Social labs are not workshops. They are intensive, experimental interventions. They bring together people from across the system to seek root causes behind their problems and then collaborate on devising and testing solutions aimed at key leverage points. This change work continues in the “lab” of the real world—over time and in context.
Some of our social labs last for years. The team repeatedly convenes to refine their ideas based on what they are learning, and then heads out again into their field of work for more learning, testing, and acting.
How They Work
“We have scientific and technical labs to solve scientific and technical problems,” writes our colleague Zaid Hassan, author of the Social Labs Revolution. “We need social labs to address complex social challenges.”
Social labs are, first, social.
They require a team that reflects the diversity of people affected by and involved in the problem at hand, and the full multi-layered reality of the system. What does this social aspect accomplish? Among other things, you enable more creativity and avoid the tendency to impose top-down solutions, which rarely take advantage of the full range of knowledge—including local and informal knowledge—that can be brought to bear on the problem. Detailed knowledge of a system comes from living in it.
Social labs run experiments.
Complex problems are not amenable to monolithic, planned “solutions.” Social lab teams devise prototypal solutions and try them out in a cycle of consultation, experimentation, assessment, and revision. This agile process allows a portfolio of promising ideas to be tested and developed before too much time and money is spent on them. When, by trial and error, you have discovered what works, you can then grow it with confidence.
Social labs focus on causes.
What most of us refer to as “problems” are typically symptoms. When we focus on symptoms, we produce at best a temporary improvement. At worst, we inadvertently reinforce the dynamics that are the cause of the problem. Through the active participation of people from every level of the system, social labs identify and act on causes—thereby opening the door to real progress.
Social labs invite dissent.
Dissent can be uncomfortable, but we embrace it as an antidote to groupthink and inertia. The friction of argument and diverse positions unleashes tremendous energy. When skilfully managed, that energy is creative and productive. In addition, the free expression of competing and contested claims in the structured environment of the lab reduces the likelihood of confrontation outside it.