The Alberta CoLab: the uncut edition

A Retrospective on Building a Next Generation Innovation Lab Model

Perhaps you’ve also been there: at the beginning of something new; bold and fearless in the face of opposition and hopeful at the possibility of sparking real change.

This is very much where we were in 2014, when the stars aligned and the Government of Alberta officially launched the Alberta CoLab — one of the first Public and Social Innovation Labs (hereafter Labs) in Canada. Two years later, co-founder and good friend Dr. Alex Ryan penned the Alberta CoLab Story in which he openly reflects on the creation of a government-wide service for systemic design and foresight. He also reflects on the highs and the lows faced by the team working to integrate a counter-intuitive and counter-cultural approach to policy development into a bureaucratic world of risk-based approvals, results-based budgets, and efficiency gains. It’s an insightful piece outlining what made the CoLab unique and its early impact.

Today, the Alberta CoLab continues to function as permanent government design team, but “by design” it does so with a dramatically different focus and mandate. This is a three part retrospective that looks back on the past five years of the CoLab and examines why, at the height of our success, we went back to the drawing board to reimagine it all over again.

Part One: On launching and being unfettered by convention

· A savvy group of highly influential executives looking for a way to break seemingly unavoidable trade-offs between development, the environment and community interests.

· A public service tired of systems thinking and wanting more systems doing.

· An unprecedented number of multi-ministry initiatives battling a siloed inheritance.

· An opportunity to bring in top-level external talent to develop a new concept.

· Funding from Alberta Energy to provide a team, a custom space and yes, new furniture.

While this smoothed the pathway, the rest was very much our playground to explore. Where would the Lab fit in government’s policy development process? Would we be responsible to investigate and provide new insights and ideas for a given challenge? Was there a high value area to focus our efforts? How would a Lab be involved in program delivery?

I feel that your ambition should always exceed the budget. That no matter what you’re doing you should dream bigger… and then it’s a matter of reigning it in to reality.

— Guillermo Del Toro

In these early days, the lack direction was probably the ideal set up because it allowed us to cultivate a grassroots design for the Lab — mandate, scope, process, even mascots — with minimal overhead. We set up CoLab in the Department of Energy — an unexpected place to put an innovation Lab — because that’s where key champions and resources were. Because we were interested in systems and culture change, we chose not to limit the scope of Lab projects to the Department of Energy, but to open up the Lab’s capability to all departments, and to prioritize challenges that straddled multiple departments.

The Alberta CoLab undertakes yearly developmental evaluations to track the impact of specific projects and overall concept design, as well as identify areas for future adaptation.
— Summary from the Alberta CoLab Overview 2016.

We branded as an in-house consultancy, prolific in three streams of work that included projects, capacity building initiatives and thought leadership — all in an effort to simultaneously raise the profile of these practices and suss out what worked and didn’t for the public sector palette. Yet, what most distinguished the initial concept from other innovation initiatives at the time was the aspiration for CoLab to forgo a model about doing things better and faster. In a world of unprecedented change, CoLab was intended to equip government with the ability to harness the power of disruption to identify new ways of doing business and spark transformational change.

And it worked — at least as a first push. By 2016, The CoLab had successfully entered the collective consciousness of the public service. We had both brand awareness and a solid reputation as creatives and strategists who could help catalyze high impact ideas.

To date, the Alberta CoLab has undertaken over 140 cross-cutting projects for government to support policy innovation at a variety of levels — from strategy development for initiatives like Open Government to external co-design engagements with the public and industry to internal service design.

The visionary among our executives were pleased. But even they could not deny the practical realities of big organizations, and a year after the Alberta CoLab Story went live our practical realities came calling: key champions had moved to new roles and future ones had yet to be exposed to so-called Labs. To complicate things further, the fiscal tides had turned and the pressure was on to demonstrate value within a narrowing budget.

When things are stable, having a deep understanding of one’s own business model may not be top of mind, but its importance cannot be overstated for Labs. Having a good handle on your value proposition, client segments, channels for reaching and supporting clients, and integration points into the larger organization will help you make informed decisions to not just defend against changes but take advantage of them. All of this to say that the actual delivery of work is only part of the job for Labs, because for long-term longevity the onus is actually on the Lab to decode the signals of organizational change and identify how these should be met rather than waiting for direction.

Part two: The thing about water and diamonds

While the need for government to innovate in a rapidly changing world may seem obvious, if you’re in the hot seat of public sector innovation, riding out the waves of change — be it budgets, election cycles, etc. — means you must continuously contend with a paradox of value. Historically speaking, the “paradox of value” is the notion that things that are crucial or critical to life, such as water, are often seen as having less value than other goods, such as diamonds.

To this day, there continues to be disagreement about how this notion of “value” is created — from the amount of effort that goes into acquiring something, to its scarcity, to its view as a social necessity — the underlying point being that value is subjective and coloured by the vantage point. To this end, I am not suggesting that innovation entities like Labs are akin to life-giving water, but that what Labs see as value is not necessarily what carries the day in political organizations. What Labs identify as their value proposition — things like collaboration, creativity, new ideas, systems change — is eclipsed by a skewed risk-reward paradigm. At worst, this paradox may lead to a view that Labs are incompatible structures in government; at best Labs can enable long-term gains that often fall short of the immediacy and urgency of core business, issues management, and maximizing returns.

The googly thing to do is launch early and then iterate. The beauty of experimenting in this way is that you never get too far from what the market wants. The market pulls you back.

— Marissa Mayer

Even if you are of the view that the world today has reached the state of “Peak Lab,” it is important to remember that Labs are still very much in the startup phase of development — a dominant model has yet to emerge. And even though Labs are highly diverse and everyone has their own unique story, there are two key things to keep in mind:

· First, as an innovation initiative, you have been likely stood up to challenge business-as-usual offerings and so — by design — you will create friction within government.

· Second, the short-term nature of government innovation agendas at a leadership level, in combination with the evolving innovation needs of the bureaucracy, makes it nearly certain that you will need to rethink your business model every few years if you are to survive and thrive.

How you adapt your model will be defined by how far you are willing to go to resolve your value paradox and make what you do credible and appealing to the people you work with. As a general observation, the closer a Lab is tied to core business, the more they are tied to incremental change and yet core business is a generally a stable high-value play. Distance from core business provides a certain amount of freedom to pursue disruptive innovation, but distance then makes it more difficult to integrate disruptive innovations into the core. It therefore begs the question: how far can you adapt your business model and still remain authentic to the intent of being a Lab?

Part Three: The CoLab is dead. Long Live the CoLab.

There are many reasons why plateaus show up. For us, a government-wide push to demonstrate value had ultimately resulted in a revolving door of workshops, design sprints and idea-handoffs with marginal external-to-government impact. It also meant that our focus was largely outside the interests of executive sponsors at our home ministry — Alberta Energy. So while initially supportive of our approach, our lynch-pin sponsorship was several degrees removed from the majority our work. By the time these dynamics had created unmovable roadblocks impeding our path to true impact, the department was facing a period of organizational change and we were again an unknown quantity. The indicators were there to take a step back, evaluate our strategy and be creative.

You have to respect your audience. Without them, you’re essentially standing alone singing to yourself.

— K.D. Lang

For innovation to work in and for government, it needs to somehow become part of the DNA of the organization. Reinforcing our own hooks meant focusing on the needs of our untapped energy client base, and transitioning from being a strategic service to a strategic resource.

We found a strategic niche

In today’s world answers can change overnight, and exploratory questions can help us anticipate what’s coming. Key to this is asking questions that can push beyond where an organization is currently focused. This is a list of some of the exploratory questions that would ground CoLab’s work on energy transition.

We built depth

In 2018, the Alberta CoLab was endorsed with a new mandate focusing on energy transition and policy innovation. To deliver on this mandate the CoLab built-out its offerings to include a new stream of work called Advisory Services where the team leads research and partnerships on clean energy technologies, techno-economic modelling, and emissions analyses.

We broke free of the workshop

We became part of the business life-cycle

We became an inside/outside partnership

The Systemic Design exChange and the Energy Futures Lab are unique examples of CoLab’s inside/outside approach. SDX is a community-of-practice convened with the Skills Society Action Lab and bring together government, non-profit, private sector and community leaders to learn skills for social innovation. The EFL is a not-for-profit initiative designed to accelerate the development of a “fit for the future” energy system.

A final note

For Alberta CoLab, adapting our business model allowed us to create greater impact, build stronger internal support, and integrate the Lab’s work into the core of our supporting ministry. It was a much-needed risk that is starting to reap reward, but a risk nevertheless. So, if your world sounds similar to ours and if you’re ready to figure your next step, asking yourself a few simple questions can help you gather the right data, test your assumptions and make this step a calculated one. Ask yourself:

· How might we evolve our business model to create value that is worth breaking with the status quo?

· Do we need a subtle or radical overhaul to enable better impact? Are there small, low risk things we can do that are worth doing?

· Is this shift something our current or future clients can see the rationale behind, as a potential destination, or is this going to be too much of a leap?

· Do we have the capacity and skills to grow and shift in a new or different way?

Director of the Alberta CoLab and its alter-ego Energy Transition and Policy Innovation.

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