The rise of social innovation labs to tackle societal challenges

How can we use innovation to address climate change and eradicate major social challenges such as poverty and hunger?

Interview based on research by Kyriaki Papageorgiou

A growing movement in the social innovation landscape is bringing hope for a better future: social innovation labs. These labs aim to tackle societal challenges and bring forth scalable and sustainable positive change.

In her publication, Labs for Social Innovation, Esade Senior Researcher Kyriaki Papageorgiou provides insights on the power that these labs have to affect social change and shape a more sustainable tomorrow. The publication is a result of a strategic research collaboration between Esade's Institute for Social Innovation and the Robert Bosch Foundation, with the support of BBVA.

Do Better: What is a social innovation lab?

Kyriaki Papageorgiou: Social innovation labs are permanent entities or short-term projects and events that use experimental methods to address specific social challenges. Over the past few years, social innovation labs have emerged around the world with the premise of providing effective alternatives to tackling societal problems and bringing about positive social transformation. These labs have rapidly grown in number and popularity alongside the social innovation movement, and have gained the attention of practitioners, researchers and policymakers.

Social innovation labs provide effective alternative approaches to tackling societal problems

Our publication is intended to be a resource for all those interested in how to best address the societal challenges we are facing in systemic and sustainable ways. It gives an overview of the social innovation labs movement that has developed in recent years and it also provides method guides and critical reflections.

What is the mission of social innovation labs?

Social innovation labs are agents of change: many of them intentionally instigate and support ideas that aim to transform the behaviour, policies, structures, relationships, norms and values that underpin complex challenges. For instance, Ship2B is a private foundation in Barcelona whose stated goal is to accelerate high-impact social projects by providing a community of mentors, experts, entities and large companies to the best entrepreneurs. Ship2B has convened several labs that bring together partners across sectors to tackle several specific social challenges.

Who can join social innovation labs?

Social innovation labs are convening platforms that bring together relevant stakeholders across different sectors to work on specific real-life challenges. Everyone can join a social innovation lab as long as they are open to experimental approaches, human-centred design methods and breaking down established silos. For example, if we were to set up a social innovation lab to tackle the water sanitation challenges, we would invite key companies in the sector, like Roca, as well as members of the targeted community, local government and academics interested in water.

How are these labs organised?

Not unlike natural science laboratories, a defining characteristic shared by social innovation labs is that they provide a space (but not necessarily physical) for the exploration and experimentation of ideas to address complex challenges using a variety of tools and approaches. For example, MaRS Solutions Lab has created the Periodic Table of Systems Change, which structures its own processes, strategy and work. This table blends design and systems thinking into a scientific R&D process that takes an idea from hypothesis to research, ideation, testing and finally to the market.

A lab provides you with the space and experimental culture to test new ideas

How do these labs tackle experimentation?

One of the greatest strengths of laboratories in the natural sciences is their accumulated knowledge. In the words of Bruno Latour, "Certainty does not increase in a laboratory because people in it are more honest, more rigorous, or more 'falsificationist.' It is simply because they can make more mistakes than others. Every mistake in turn is archived, saved, recorded and made easily readable again, whatever the specific field or topic may be. When you sum up a series of mistakes, you are stronger than anyone who has been allowed fewer mistakes than you."

Social innovation labs are for people who are not satisfied with the existing methods or tools and what they have been doing so far. If you don't know how to tackle a challenge, a lab provides you with the space and experimental culture to find and test new ideas. It also invites those who have tried other things before but are not happy with the way the system works. It provides them with a set of tools to experiment in a space that is safe and open to experimentation.

A key element of scientific labs is that scientists have the luxury to experiment and fail. Why shouldn't we be able to address our societal challenges using the same methodical recording and sharing of information? This way, new approaches benefit from both the previous mistakes made and the best practices developed.

Dealing with failure is challenging...

It's hard to celebrate failure unless you adopt the mindset that it is okay to fail, which I believe is what the experimental culture in labs allows you to do. As long as you know that you are going to try again, failing can be an asset.

Some cultures are more accepting of risk-taking and failure than others. For example, to overcome the fear of failure and encourage the exploration of new ideas, Finland has established the International Failure Day. This is part of a bigger initiative by the Prime Minister's Office called Experimental Finland, which promotes piloting and experimentation by its citizens to promote creative solutions and sustainable wellbeing.

What is the potential of social innovation labs?

The ecosystem of labs for social innovation is very promising. There is an emergent lab movement that is converging on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The global goals could become the framework around which various lab efforts across sectors (industry, academia, government, civil society and foundations) join forces, accumulate knowledge, gain impetus and realise their mission to make a positive social impact.

Today more than ever, there is a great opportunity and urgency for a global systematic experimentation that builds on the ethos and practice of social innovation labs. We hope this publication may be a source of inspiration and guidance.

All written content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.