3 Big Questions I Still Have About Social Labs

For the last 3+ years, I’ve been swimming in the waters of what are increasingly becoming known as Social Labs.

Social Labs are a strategy for increasing the likelihood of success when tackling complex problems.

Generally when we’re talking about a lab, we’re not just talking about a place, and we’re not talking about a single methodology or process. We’re talking about a paradigm. Zaid Hassan wrote a great post about this here.

Image courtesy of social-labs.com

This is a simple model of what a Social Lab looks like, though we know in practicality they can be messy, exciting, creative, humbling, human experiences which create a portfolio of solutions to these complex problems. In practice, they may look a bit more like this:

Image courtesy of Lifehack

Anyway, hopefully this is enough context about Social Labs for now — if you still want more, I highly suggest you read The Social Labs Revolution.

Onto my latest ponderings…

Recently I’ve had the privilege of working with Zaid & Leo at Social Labs, I’ve been engaged in a chunky Strategy meeting for Lifehack (an NZ social lab), and there’s been much talk in Melbourne (where I’m now a resident) from various people about getting a Social Lab off the ground. I even tried to kickstart a peer call for Labs practitioners — which was an insightful experience… I think it’s fair to say I have my head in the Labs space at the moment.

But there’s some things I haven’t quite figured out. I certainly don’t claim to be an expert in this space yet. However I am curious, and there are some areas which are particularly peaking my interest at the moment:

Question 1) Is the natural evolution of a Lab toward a community of changemakers?

If a Social Lab is to act as a platform to tackle a complex problem, it would most likely need to span multiple years whilst solutions are tested, iterated and rolled out. In that time, Labs participants will build an array of skills, capabilities and connections which will likely make them advanced social innovators.

What happens to those people as the Lab eventually draws to an end? Do they go back into organisations? Into consulting? Do they stay connected? If done properly, these people will be tightly knotted together by their collective experience. They will have common language, culture and practices.

These aspects are not only a by product of a Lab, but they seem inevitable — so I wonder if there’s previous examples of strong communities emerging from Social Labs in the past.

I also wonder if a self-organising community of skilled change makers is actually an ideal end state for a Lab, and whether more attention should be given to enabling this to form inside Social Labs?

Question 2) How can we set a Strategic Direction during the Preconditions phase which avoids personal or group bias?

The set up of a Social Lab is a crucial time for setting the chances of success.

When I was co-facilitating the ‘How To Design A Social Labs’ online course back in 2014, I was struck by the importance of the Strategic Direction to setting the track the Lab will go down.

Good strategy formation is hard. Make it a messy complex problem, and it’s even harder of course. How do we get beyond individual and group biases when it comes to this process?

Do we pore over data looking for patterns? Do we analyse relationships in the system? What processes do we use to define a ‘true north’?

I’ve become increasingly interested in Emergent Strategy processes, which I was delighted to see referenced in the Social Labs Fieldbook:

Image courtesy of social-labs.com
I’m curious how we can best set this strategic direction, and how the voice of the people who will be affected by the Lab outcomes, can be included in this process.

Question 3) If Intellectual Capital is generated by Labs, how best do we open source and mobilise these learnings to exponentiate change activities?

There’s a likelihood you might be interested more in social change, than private profit if you’re involved in a Social Lab (though that’s a big assumption on my part, and they’re not mutually exclusive). I believe that there’s a greater chance of social change if we increase transparency and access to knowledge, skills and resources.

The trend in society toward open access to education, communication and information is driving a range of initiatives, revolutions, entrepreneurship and more. Change is happening, and it’s happening faster because of the effect of technology on society.

If this is the case, then to accelerate the impact of a Social Lab, we should be looking at how we can put as much of the Capitals generated through the Lab initiatives into the Commons as possible. From my personal experience, Intellectual Capital is one of the most interesting of the outputs of a Lab to make available to people locally and around the world.

When we were running Lifehack, people in other countries often asked us what we were learning about youth mental health. Whilst we were able to share some of our youth engagement processes, what we really wanted to communicate was some of the behavioural aspects that we were observing of how people were interacting with prototypes, so that we could help shortcut this process for other people trying to do similar things in their regions. But documentation was difficult — often we were moving so fast, working out what to document, and what not to was only easier with retrospect.

We weren’t being paid for endless documentation, we were being paid for results.

So how do we do this better? How do we work out what to document? What to share? How to share it? How not just share it, but make sure people find it?

This is the eternal debate of knowledge management in organisations large and small. Answers on a postcard please — I think this is one of the toughest nuts to crack in Lab Practice, personally.

So that’s me. I’m pondering. Probing. Wondering who it is you’re supposed to talk to about this stuff…

Where’s my Social Labs community of practice hanging out these days?