What is NS GovLab? Social innovation 101

by Jocelyn Yerxa, Design & Process Lead, NS GovLab

I’m Jocelyn and I colead NS GovLab with Aubrie McGibbon.

There are two questions that Aubrie and I get most when talking to people about NS GovLab:

1. What is a social innovation lab?

2. Why this approach?

Great questions!

Even in the field of social innovation, practitioners and scholars differ in their definitions. We have been very fortunate to have connections with many brilliant lab practitioners, both within and outside the public sector. Through these discussions, and through our work to date creating the lab, we are a lot clearer on what NS GovLab is and why it’s so important. It is from this perspective that I share what we mean by social innovation lab and why we have chosen this model to address the complex challenges of an aging population.

Brave Space Graphic Recording of the What and Why of Labs during our Orientation session

What is a social innovation lab?

A social innovation lab is a different approach to problem solving. It is not a better approach or a superior approach — in fact, it won’t work for every issue. This approach is particularly helpful when it comes to complex problems — that is, problems that can only be understood by looking at the larger context and whole system with diverse stakeholders. Problems where specific actions can not only make an impact, but also help us understand the nature of the problem better.

Here are some examples of what a social innovation lab is suited for and what it is not well suited for.

Our approach focuses on systems and design thinking, which means that we are using our lab as vehicle to create the future that we want in Nova Scotia as our population ages. Our approach is experimental, so we can fail early, fail fast, fail cheaply. We’ll test our assumptions early and often to make sure we are on the right track. These create very low risk for public service and use of public funds. But it also allows us to win big on learning and understanding the issues, which will mean better, more long-lasting re-designs that positively impact the lives of Nova Scotians.

Ideas sparking during our Orientation March 2018

Why a social innovation lab?

NS GovLab is focused on population aging. This is a great fit for a social innovation lab because it is a systemic issue that is the result of designing our systems based on the belief that we will always have more young people than older people.

This belief is no longer reality.

An aging population is one of the biggest public health wins of our time. People live longer and healthier than they have in history. This coupled with our population also having fewer children than ever before are the two most foundational causes the shift in our demographic make-up. What has lagged behind is the re-design of our systems to the new reality.

We must begin to think differently about the systems we have in place and how to redesign them for today and tomorrow. This shift impacts all sectors, which is why a multi-stakeholder approach is critical.

Fellows working during our Orientation Session March 2018

NS GovLab provides the space for exactly this. We build systems and design thinking skills by tackling a complex problem together, then develop and test ideas in all areas — policy, program, service, process, and more.

Our process will change, too, as we learn what is and is not working. That means redesigning our own lab processes as we go, tweaking our approach where necessary to ensure we give people the support they need while removing the barriers that so often get in the way of great ideas.

As Simon d’Entremont, deputy minister of the Department of Seniors, points out to people: It is not through the pages of history that we will find the way forward. This is a new phenomenon. Considerable experimentation is needed to identify root causes of the problems associated with our aging population and test assumptions about what will and will not produce the future we want.

We hope that you will follow along with us here and on Twitter as we embark on this learning journey together.