Social Labs as a Tool for Change

Social Labs as a Tool for Change

Sep. 15, 2016 in Articles

We had a chance to have a kitchen table conversation about change labs, to hear more about their perspectives using social innovation labs as tool for change within the healthy communities context in BC.

BC Healthy Communities: Why are social labs an innovative tool for social change work?

Deirdre Goudriaan: There is an emphasis on large-scale change in a complex system. Social labs bring more of the broader systems players in the same room to move the needle on complex issues with the intention of transforming the system.

Al Grant: Social labs and social innovation labs are intentionally transformative at the level of systems impact. Both approaches recognize that we can’t keep doing what we’ve always done to get the kinds of results that we want.

"The social labs approach incorporates Theory U. This approach requires participants to let go of what is and then embrace what could be."

What’s appealing about these approaches is the idea of bringing much more of the system into the room and being intentionally systemic, social, and experimental. Rather than a focus on adapting or mitigating, it’s about transforming the system. There is recognition that it is not a quick or easy thing… if we are going to transform the system, we need to transform ourselves and transform our relationships with each other.

DG: Yes, and it is also necessary to change the culture of how we do business. The social labs approach incorporates Theory U. This approach requires participants to let go of what is and then  embrace what could be. Letting go is often about our expectations of the current system, our relationship with ourselves, the limitations we put on ourselves, limitations we put on others, judgements we make about others, how we work together. It’s about all of that.

Emerging on the other side of the U allows us to define what’s possible when we can let go of some perspectives and embrace a perspective that will allow us to do something different.

AG: Both the social labs and social innovation labs approach recognize that transformation needs to be integrated. There needs to be change happening at the individual, cultural and systems level.

BCHC: Who can benefit from social labs?

AG: I think we’ll find appetite amongst those who are systems thinkers, are willing to take risks, think we need to take our thinking, acting and being to the next level, and those that are able to think of the long game. I think what’s interesting about the work that BCHC is doing right now with building capacities in the key areas outlined in our theory of change, is that it really has the potential to build the appetite and the capacities to engage with social innovation labs.

DG: This approach is also suited to those that can see the possibility of emergence versus just adapting. Change is unlikely to come from tweaking little things in the system. We need to tweak the big things, we need to tweak our thinking… all of it. For those that can embrace the unknown, then emergence allows for the space to do the hard work of changing our thinking and doing. There is cost and time implications, but investment is worthwhile.

"Change is unlikely to come from tweaking little things in the system. We need to tweak the big things."

One really good point that Zaid Hassan makes is that we don’t acknowledge our collective failures enough. For example, we actually don’t collect data on project failure… he described that almost every project we work on is a complete failure, but nobody talks about that. Nobody talks about how there are always cost overruns, time overruns, and if we could get better at collecting data on that, I think it would help illuminate the case that actually social lab approaches are not that much more expensive and not that much more time intensive because we are using those resources anyways, we are just not acknowledging it.

BCHC: The healthy communities work that is happening across the province is quite broad and diverse. What issues are good topics for social labs?

AG: There are so many. From climate change to chronic disease. There is urgency with chronic health conditions from the perspective of financial health care costs, human costs and what’s happening with kids and rates of unhealthy weights, sedentary behaviour, screen time and so on. That’s probably an issue [chronic health conditions] we are not moving the needle on… in fact we are headed in the wrong direction. It’s an issue lends itself very nicely to a social innovation lab. There are a lot of people who are at the point where they don’t have the answers of how to reduce the increasing prevalence of chronic health conditions who would be willing to step into the kind of space that a social lab or social innovation lab could create.

DG: Further to that framing, there is urgency on issues related to aging populations and how we are going to care for people in this shifting demographic bubble, and how are we doing to care for people in a different way than has been our history in the past. I think there has been some great work on innovative models that have not been taken up by North American culture or in very limited scenarios. This issue links back to keeping people healthy  and chronic health conditions. We need to move from a reactive ‘health care’ orientation to a much more preventive model where we care about people at a neighbourhood, community level.

Another appealing thing about the social innovation lab model is that no matter what the  “presenting issue” is, the lab process will force you to go deeper, and of course, the deeper we go, the more we find that systems are overlapping or nested or connected to other systems and thus the possibility for transformation is far more than just the presenting issue.

"In a social labs want all perspectives in the room in order to transform the system."

DG: Another significant difference to this approach is embracing your enemies, so for example, if we were looking at a healthy eating strategy with our local government and health authority partners, we typically wouldn't consider having Kellogg's, or McDonalds around the table, whereas in a social labs approach that would be necessary. You want all those perspectives in the room in order to transform the system.

BCHC: How is BCHC's approach to social labs unique? 

DG: BCHC is built on a framework that acknowledges interiority as such an important part of what needs to shift. This was revolutionary for me when I first began working in this space ten years ago. In some ways, it’s obvious that we need make change at those levels, but to actually do it, is a different story.

AG: The three-day training that we recently did with Zaid Hassan was really focused on the technical aspects of how to design a social lab based. This appeared to be based on the assumption that we are already good at working on the interior capacities that people need to do this kind of work. I agree that we are not necessarily good at the technical aspect, but also I think we have a lot of work to do to build interior capacities.

DG: I don’t think we are moving the needle on interiority in the way that was described. Both collective and individual interiority. What I’m hoping is that the Growing Impact curriculum [Link to GI story] BCHC has developed is surfacing the interiority in a way that has not been surfaced previously, leading people to do things differently which then results in systemic changes and transformative changes to the systems. For example, can we create new models for creating Official Community Plans? Not only the technical side, but all of the sides. That’s the hope.

BCHC: What else about this approach is appealing for you?

AG: I really like the transparency of the process. There is an opportunity to let people know exactly what social innovation labs are, what it’s going to take, what it’s going to be like, and only then have people participate that have in interest in being part of a different process in order to have a different impact. Whereas so often we have sessions where people are half in or are looking for a quick fix, or a recipe, best practices, models. I’m excited about having the opportunity to engage in an intentional process, where people are there because they want to be and they recognize this is something they want to engage in.

"I hope we can collectively sit in a place of discomfort long enough that we say 'I don' want to do what I've always done.'"

DG: For me, I don’t often speak this out loud, but what I hope is that there is enough discomfort that people shift their consciousness. I hope we can collectively sit in a place of discomfort long enough that we say, “I don’t want to do what I’ve always done, I need to do something differently and that in the short term in may not shift consciousness, but in the long term spurs that consciousness development about why it’s important to do things differently.”

image source: Addressing the Blind Spot of our Time, Executive Summary of the book Theory U: Leading the Future as it Emerges by C. Otto Scharmer


Social labs (also know as social innovation labs or change labs) are multi-sectoral and provide a physical and intellectual space designed to encourage and facilitate cooperation and the co-creation of meaningful and innovative solutions to complex problems. For more information, check out:

Credit: BC Healthy Communities