockefeller Foundation decided to demystify lab practice and learn more about how labs have contributed to transformative social change. Earlier this month, we convened 20 leading lab thinkers and practitioners to do just that. Although the group represented immense diversity across labs—by geography, size, and business models—there are at least three common defining features.

1. Drawing on diverse perspectives from across and within the system

If you wanted to address, say, the problem of youth unemployment in the United States, you might bring together a group of labor economists. An innovation lab approach, on the other hand, would assemble a much broader array of interests and expertise, such as government policymakers, educators, foundations, big employers like Starbucks and The Gap, and youth themselves. In fact, the MaRS Solutions Lab held three such gatherings to support our U.S. Youth Employment initiative. Similarly, theStanford ChangeLabs brought together a group of non-fisheries experts to design solutions for creating healthy small-scale fisheries and thriving coastal communities. The lab included a venture capitalist and an SMS expert, to join the mix of marine scientists and practitioners from around the world at the Small-Scale Fisheries Innovation Summit earlier this year.

In both instances, the diverse gatherings connected different experts and perspectives to facilitate cooperation and the co-creation of innovative solutions.

2. An innovation mindset of learning fast, trial and error, and co-creating solutions

Okay, now the lab participants have brainstormed a list of possible solutions, used stickies to vote for favorites, and converged on three top solutions. Lots of innovation going on here—time to go home!

Not so fast. There’s more work to be done, which goes by various names—prototyping, pressure-testing, or modeling. The idea is to field test ideas and quickly evaluate results, then make needed adjustments to ensure solutions are grounded in the “real world” and decrease risk during implementation.

Social Innovation Lab Gathering at Bellagio - Around the Table

For example, to address a rural communication challenge, InSTEDD’s iLab Southeast Asia worked closely with illiterate Cambodians to develop multiple iterations and quick prototypes of its Verboice system, an adaptable open-source tool that made it easy for anyone, speaking any language, to create and run their own customized interactive voice response systems for mobile phones. Another example in the youth employment context, is a computer-based model that displayed the immediate impact on unemployed youth after specific interventions, such as improved mobility or childcare support.

While systems are complex, prototypes are simpler representations of elements of the system that can test—rapidly and cheaply—for known and unknown failure modes. Rapid prototyping serves as a means to increasing confidence levels before making big investments.

3. Unique process, approach, and tools for problem solving

Labs strategically employ a variety of methods, activities, and tools to encourage reframing of the problem, a “whole systems view,” and collaborative problem-solving among participants. For example, the global food crisis is exacerbated by the fact that 30 percent of all food is lost or spoiled before it gets to market. To address this issue, the Global Knowledge Initiative conducted six “problem-framing” sessions across six countries that brought together diverse stakeholders to create a “challenge map,” reimagine problems and perceptions of root cases, and explore solutions. GKI took nearly 600 challenges and 200 innovative solutions and found areas of convergence to recombine and test.

At the convening earlier in September we explored answers to other important questions, such as: Under what circumstances are labs most useful? How do they differ from alternative approaches? What are the most valuable outputs that labs produce? How do labs run themselves? With The Bridgespan Group, we will share insights from these discussions along with survey findings from 75 labs in November through an online portal with a series of blogs, videos and case studies. Stay tuned for an update!

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