Public Innovation Labs: The NB Experience

Adapted from “Finding New Ways to Solve Complex Problems”; A presentation to the Institute for Public Administration Canada’s 69th Annual Conference

For this presentation I will share a bit about the public innovation journey in New Brunswick and some key learnings that I believe are important for anyone pursuing a public innovation agenda.

This is a story that starts with vision and leadership. The Late Honourable Andy Scott (no relation) had a vision for good governance, for connected government in the 21st century. His vision has been supported and pursued by the leadership of successive Clerk’s to Executive Council as well as successive university & college Presidents.

Andy recognized the diminishing public sector policy R&D capacity at a time when the complexity of problems and pace of change were increasing. This pace & complexity of change requires 1. greater flexibility, systems thinking, and open innovation; characteristics that tend not to be part of government DNA.

So in 2009, recognizing the value of external capacity to governments, Andy Scott founded the NB Social Policy Research Network (NBSPRN) as a partnership between the Government of New Brunswick (GNB), the post-secondary institutions, and civil society. The aim of the organization was (and is) to advance a networked governance approach to evidence-based policy development and citizen engagement.

Networked governance is an approach to problem solving that seeks to integrate the distributed capacities of external organizations and actors with government. In pursuing this mission a big question we ran into was: How do we enable government to effectively work with its external environment, and collaborate with non-governmental actors to innovate and deliver services? What are the specific mechanisms and activities to do so?

So our answer to this question in 2015 was to launch NouLAB, New Brunswick’s public and social innovation lab. This inititaive is a partnership between NBSPRN and the Pond Deshpande Centre with GNB and the support of the McConnell Family Foundation, MaRS Discovery District and The GovLab.

Like most public and social innovation labs (#PSIlabs), the approach is to convene multi-stakeholders, to apply systems thinking, design thinking and iteratively prototype & test solutions. This is an approach that is best suited for problems that are unclear, where there is uncertainty, solutions are unknown and therefore require exploration of the non-obvious.

We undertsand and teach innovation as a discipline that starts with a problem (despite the popular belief that it starts with an idea).

NouLAB started its journey as a 1st generation lab by facilitating The Academy. The Academy’s purpose was to build capacity among public sector staff and stakeholders to engage in cross-sector, co-creation efforts. Over the past couple of years NouLAB Academy worked with cross-sector teams addressing complex challenges such as: affordable housing, food security, adult literacy, gender equality, wellness, immigration, and aging.

The initiative is now developing into a 2nd generation lab: facilitating a networked, multi-year, cross-disciplinary, cross-sector effort to solve a complex challenge. Starting this fall is the Economic Immigration Lab. Thank you Zaid Hassan for all your guidance and support with this approach!

Some lessons I think are worth sharing:

Innovation adoption requires integration throughout an organization. This past winter during the Open Government Strats With You panel David Hume said something to the effect of ‘You can’t scale change without the lawyers and accountants on board’. Our capacity and innovation efforts should not simply reside in a unit or be the cool kids club with cool furniture. It’s an all hands on deck effort to move from chance moments of innovation to a disciplined culture of innovation.

Labs are primarily about learning. Christian Bason says that innovation is an iterative learning process — both at systems, organizational, project and individual levels. Labs provide the parallel learning structure bureaucracies can use to continuously improve and adapt to changes in the environment. Those learning’s should be open too. How do we share and manage those learnings throughout our organizations?

One of my favourite quotes from Alex Ryan

Fiddle heads are significant here, and not just because they are delicious and a product of my homeland.

  1. The Scented Path

A Wolastoqey colleague of mine once told me that the spiral shape of fiddleheads represent security. He went on to explain the story of the scented path. You may have noticed that when a dog goes to lay down to sleep they will spiral into their place of rest. This is something that mammals in the wild will do. In the wilderness at night before laying to rest one would walk in a circle to rest, leaving a scented trail around them. When a predator would track their scent, they would follow that scent in a sprial, alerting the prey to the predators approach and giving time to escape.

Labs should provide a safe space for its participants. A space, dynamic, and process that affords psychological safety; an environment that is safe for interpersonal risk taking, where ideas, perspectives, and failures can be shared without fear of negative consequences to ones reputation, relationships or career.

2. The Natural Fractal

The fiddlehead is a naturally occurring fractal, which means they contain “self-similar patterns”. Simply-put they are made up of non-linear patterns that look like the whole. So much inspiration to draw from ferns I’ll let Wired Mag explain:

Ferns are a common example of a self-similar set, meaning that their pattern can be mathematically generated and reproduced at any magnification or reduction. The mathematical formula that describes ferns, named after Michael Barnsley, was one of the first to show that chaos is inherently unpredictable yet generally follows deterministic rules based on nonlinear iterative equations.

Patterns! Iterative! Unpredictable! Nonlinear! Math! My point is this: We need to organize our collaborative projects in a way that reflects the behaviour, patterns and future state of the system that needs to emerge. Labs provide a space and practice to discover and experiment with new ways of working as well as solutions to public challenges.

Be the change you wish to see in your organization!

Thanks to nicefutures for the fiddlehead inspiration back when we were developing NouLAB!