How Social Innovation Labs Design And Scale Impact
Amira Bliss

Amira Bliss Associate Director, The Rockefeller Foundation

March 05, 2014

How Social Innovation Labs Design And Scale Impact

As our Centennial drew to a close in 2013, we reflected on some of the groundbreaking innovations The Rockefeller Foundation has supported in the last 100 years, and challenged ourselves to intentionally innovate to solve problems over the next century. We know that in the next 40 years the planet will host two billion more people, who will be more connected physically and technologically than ever before, and who will be distributed in unprecedented ways. We believe yesterday’s solutions—fit to yesterday’s realities—are inadequate for tomorrow’s grand challenges.

To tackle these complex, systemic challenges, we need as many powerful tools in our arsenal as possible. We need new approaches to design novel and useful solutions. We need to engage stakeholders from different sectors, geographies, and elements of the system, and empower them to co-design or co-create solutions. We need to experiment, prototype, test, fail and iterate. And we need to do it quickly.

These social innovation labs do just that:

1. Stanford ChangeLabs: pioneering ways to achieve large-scale, sustainable transformation in Oceans and Fisheries

2. Global Knowledge Initiative: identifying clearer opportunities, more capable stakeholders, and more transformative approaches to reducing food waste and spoilage

3. MaRS Solutions Lab: identifying promising solutions of encouraging employers to help solve the youth employment challenge

4. AfriLabs: exploring technologic innovations with the potential to create digital jobs for Africa’s youth

5. HCD i-Lab: using human-centered design to understand the motivations, needs, behaviors, influencers, and barriers of Cambodian micro-entrepreneurs to catalyze demand for rural electrification

6. InSTEDD iLab Southeast Asia: developing prototypes that address the health of informal workers in Cambodia

We started working with five labs from across the globe to accelerate innovative solutions to the challenges of youth unemployment, food waste and spoilage; rural electrification, and declining ocean health. We are actively learning from their various methods while more efficiently developing better solutions and building the participants’ innovative capacity along the way.

Will they generate ideas which we wouldn’t have come up with on our own? Will we end up with solutions can be implemented at scale to address these complex issues? Are we winning the support of the stakeholders necessary to solve social problems?The labs were tasked with helping us reframe problems and surface innovative solutions with the potential for outsized impact in the lives of poor or vulnerable people. We want to see the adjacent possible, learn from sectors outside of our own, and take smart risks in testing potential solution pathways.

While we are only beginning, we are already seeing promising results.
Between November 2013 and January 2014, the Global Knowledge Initiative (GKI) facilitated workshops with 120 participants in six countries across three continents. The workshops surfaced over 600 opportunities to address post-harvest food loss—both by scaling existing solutions and by creating new ones. From Kuala Lumpur to Mexico City, GKI brought together stakeholders from universities, the private sector, civil society, and government who would not otherwise interact regularly with the Foundation, or even each other.

The sessions revealed many insights, including the need to rethink and reframe incentives for and communication with smallholder farmers. Providing finance to farmers in isolation of training and other resources is not sufficient for reducing post-harvest loss at scale. Additionally, efforts to quantify monetary losses and raise awareness of the amount of “money lost from food lost” serve as powerful tools to incentivize behavior change.

Participants at a Stanford ChangeLabs workshop described the event as an “incredible environment of creative problem solving that is really hard to achieve.” The Workshop—which gathered experts from a diversity of viewpoints ranging from venture capital to mobile banking, to food security and, of course, marine science—surfaced insights and new ways of thinking about human needs related to sustainable fisheries. One such insight was to create greater diversity in employment options tailored to fishers’ business skills, risk-taking, and independent-minded behaviors.

As these projects continue to unfold, we will be sharing our experiences and insights, so stay tuned to learn more!

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