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Social Innovation Labs

Labs are an emerging way tackling complex challenges. This panel addressed how they are using this approach in their country and how social enterprises can emerge from this work to enable sustainability.

This session was moderated by Tim Draimin, Executive Director, Social Innovation Generation (SiG), and featured:

  • Runa Sabroe, Chief Consultant, MindLab
  • Sarah Schulman, Visiting Scholar, Kennisland
  • Joeri van den Steenhoven, Director, MaRS Solutions Lab

While only Joeri’s presentation was recorded, the Q&A of the entire panel is available.

Transcript of Joeri van den Steenhoven’s Remarks (includes Q&A):

Joeri van den Steenhoven: I think that Sarah Schulman is completely right. We’re part of a big experiment, she called it now the Lab 3.0. I think we’re still finding it out as we go forward what a lab really is and what it actually can provide in terms of value and social good. I would encourage us to learn from each other and have a discussion also later on in this session, but also in the months ahead, about what it actually is this lab.

Let me tell you a bit about what we’re trying to do at the MaRS Solutions Lab. I started five months ago, so we’re still very young. I’ve worked, as Tim said earlier, in the Netherlands where I ran a change lab, and I’m basically try to, I love the point that Sarah also raised and, and the experiences that Runa has, with my lab to integrate them into this new initiative called the MaRS Solutions Lab.

First of all, why are we doing this? This is a bit of how I look to the world at the present time in history. We have a society which is in transformation, where our challenges are increasingly complex and the systems that we’ve created do not actually match those complexities any longer in health, in education, in energy. Our task is ‘how do we realign that again’? I think that is the overarching challenge.

What we see on the one hand, in our old systems, we see increasingly complex challenges, we see public resources that are decreasing, and we see institutions that still operate in old silos. But, on the other hand, we see people who are better allocated than ever before and better informed. We see more private capital for social good. We see technology that easily connects us all and enables us to perform very complex collaborative tasks. There’s a lot of opportunities, and how do we, sort of, bridge those two? That’s the task the lab is doing.

The MaRS Solutions Lab is outside government, it’s part of MaRS as a not-for-profit. We work out how to tackle complex social challenges and create system change, bringing together government, NGOs, foundations, corporations, academia, greater community, everybody in society that could contribute to solutions in that space. Around specific challenges that we take on, we try to create partnerships with organizations from different parts of society. So we’re working, for instance, on the future of health and within health we’re mostly focusing on chronic disease because we see that as the single biggest threat to the future of the Canadian health system. We’ve created a partnership with the Ontario government on that, but we’re also talking to foundations and corporations to look at how can we change, especially the biggest problem within chronic disease which is obesity and how can we use the approaches like the ones that Sarah and Runa told about? How we can use those approaches to find and develop new solutions to such a problem?

This challenge is a challenge that we will work on for, we think the next five years. If we take on a challenge, even if we don’t have the answers, we do not have the funding for the next five years, but we are committed to try to makes change on that challenge.

The potential value of a lab is that it’s a dedicated team, that is committed to work on these long-term wicked problems, and is not committed to an institution.

A lab doesn’t have any direct answers, because we’re working on really wicked problems and these wicked problems don’t have easy answers. We don’t even have one problem definition. One of the values of design thinking is that you actually only understand the problem once you start to try to solve it and you have iterations. By working with the families you actually start to grasp much better what the real problem is and what possible solutions might be. That’s the kind of tools that labs can provide.

Labs can also provide space for collaborative experimentation, learning, new approaches and perspective. It’s not about having this one magic bullet solution, it’s about building a movement of change makers and developing solutions and sets of interventions indeed where people throughout society can work with and also building their capacity, and build the new policies that support the scaling of those solutions.

There are design principles. Always start with the citizen and then look at the system. Develop a solution with users and stakeholders, not for them. Look always for the smallest possible intervention with the largest possible impact. Be conscious that it’s not one intervention that’s gonna change the system. It’s probably multiple interventions and we don’t know how many, but we’ll be continuing to develop those until we get the system change. Always work towards skill. Because what I’ve seen in the last ten years working in this field is there’s a lot of commitment and a lot of energy, and a lot of the solutions are one-up projects, are really nice solutions, but if you want to really have systems change, we have to work towards skill. You always have to keep learning, no action without reflection, and no reflection without action.

This is our model that we want to test in the next couple of years. Some call it the periodic table of social change. On top, you see the model is of the traditional lab which is, what does a lab do? Well, it first starts with posing an hypothesis. What might the problem be? We don’t know for sure, but this is our hypothesis. And then we start to analyze and we start to do research to understand that problem much better. We come up with possible solutions and we are going to test those solutions and see if they work in reality. Whatever works, we bring to the market. That’s basically the four steps of a lab in general.

With social innovation labs or change labs or design labs, this is what we try to do, but we try to apply that to social problems.

There is the process that is known as design thinking. You try to define the problem, which basically it’s your hypothesis, and then you conceptualize. You study the behavior of the user in the system and you deeply immerse yourself in that, and from that you arrive to concepts which you can then prototype.

Probably in the prototype, you change your concept again and a solution emerges or multiple solutions emerge which then can be scaled. But in order to get to scaling especially for social challenges, we need to allow strings of work that we need to take into account and I think that Sarah also hinted on that as well.

One strength is policy change, because we need to build a climate, a supportive climate for those solutions to scale and we can only do that through policy change. We have to work with the professionals and the politicians and the decision makers in the system to actually develop those solutions and to develop nationally, those policies. That starts by framing the problem, by actually creating a sense of urgency for change in the system. If we don’t do that, then later on we will run into trouble in scaling those solutions. From that framing of the problem and that initial sense of urgency you create a vision of the future and how that better future might look like. That is also accompanied with some research, but it’s mostly about convincing all the stakeholders in the system that we have to work towards this better future together.

Then we start to build evidence, is that better future possible? From that evidence, and that’s often basically the role, if you look at policy change, the role of the pilot often is not that solution to be scaled, a pilot delivers evidence for policy change and from that evidence we get policy formulation. I think those two processes we have to connect.

The third string that we have to do in order to scale those social solutions for social challenges is we have to look at the people. That starts with the stakeholders and then reaching out to the innovators and building capacity. In our model it starts with the stakeholders and then it’s the innovators, the disruptive innovators that you reach out to first, but then you have to go to the early adopters, which in a sense, you are bridging entrepreneurs. In the end, you have to reach the early majority. The one third of the people that they want to change, but need the tools and the solution to actually do it and we have to develop those tools along the way and that’s how we get to scale.

This is all, this whole model is also a hypothesis that we try to test out in the years ahead. I invite you to be a part of that since most of you are in Canada. We’ll definitely tell how we’re doing and look forward to all your questions, discussions and reflections now and in the future.

[A series of questions were asked and then each panel member was given a chance to respond to them.]

Question: My question is for Sarah, but for the others as well. How useful is it to look at positive deviance in the process and how, how often are the solutions built around what the positive deviance tell us? Just wondering how effective that whole strategy is.

Question: How do you seduce people into a value-space discussion where they’re going to have to give up predetermined suppositions, perspectives, and enter into a state of floating ambiguity for a while?

Question: Wondering if you might share some specific examples of where this process is been used to get effective action on climate change.

Question:  I’m curious about how can we get some training in these change labs as well any examples in the social sector that’s made a difference. .

Question: How do you guide people around the different use of arsenal of great ideas that you’ve been bringing to the table?

Sarah Schulman: I’ll tell a few stories that might shed a bit of light on some of them. I’ll start with the positive deviance question.

Let me tell you the story about Mike and Liz. They were a couple that we discovered by standing in front of Kohls Supermarket one day and offering to take people’s groceries to their car and in that effort, try and start a conversation about their day-to-day life. We were doing a project on caring and what does that look like, particularly in the disability and age impaired space and how do we support the people that are caring for their friends and family members? Mike and Liz were this couple and, turns out that Liz has had MS for the past thirty years and is now wheelchair bound and Mike and Liz have this amazing relationship and their lives are not built around caring at all, their life is built around shared pursuits and doing things that they love. The wheelchair and the progression of the illness is really a side note on a life that’s been full of travel and cooking. They’ve managed to change the service delivery system around them, so unlike so many other folks we met who felt like they were just the clients and the end receivers of a system that was preset where you shall get forty-five minutes of personal care a day and in that time you shall have a shower and we shall go shopping for you and make your meal, they manage to really change that dynamic and to turn their personal care into a facilitation of the activities that they love. With their worker they go out shopping and they create these amazing meals around the world and move and prepare these meals that then she can share with Mike. So it’s turned into an experience rather than a transaction.

That’s the kind of thing you learn when you start focusing on the positive deviance, and really trying to understand how they manage to do that. Not just the what, although that’s inspirational, but much more than nitty-gritty, so the routines that they took to change that pattern of interaction of themselves and their service system and the way in which their relationship works. How do they set up their everyday life to make these sorts of things happen? That’s the stuff we want to learn how to replicate for more people.

The work we’ve done in the youth services space and the aged care with families in crisis has all been about trying to understand people where they’re at. Everybody has a positive deviant practice, even the families that you think are the most stuffy have something in their life that they have managed to turn around or a routine that does work for them.

For us the goal of a lot of the deep ethno-graphic methods is to identify that. These aren’t things that people can usually tell you about in an interview or focus group or a consultation or a survey. They are only evidenced when you spend a lot of time with people and see them in different contexts, interacting with different kinds of people and you can then point that back out to them. For us that becomes the fodder in our design process.

Then, we got all these great examples and insights from people, and it’s about ‘okay, well, what do we design that will enable that for more people?’ How do we help more people have the relationship that Mike and Liz have had with one another, what’s the lever of change there and maybe it’s something about how they communicate, maybe it’s something about how the service provider opens up the conversation, maybe it’s something about how their neighbors and their other informal network gathers around them and can we try to develop interventions in that space? So that’s the positive deviance one.

Just to briefly talk about the values spaces talk, because that’s a question near and dear to my heart at the moment, is how do we move? I think one of the dangers of the social intervention space and the laboratory space is that it becomes really technocratic, we just have cooler technology than everybody before. We’ve got really cool post-it notes and then we’ve got beautiful visualizations and systems maps and all this stuff, but essentially we’re still boggled down with the same deeply ethical questions, which, you know, are very much about what does it mean to live a good life, and who gets to decide that? Is it the care-worker or the state that decides that, is it families when there’s dissent? We work a lot with families that within them have very different ideas of what is a good family. Who has the power there? Until we can find methodologies and ways to address those deeply ethical questions, we’re actually going to just be spinning the same circles, but just with prettier outputs.

How do we start to break down that? And we’ve tried a lot of different things and a lot of them haven’t worked true to the prototyping spirit. We’ve worked with the federal government in Australia to try and enable them to adopt some of these practices and actually to cherry pick, you know to take some of this and try and internalize it.  We try to do immersive experiences, so we’ve created ethno-graphic experiences for them where they go out and spend a couple of days with users. We did a project in the early childhood space and went and hung out with families who had kids under five and kind of watched their interactions with early childhood centers and with schools and with neighbors.

We have really mixed results, to be honest, we sort of had some people really blown over by that process, and feeling that they understood the world from a new lens from those conversations and it really helped to bring up a values-based conversation about why did they think that something was right for another family. But then, equally, we also had folks in that process who were deeply resistant to it and who used that experience to validate their pre-existing ideas about families and how well families were doing. That experience for me is, how do we create a space where we can challenge each other about where our viewpoints come from?

All of us have a bias. All of us have a set of assumptions about how change happens and what a better thing than others. How do we kind of make that more explicit on the surface and give people the real-life experience where that comes to a head? Until it moves from the abstract, into something live, and actually experiential with real people, it’s hard to understand what are the different sides of this and how do we really change our mindset? We do need to develop kind of training and capacity building programs that aren’t just in a room like this or aren’t just sharing methods, but actually are having the deep conversations about what are the methods enable us to rethink and what values emerge from that.

Runa Sabroe: I’ll just take a few of the questions that are mostly related to my work. The question about value-based system, what we have experienced in MindLab is in the beginning we thought that if we invented the really good solution, everybody will be able to see this is how we do it. This is the future, this is the way forward. Just as part of our strategy, we have changed that perspective, so that it’s not the solution, that could be part of it, but it’s more introducing this perspective of the end user’s story that realign the context. So we work positively with narrative with what we call professional empathy, to provide the story of the people that we actually want to change something for.

Just to give you an example, we had a project for administrative taxation when they were a part of our circle of owners a year ago. They contacted us because they’re providing self service solutions on-line and they really want people to use them because it’s going to save lots of time, money, resources in the government. They didn’t understand why the young people didn’t use the on-line services. They’re on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram all the time and why couldn’t they use the on-line tech? We went out and we talked to some of the young people and we talked to a young guy called Dennis who’s actually become quite famous, within taxation. We just asked him to just try to fill in this on-line application and he didn’t understand a word I was saying. He was just getting so insecure when the process went through and what he said was “I’m just looking for someone who can translate this for me. I mean I’m looking for translator within the system and also within my family, because this doesn’t make sense for me. It’s a word I don’t understand, I don’t know what that means in my life.” So he would rather take his car and drive thirty kilometers to get help instead of just trying to use the on-line service.

In this project we did develop new solutions for how the Administrator of Taxation could be better in translating so it was not the young people that themselves were translating. It was the system that translated the complexity. It was not at all the solutions that we ended up with being implemented, it was a Dennis’ story traveling within organization. And I talked to one of the leaders of the project and she said that she knew that she had really come very far with the culture with the Administrator of Taxation when she met someone, just within the Ministry saying to her, “Have you heard the story about Dennis, I mean, the young guy?” and she would go, “that’s our project”. This is about changing culture. They have actually changed a lot within their self service solutions, but that was not part of our prototyping.

Working within this professional empathy and the end user story is really a powerful tool if you want to change the culture and not just provide a new solution. That was a way to create a value base with the system is that when you feel Dennis’ story, you actually want to change it.

On the question about positive deviance’, we try to visualize the complexity of the lives of people. When you work within government you would always try the opposite. You always try to think, ‘how can I actually just provide the services that are targeted to this specific person and try to ignore all the other stakeholders that are just making a lot of noise?’ For instance, we work the agency that worked with injuries at work. When you get injured at work in Denmark you are allowed to get a certain amount of money so that you can just move on with your life and they compare what you could do before you got injured and what you can do afterwards work-wise. They’re really good at giving this amount of money very fast, and of course it’s important, but what we did in MindLab with the project, we tried to shift the focus and say ‘what if we didn’t just give them the money that they’re allowed to have, but what if we actually tried to give them their life back?’ What if we tried to make them have a new education, if they could not work as they did before? We should actually maybe give them something new so they could keep on working. That’s really a radical shift. It is also radical because that means you don’t just look at yourself as just a proprietor of a public sector, you should also look at all the stakeholders around the person that got injured. That could be local authorities, that could be unions, that could also be the family. What we found out when we talked to the people that got injured was the family played a really important role, even though that the government didn’t know it. So what we made them, this as this positive deviance shift could maybe be, we told them look at the families, they are actually going to play a really important role if we look at them as someone who we could provide with tools so they could actually be better at helping the people who get injured instead of ignoring them and saying they should stay out of it. That was based on positive deviance, because when we were observant and talking to the people who got injured, we saw that the family played an enormous role so we made the shift into the system.

The last thing about training in change labs, we’ve done a lot of changing in my lab. In the beginning we did lots of cultures, we had people out, from the Ministries coming maybe two or three days and we taught them the methods, we made them go out doing field work. To be honest, we actually stopped doing that randomly, because what can easily happen is that you come out, you have two, three wonderful days together with MindLab, lots of engagement, and then they go back and they just keep on working as they used to. Of course, it’s not always like that, but it’s how it happens sometimes. What we do now is that we don’t just have random training, we always have training in relation to that everyday work, the colleagues within the Ministry we have training dedicated to a project, to a research program, to something where they can work together with the people next to them so they get help when they return. It’s important that we get out of the thought of just innovation should be a playground, where you could just have fun and then return. You should make it be more, more dedicated to the everyday work.

And the climate change? We mostly do projects together with the Ministries that own us so we haven’t really done climate change projects. We have done something when Denmark was hosting the Cup XV event. But that was more like rethinking the event and trying to introduce visual design methods to the conference. So it’s not really, it’s not really solution minded, it was more like using the existing tools, but I can tell you more about that, if you’re interested.

Joeri: Let’s first go back to the notion of seduction. You’re spot on, on that. It is impossible to force people to collaborate and to open up. You have to seduce them. You have to make it attractive for them to play with you, basically. That sometimes can be very difficult, because we also have to respect that, if we are in the business of system change, then the people who are working in that system have to change. Some of them don’t want to. Some of them have actually very good reasons for not wanting to. You have to seduce them, but you also have to overcome resistance and you have to, in a way, respect that resistance. Part of the interventions that you need to develop are not just ideal solutions that would work in an ideal world, but part of the interventions that, as a lab, you need to develop, are interventions that help to change the system, that are incentives to either seduce or to steer the system into that new direction. Not just focusing on ‘well, what kind of user-centered solution can we develop?’ We need to develop a completely different intervention.

For instance, back in the Netherlands, we were working on this in order to create this space and a sense of urgency to start to do this. When we started to work in the education phase, the first thing we did to get with some universities, we launched a benchmark showing that the Netherlands was really far behind countries like Finland and that we were really losing out. Just to build momentum in the system for change.

On the other side, we were developing this sort of seductive playground with a nice plan and a program provided to teachers, to come out and start working with us. First focusing on the teachers that are willing to change, but didn’t know how and helping them to do that and leaving the teachers that didn’t want to change actually. When we had a track record of first results that those willing teachers actually achieved with our help, then we went to the second group and we said, “Look, let’s spread this and these teachers, this first group, and can help you do it.” And that’s how we gradually grew it.

With respect to the climate change and the social sector, has it been applied? With respect to the model of the MaRS Solutions Lab, I just developed that in the past three months, so it hasn’t been applied anywhere, yet. But we’re working with the Energy Institute at MaRS and the natural staff, and next year we will apply this model on the issue of energy transition, especially the role of utilities and renewable energy. Then we’ll see, and we’ll be open for you to join in or to share our lessons on that. The same is, in a sense, true for the social sector. One of the challenges that we’re currently looking at is residential support for adults with intellectual disabilities which will need a sort of redesign of all kinds of social services for that group, but different kinds of housing. We’re going to see if this model works on that challenge as well, so we’re at the beginning of the journey, you could say.

Our intention is to share as much as possible of what we do, including all our evaluations and our learnings and our reflections. There are actually quite some good resources on people working on labs, and the best way to find all those resources is from Social Innovation Generation who has a very good overview of all the people, both in Canada but also around the globe who are working in this space and of all the books and articles and blogs that are written about it. I am also, next week for instance, I am teaching at a school public policy in Toronto and the Canadian School of Public Policy leadership program, so I try to share my learnings and we should keep doing that.

More About SEWF

sewfThe Trico Charitable Foundation was honoured to host SEWF 2013. It made history in a number of ways – it was a first for Canada and attracted a record number of speakers and attendees (1,000 individuals from more than 30 countries and over 100 speakers from 20 countries) – but we are most proud of the quality of the discussions on Skills Building, Social Finance, Indigenous Social Enterprise, Collaboration, Policy and Research, and Social Innovation.

A special  thanks to Photos With Finesse by Suzan McEvoy for the pictures, BizBOXTV for producing the videos, and Employment and Social Development Canada for helping to make this post-event coverage possible.

We would also like to thank the following partners for making SEWF 2013 possible:

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Each year SEWF gives a different host country an incredible opportunity to celebrate and nurture its own social enterprise movement. The inaugural SEWF met in Edinburgh, Scotland. Since then it has been to Melbourne, Australia; San Francisco, U.S.A; Johannesburg, Africa; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Learn more about SEWF’s history here.

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