Social labs … tackling social problems through collaboration and design

Crossing out problems and writing solutions on a blackboard.

by Laura Dobie

Nesta’s LabWorks 2015 global lab gathering kicks off today in London, bringing together innovation labs, units, offices and teams working within and with government to address social challenges.

Today on the blog we look at social labs, their potential to improve public services and a couple of social labs who are carrying out innovative work in public services.

What are social labs?

Social labs are platforms for tackling complex social challenges.

Zaid Hassan highlights the following key characteristics of social labs:

  • They are social, facilitating participation by a broad range of stakeholders
  • They are experimental, taking an iterative approach to problem-solving
  • They are systemic, seeking to address the root cause of a problem, and not just its symptoms (Hassan, 2014, p.3)

Social labs draw inspiration from design thinking, which is centred on the following principles of design which were promoted by design firm IDEO:

  • A user-centred approach to problem solving
  • Using direct observation as a main source of learning
  • Moving quickly to creating prototypes as a means of generating additional knowledge
  • Learning from failures to refine and redevelop

Social labs in the public sector

The public sector is making increasing use of design, policy or social labs as a means of complementing and reinforcing skills in public policy, programme and service design. They contribute a different perspective to challenges and use a range of research methods and facilitation techniques to foster ideas and insights that attempt to incorporate many different points of view.

Recent Canadian research on a What Works Lab, which was established to develop approaches to increase employer engagement in workplace training, found that using lab methodology enhances the ability to generate insights into potential policy responses, and that lab techniques can also substantially reduce the transmission cycle between research, policy and service delivery. The research also highlighted how experimentation in a lab setting can be used to de-risk an initiative before wider implementation, and demonstrated that labs are an effective means of generating high-quality policy work.

Social Innovation Lab Kent (SILK)

SILK is a small team based within Kent County Council established in 2007 to ‘do policy differently’. They consider that the best solutions come from people who are at the heart of an issue, those with lived experience, families, friends, volunteers, and front line workers, and they ensure that these groups are involved at all stages their projects.

Projects are broken down into the following phases:

  • Initiate. Involve the right people, create a project plan collectively and decide who needs to be informed about the project.
  • Create. Collect as many insights as possible, involve a broad range of stakeholders and generate ideas for testing in the next phase.
  • Test. Test the ideas which were proposed during the create phase, and continue testing until a model that woks is identified. Trial runs, prototypes or ‘mock ups’ can be a part of this process.
  • Define. A model which has been tested and known to work is defined and consolidated.

SILK has delivered a variety of projects across the themes of future services, service (re)design and sustainable services, and tackled a range of social issues, including accessible and affordable food, the resettlement of offenders and creating a dementia-friendly community.

MindLab

Based in Danish central government, MindLab employs a human-centred design approach to address public sector challenges. Its board sets its strategic direction and approves its portfolio of projects, ensuring that their work is aligned with their sponsors’ priorities. Its emphasis on human-centred design helps to forge links between the perspectives of end users and government decision making.

MindLab’s team has a variety of skills which are indicative of its ethos and method, including social research, design, public administration, project management, organisational development and creative facilitation.

In one project MindLab worked with National Board of Industrial Injuries (ASK) to increase the number of people who remain in employment after suffering an injury at work. MindLab highlighted the potential in strategic working across working across public, private and non-governmental organisations and a change in attitude in helping these people return to the labour market.

MindLab interviewed people who had suffered industrial injuries and put together service journeys, which mapped the different stakeholders involved in a work injury case from a citizen’s perspective. They demonstrated through a case study how cooperation between the municipality, the insurance company and ASK improved an injured person’s employment prospects. MindLab also conducted internal workshops with ASK management to support a change in strategic focus from case resolution to employment outcomes for injured people.

It is clear that social labs are taking a different approach to policy and service delivery, focusing on the experiences and needs of service users to devise innovative solutions to a range of social challenges.


The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of information on economic and social policy and public service delivery. To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading

Hassan, Zaid (2014). The social revolution: a new approach to solving out most complex challenges. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. (Available for loan from the Idox Information Service Library)

The What Works Lab process: report for the Skills and Employment Branch, Employment and Social Development Canada

One thought on “Social labs … tackling social problems through collaboration and design

  1. Pingback: From failure to improvement: how public services can turn themselves around | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

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