Innovation Labs and Process
Traditional approaches to problem-solving are no longer sufficient to tackle complex challenges.
Source: Radius SFU, Converge Conference
Defining Social Innovation Labs...
A social innovation lab is a process that is intended to support multi-stakeholder groups in addressing a complex social problem. - F. Westley, Professor of Social Innovation, WISIR
Social innovation labs are a new approach to address our most complex challenges. They are a strategy, a space and a practice. - Zaid Hassan, 10-by-10, author of Social Labs Revolution
Social innovation labs are small, specialized teams or units that support diverse stakeholders to address a complex social challenge collaboratively. - Joeri van den Steenhoven, Former Director, MaRS Solutions Lab
The features of social innovation labs influence how they bring about change, and their capacity for bringing about change.
The unique value that a social innovation lab can bring.
Key Qualities
The key qualities of a lab are that they:
  1. 1.
    Are a separate team or unit with a mandate to bring about change
  2. 2.
    Provide a safe and creative space to explore and experiment with new ideas
  3. 3.
    View innovation as a discipline, and have the competency to manage the innovation process from problem analysis to market introduction

Value of Labs: 3 Stages of Innovation

As our world becomes increasingly complex, so too are our problems. Across society, there is growing recognition that our traditional approaches to problem-solving are no longer sufficient to tackling complex problems; problems to which there are no easy answers, and answers that demand action by many different individuals and organizations.
To bring about change, we see three important stages of innovation that social innovation labs can help with:
Source: MaRS Solutions Lab


In order to address complex challenges, we need to understand them in new ways. Complex challenges are comprised of individuals (users), organizations (institutions), and their interactions with one another (the system). The first step to solving a complex problem more effectively and collaboratively is to see it from these different perspectives. We can apply different methodologies from design thinking and systems thinking in order to do so.


We need to create spaces for trying out new ideas, through facilitated processes. Once promising ideas are identified, we can prototype and test them. Social innovation labs play an important convening role here for diverse stakeholders: to create space to develop new solutions collaboratively.


Once promising ideas are tested and evidence is created, those solutions can be adopted and scaled. This often requires deliberate strategies and sometimes even new policies, instruments or capacity-building activities to support the adoption and scaling. Innovation labs can play a role in designing such strategies, and in some cases even implementing parts of them.
Internal Labs
External Labs
Help transform a large organization, or help solve complex organizational challenges
Help solve complex challenges that require cross-sectoral collaboration
Bring different units, departments or agencies from across the organization together
Bring different stakeholders from across society together, e.g. government, private sector, academia and NGO’s
Often also bring outside experts and ideas into the organization
Function as neutral convener and facilitator
Often report directly to central management (e.g CEO)
Are independent and/or governed by multiple stakeholders

Examples and Resources

A set of practical tools to trigger and support social innovation is available in Nesta's Development, Impact & You Toolkit. You can watch a video about it here:

Additional Resources

Duggan, K. Dahl, S. & Roberts, I. (2016). Designing for Public Services. Nesta, IDEO, Design for Europe.
Eisenstadt, M. & Hassan, Z. (2016). The Social Labs Fieldbook: A Practical guide to solving our most complex challenges.
Kieboom, M. (2014). Lab Matters: Challenging the practice of social innovation lab practices. Kennisland.
InWithForward. Compendium of Learning Materials.
Papageorgiou, Kyriaki (2017). Labs for Social Innovation. ESADE Institute for Social Innovation.
Tiesinga, H. & Berkhout, R. (Eds.) (2014). Labcraft: How innovation labs cultivate change through innovation and collaboration. Labcraft Publishing.
The Innovation Lab Insight Center: Articles, case studies and resources and social innovation labs. (2014). The Bridgespan Group and The Rockefeller Foundation.
Social Innovation Generation (SiG) Knowledge Hub: Learning Resources for Social Innovation. (2013).

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