Labs on the perilous road of transformation

By Stéphane Vincent, Founder and Director of La27e Région

Nesta and UNDP’s Milica Begovic have just published an inspiring calling for a “new” movement around the public sector innovation labs. The call comes at a good time because it compels us collectively to anticipate on the next steps and it asks good questions. But it inspired us also a few comments. The “labs” are funny vehicles, “batmobiles” which must adapt to the winding contours of the road towards transformation… Then, all aboard!

1. The vast majority of administrations do not have a lab: is this serious, Doctor?

There is currently an important fetishism around the labs. Everyone dreams of having a batmobile! But it is necessary first to believe in the assumption that many governments and communities are able to progress without acquiring such devices: it is reasonable to assume that if cities such as Nantes in France or Helsinki in Finland do not display in their organizational chart the exact term “laboratory”, it does not prevent them to invent other ways to transform their organization, other “vehicles” for conducting experiments and producing more impact. There are many ways to “make lab”!

It is also necessary to remember that no situation is comparable: the cultures are very different from one nation to another, but also even within a country. In the same way, the effort to accomplish at the scale of a nation has nothing in common with what needs to be achieved at the scale of a territory such as a city… in this area, everything is particularism and we ought to avoid the risk of generalization.

Moreover, if an innovation lab were a car (an electric one, of course) on the winding road of innovation, then the situation described by Millie Begovic concerns only a small minority who have already driven several thousands of kilometres. All the others are still at the beginning of the journey and have not yet emptied their battery…

2. In fact, where do we start from?

It may not be useless to ask why we feel the need to launch such approaches in our administrations. What are the deep reasons? The journey requires sufficient efforts to have serious reasons to undertake the trip! If they are not explicit enough on their vision, on the motivations and the search for progress that guide them, the laboratories of innovation take the risk of being vehicles which “innovate around and around” without any other purpose than their own existence.

However, there are many factors which invite to change. It belongs to each community to identify the factors which run deeply through them. As examples, here are some of those that have motivated us at the 27th Region:

- The failure of the manufacture of public policies: public policies are increasingly powerless to improve the situation of the populations, on a whole series of topics such as housing, education, poverty, social isolation… The traditional life cycle of public policies is at stake because it no longer corresponds to the society of today, particularly because the beneficiaries of public policies are often variables of adjustment, instead of being the point of departure; this failure increases the democratic crisis and the gap between the citizens and their institutions; the more public problems seem to be complex, the less it seems possible to resolve them without starting from the realities faced by the public but also from all the protagonists in contact with the public policies, mediators, agents, elected persons, family environment, etc. In this context, the “lab” is the space where one takes care of the users and their expertise, and where we can create feedback loops in the manufacture of public policies.

- The massive fatigue of civil servants (and of many elected persons): about anywhere, public agents are tired, psychically touched by the sense of loss of meaning, resulting from a hyper-managerialisation of their organization, by the pace of successive reforms, by the poverty of the public debate concerning public service, but also by the injunction to permanent innovation when it is not conducive to progress and it is done without them; every day we meet agents in search of a different value system, and in particular the ability to criticize from inside what does not work and could be improved; the ideal of excellence of senior public service has lost its lustre, there is a call for more humility and collective intelligence, for a “human-centered governance” (C. Bason), a multidisciplinary dialog between administrative sciences and creation, humanities and social sciences; the lab is the space where one gives meaning to the work of the officers, reconnecting to the realities of the public and leaving the Fordism created by the new public management.

- A problem with the production and sharing of knowledge: the business model of consulting is undergoing profound changes, part of the knowledge tends to be privatized, academic research keeps its distances with power, think-tanks are circles of experts without connection with the field, and classic assessment or evaluation practices have not brought signification adaptations. In this context, many communities use the labs as a means of re-mobilizing the collective intelligence, re-internalizing part of the production of knowledge — a little as they do with the management of water or energy — and produce knowledge by “praxis”, through trials and errors.

Many factors that are as powerful as the above could complement this list: the depletion of the Nation-State and the rise of local authorities including cities; the perpetual disruption caused by the inflow or technologies such as the block chain… All these factors combine and intertwine in a different way in each context. Everyone shall discover the underlying factors that motivate them to change, and even develop resources to do so!

3. If the Lab is a vehicle, what is its destination?

Knowing where you start from is good, but one still needs to have an idea of the steps to follow! From dozens of experiments conducted with communities in the framework of the 27e region, we have attempted to produce our own “theory of change” in the communities, a set of 9 steps to gradually go through, from the stage of “discovery” up to a step of “systemic governance”, the detailed description of which can be found here.

Several steps directly involve issues that the editorial indicates: for example, the interest to put the public agents at the heart of the process, or the strategies to keep “a foot inside, a foot outside” -or even to invent strategies to continue to exist after the next elections…

It is only an attempt to formalize the key questions to ask oneself. Everyone can produce her own trajectory! The idea is that there are essential steps, which one cannot aim to cross all at once, but which are difficult to ignore. In any case, candidates for this travel should be equipped with a “Batmobile” rather than a collection car, if they want to be able to evolve at each step, with some progress but also through hazards!

4. Take a look in the mirror to stay a step ahead

The proposal to launch a new movement is really interesting, and will stimulate the entire community. However, this movement should not neglect to draw its dynamics from a thorough and scrupulous review of what has happened in recent years.

First of all, we must capitalize on already advanced experiences, topic by topic (methodologies, governance, activities, impact, etc) to help beginners avoid making the same mistakes, and share between us the strategies and the “tips” developed here and there to overcome the difficulties. Here, the assumption is the following: many of the current and future solutions are already there, in different locations, distributed between all the existing initiatives, but we do not take enough time to talk about these points between us — or we have not yet found the correct formats to do so.

For language or cultural reasons, it should normally be easier to do it at the national level. However, to take a real step beyond we must do so at an international scale. Since several years, networks such as iSchool or Nesta’s LabWorks have allowed similar actors to confront their visions and to learn from peers, but it seems necessary to go further.

We will have to confront the ideological, methodological controversies (ex: design vs design thinking), economic ones (ex: economic models), etc. We will also have to assess the public policies supporting the labs: in France, for example, the call for projects launched by the State in the framework of the investment program for the future launched in 2016 and endowed with EUR 6 million; in Europe, the approach Lab Connections undertaken by the Joint Research Center. The European Commission, but also the United Nations, all international actors promoting these approaches, must assess their own action. It will be necessary to examine the roles of public actors, think-tanks, action-tanks, the market, and to take the approach of reasoning as a sector of activity and actor’s ecosystem, with its own balance of power, its motivations, its budgetary constraints, etc. It will also be necessary to read again the European Commission Report 2014 and appreciate what has been done since then.

In short, a lot of work ahead but it looks exciting!

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