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What are Social Laboratories?

Reos Partners
November, 2013


“The power of solutions lies primarily in the people who believe in and own them.”
–V. Srinavas

Current approaches to addressing complex social challenges are not working. There is much to celebrate: the number of people involved in change initiatives, the increasing amounts of money being invested in those initiatives, the steadily declining costs of technology, and the attention being given to social innovation. The underlying problems however, from species loss to public debt, continue to grow.

Social fabrics are increasingly strained under loads they were never intended to contain. Inequality is growing. Direct action has become either a strident call for someone else to take action or the frantic alleviation of symptoms that leaves underlying causes largely intact. There’s increasing pressure on individuals to change their behavior around environmental issues and to take on the burden of austerity measures or cuts in basic services. The sociologist Ulrich Beck describes this situation as an attempt to find “individual solutions to systemic contradictions”.

Throw an ashtray in any direction, and you’ll hit a messy, complex challenge. It’s difficult to escape the persistent feeling that while our problems are already big and bad, they’re in fact getting bigger and badder. It’s harder and harder to believe people who tell us that things are actually getting better. The future is changing in our lifetimes from a magical place to a place best avoided, a dark place that’s becoming difficult to contemplate.

Into this situation comes a very simple premise. We have scientific and technical labs for solving our most difficult scientific and technical challenges. We need social labs to solve our most pressing social challenges. Thomas Homer-Dixon explains:
“The public not only needs to understand the importance of experimentation within the public service; it needs to engage in experimentation itself. To the extent that the public explores the solution landscape through its own innovations and safe-fail experiments, it will see constant experimentation as a legitimate and even essential part of living in our new world. To the extent that the public understands the importance of—and itself engages in—experimentation, it will be safer for all of you in the public service to encourage experimentation in your organizations.”

Social labs have been quietly brewing for almost 20 years. Hundreds of people around the world have been and are developing social labs. Thousands more have participated in them. There are labs focused on the elimination of poverty, water sustainability, transformation of the media, government, climate, social innovation, and many more issues. A growing number of people are focusing their heads, hearts, and hands on addressing complex social challenges.

The people running these labs represent a new breed—they’re not simply scientists or academics, and neither are they activists or entrepreneurs. They’re all of these things and a few things we don’t have good names for yet. They’re making the case for and launching social labs around the world, trying to address some of our most difficult challenges.

Social labs are platforms for addressing complex social challenges that have three core characteristics.

  1. They are social. Social labs start by bringing together diverse participants to work in a team that acts collectively. They are ideally drawn from different sectors of society, such as government, civil society, and the business community. The active participation of diverse stakeholders, as opposed to teams of experts or technocrats, represents the social nature of social labs.
  2. They are experimental. Social labs are not one-off experiences. They’re ongoing and sustained efforts. The team doing the work takes an iterative approach to the challenges it wants to address, prototyping interventions and managing a portfolio of promising solutions. This reflects the experimental nature of social labs, as opposed to the project-based nature of many social interventions.
  3. They are systemic. The ideas and initiatives developed in social labs—and released as prototypes—aspire to be systemic in nature. This means trying to come up with solutions that go beyond dealing with a part of the whole or symptoms of the problem and address the root cause of why things are not working in the first place.

These characteristics are not arbitrary. Nor are they convenient. Getting really diverse groups of people to simply step into a room together is hard, let alone trying to get them to act together. Taking an experimental approach requires not only discipline but also a degree of stability and commitment rare in a project-obsessed world. Addressing the root causes of challenges eschews easy and popular political wins in favor of longer time frames and greater uncertainty.

While none of these characteristics is convenient, each is necessary, deeply so. They represent hard-won conclusions wrestled at great cost from many thousands upon thousands of hours of trial and error. They represent countless workshops where many stakeholders shared their most agonizing and difficult challenges. And perhaps more than anything else, they represent integrity and honesty—they are not what we want solutions to look like, but what we have found they actually look like when effective.

There are, of course, aspiring social labs that do not meet these characteristics any better than programmatic or project-based responses. My contention is that social labs or any intervention aiming to address social challenges that do not have these three characteristics “baked in” will be ineffective or fail.

Our most ferocious challenge today is to avoid the reactionary tendency to go to war with our problems. As Max Dublin reminds us, “All failures in achieving goals, that is, in mastery, be they in our ability to build cars or to make love, are based on failures in cultivation, in nurturance.” We have a tendency to declare hugely catastrophic wars against our social challenges. The war on drugs is just one example.

The attractions of war, however, are that it’s glorious, and it’s heroic. War brings out something both terrible and human within us, and we are drawn to it as a way out of having to focus on ourselves, on our failures in cultivation and nurturance. The call to arms in the name of justice is most dangerous and seductive. From the Crusades to the war in Iraq, wars have been fought under the banner of a higher calling.

As our social challenges become more serious, we will find ourselves subject to new siren songs and the voices of new prophets calling us to fight new crusades.

Social labs represent the constitution of a new sphere of activity, a new space. The gathering together of people within this space represents the beginning of what can be thought of as an armistice, a suspension of what has been called the battle of the parts versus the whole. People come together, recognizing the truth that the cost of war is too high and there is another way.

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