The Alberta CoLab Story

Redesigning the policy development process in government

Alex Ryan
The Overlap
Published in
27 min readApr 3, 2016


Alberta CoLab is an evolving experiment built on three counter-intuitive ideas:

1. Culture shifts faster through collaborative project work than through a culture change initiative.

2. The way to accelerate policy development is to engage more perspectives and more complexity.

3. The best place to put a cross-ministry design team is in a line ministry.

I want to explain what CoLab is and why it has evolved the way it has. We don’t view CoLab as a best practice to be replicated, since our model is tailored to the specific culture and context of Alberta. Perhaps you are also trying to catalyze innovation inside a large bureaucratic organization. I hope you can learn something from our journey so far, even if it isn’t a formula or a recipe or a list of 13 Innovation Hacks That Will Transform Your Organization Into The Next Google!

CoLab is a permanent, standing design team within the Department of Energy. We have 7 FTEs who are all public servants and one part time contractor. CoLab is a space, a team, and an approach.

Alberta CoLab as a Space

The space is characterized by natural lighting, mobile furniture, and resources to visualize and prototype. We encourage participants to draw on the walls, which are all whiteboard paint or glass. We have rules for discourse that allow participants to do their best collaborative work.

Alberta CoLab as a Team

The team is diverse and not the usual mix of people you would expect in a Department of Energy. We hire people with resumes that don’t make sense. They may be working in a field far from their original degree. They may have lived in several countries and worked for very different types of organizations. Rather than climbing one corporate ladder, they have been embedded in diverse environments that give them multiple frames of reference.

Despite their diversity, CoLab team members share a common trait: they excel at facilitating co-design sessions that challenge and stretch participants to think and act differently in a non-threatening way. They employ humour, play, and reflective questions to engage serious and sensitive issues without raising participants’ deflector shields. They can disrupt the usual organizational routines of forming into camps and debating the merits of the same old solutions and get diverse groups building on each others’ ideas and creating generative and divergent options.

Alberta CoLab as an Approach

CoLab is also an approach. Systemic design and strategic foresight are the main tools we bring to our work. Strategic foresight is a discipline that allows us to look up to 40 years into the future, not to predict, but to construct multiple, divergent, possible futures. Systemic design is an approach to redesigning our strategies and organizations today. The mindsets and toolsets for these activities are similar. Both are driven by an abductive logic of “what might be” rather than the deductive logic of “what must be” or the inductive logic of “what probably is.” The main difference between design and foresight is their temporal focus.

When you combine systemic design and strategic foresight, both benefit. Systemic design provides a pathway to impact for foresight, making it more than just an intellectual exercise that gathers dust while your organization merrily continues executing business as usual. Strategic foresight promotes future-fit design, and complements the analytical rear-view mirror we often bring with us into redesign efforts.

Strategic foresight helps us to explore multiple, divergent futures.
Systemic design helps us to re-design our organizations and strategies today.

Systemic design and strategic foresight may not be the right mix for another government lab. Right now we are seeing a proliferation of public sector innovation labs. The approaches usually employ some combination of human-centred design, behavioural insights, systems thinking, strategic thinking, evidence-based policy, agile, lean, Theory U, crowdsourcing, collective impact, facilitation, dialogue, and making. I think it’s important that we do not become religious about which combination of tools or which theory of change provides the secret sauce to make headway on wicked problems. We need all of these tools and more to unlock our gridlocked problematiques.

Highs and Lows

When I think about the first two years for Alberta CoLab, I am most proud of three things:

  • We have shifted behaviour across the Alberta Public Service. In addition to the 68 projects our team has led, there are design and foresight projects now happening every day across the government. The CoLab is booked out for months in advance, so we recently built a second lab space. Other ministries are building lab spaces and want to franchise the CoLab model. Teams from every ministry are utilizing the CoLab space and approach to take on their most complex challenges. Nobody told them to do this. They do it because they have seen it work.
  • We have created demand. For every project our team accepts, we have to say no to three more. We do not have capacity to meet the demand signal for design and foresight. Public servants know that the old tools are not up to the complexity of the challenges they face. They are thirsty for new approaches that can deliver results as long as they are flexible and robust under real world constraints.
  • We have demonstrated value. In a time where oil prices have crashed and our department has shrunk by over 15%, our team has expanded from two to four to seven full-time designers. The senior leadership of our department and the government recognize the value Alberta CoLab has created. We have been asked to assist with almost every major file across the Government of Alberta in the past two years.

I also reflect on my biggest frustrations:

  • Access to citizens and stakeholders. There is a structural barrier in the policy development cycle that prevents high quality data from informing our strategic foresight and systemic design projects. Any new policy requires cabinet approval at two points in the policy development cycle. The first is approval to engage the public. The second is to decide between policy options. I understand the purpose of these approvals, but the first gate can easily be a bottleneck. Say you are given six months to complete a draft policy. It might take the first few months to get approval to consult, since cabinet has to review every policy consultation for Alberta’s 30,000 public servants. This structure encourages the civil service to develop policy options behind closed doors. When we do finally engage, we are often so far along in the process that the options are almost fully baked. Engaging with the public is the best way to de-risk policy development. Yet the current structure treats public engagement as a risk to be mitigated rather than our best risk management strategy.
  • Maintaining design intent. Alberta CoLab focuses on the fuzzy front end of policy development. We believe this is where the most impactful design decisions are made, before the policy options become locked into a dominant frame. The downside of designing at the fuzzy front end is that there are a lot of touch-points and time delays between the output of our design work and a positive impact felt in the lives of Albertans. At every one of these touch-points, there is a risk that an innovation will get lost in translation. Our design and foresight sessions emphasize the systemic interconnections and interdependencies across government. Yet those who implement these designs often work in rigidly defined boxes and silos. We have seen a number of projects lose their systemic qualities as they progress towards implementation. The lesson here (and it’s hardly a new one) is that you cannot just throw a new design over the fence to an implementation team. They need to be part of the design process, and the designers need to steward projects all the way through to implementation.
  • Creating a line of sight to Albertans. We want our work to have a positive, perceptible, and persistent net benefit for Albertans. Because we have situated our lab at the fuzzy front end of policy development, it becomes a challenge to create and maintain a line of sight to the Albertans we are trying to serve. How do we know that we making the lives of citizens better? There are some projects where I can show a direct link. But there are often long time lags in policy development. Many policy issues are framed at a very high level of abstraction, such as reconciling the tension between the pursuit of economic, social, and environmental outcomes. How do we make policy more tangible, iterative, and engaging for citizens and stakeholders, so that we can receive rapid feedback and adapt to public needs?

Mediating Tensions and Managing Tradeoffs

Both the successes and frustrations of Alberta CoLab are consequences of the way that we have mediated some key tensions and tradeoffs involved with setting up a public sector innovation lab. Practitioners in other labs will likely recognize these tensions and tradeoffs, although your successes and frustrations will be different depending on how your business model reconciles them.

  1. Where should the lab be? Public innovation labs can exist inside, outside, or on the edge of government. Dubai The Model Centre and Alberta CoLab operate inside government. Inside labs have the best access to senior decision makers and the authority to convene whole of government collaborations, but may find it harder to engage openly with citizens and stakeholders. Unicef Innovation Labs and NouLab exist outside of government. Outside labs have more freedom in who they convene, the kind of container they can create, and timelines to impact, but find it harder to connect with and affect policy change. MindLab and MaRS Solutions Lab are examples of labs on the edge of government. This positioning can offer the best of both worlds. However, edge labs are vulnerable to fluctuations in their relationship with government. Surviving and thriving on the edge means continually walking a tightrope between autonomy and integration. Labs can change their positioning. Alberta CoLab began as an external consulting project. The Behavioural Insights Team is a social purpose company that was spun-off from a lab inside the U.K. government. The location of the lab is unlikely to change often, so it is an important strategic choice.
  2. How deep should the lab go? Here the tension is between taking on small, tactical improvement projects that deliver tangible results, or tackling the big, strategic systems changes that will take years to manifest. Public sector innovation labs are a reaction to the almost total failure of traditional approaches to move the needle on systems change. Therefore, most labs have aspirations to the strategic and the systemic. Yet most labs are also operating in a dominant culture that demands quick wins and measures success by linear progress against a simple logic model theory of change. We believe that operating at either extreme of this spectrum is equally misguided. We use a portfolio approach and a barbell strategy to mediate this tension. Having a portfolio of projects allows us to invest energy in systems change and generate immediate value. It allows us to balance our projects across three horizons of innovation: sustaining innovations; disruptive innovations; and transformative innovations. A barbell strategy means avoiding the middle of the bell curve. We maintain a small number of long-term, flagship initiatives, combined with a rapid turnover of quick-win projects. This allows us to remind the organization of our immediate value without sacrificing long-term commitment to systems change.
  3. What relationship should the lab have with government? Even an inside lab must create some distance between itself and the broader government culture if it is to provide a safe space for innovation. There is a tension between being separate and being integrated. Developing novel ideas that get implemented requires the lab to be both separate and integrated at the same time. You need to decouple from regular policy cycles to enable divergence and creativity, yet provide input into key decisions at the right time. Sometimes these decision points are known in advance, but more often this means sensing and responding to a dynamic decision landscape. Underneath any effective lab is a powerful social network, which needs to cut across government silos and stratas and draw in external perspectives. I think of a lab as having a kind of respiratory rhythm. It starts by bringing fresh ideas into the organization, like a deep breath that provides the oxygen for new thinking. But new ideas are rarely welcome in old organizations. When the lab communicates outwards, these new ideas should be translated into familiar language and concepts, and then given a subtle twist. Often labs believe they have to differentiate their innovations — to emphasize novelty — to justify their existence as an innovation lab. But the more the output of the lab resembles the institutional culture, the more it appears obvious and familiar, the more likely it will be accepted and integrated into the mainstream.
  4. What relationship should the lab have with clients? Alberta CoLab is a kind of in-house consultancy that provides services to clients across all ministries. There is a tension in the nature of the relationship, which can span from consulting problem-solver to co-design facilitator to teacher. The main problem with a consulting model is it often builds dependency rather than capacity. The challenge with an educational relationship is that clients struggle to apply theory that is disconnected from practice. We often use facilitation as a ‘cover’ for our practice, because it allows us to design a process that enables both reflective practice and situated learning. By teaching systemic design and strategic foresight approaches through taking on live projects, we build capacity while doing the work our clients need to do anyway. This helps to break down barriers between theory and practice, learning and doing. Another tension is between doing what the client says she wants and what she needs but does not articulate. Unlike a customer, who is always right, the designer has a duty of care to their client. This involves pushing back when the client demands are unreasonable, reframing the challenge when the problem received is a symptom of a deeper issue, and clearly communicating the risks and potential side effects of policy options. As Denys Lasdun has said about designers: “Our job is to give the client, on time and on cost, not what he wants, but what he never dreamed he wanted; and when he gets it, he recognizes it as something he wanted all the time.”

Lessons Learned

These are our top lessons learned from our journey to date that may have broader applicability.

  1. Recruit outsiders and insiders. Bringing in outside experts elevates the lab’s status. Outsiders are essential to question and challenge organizational patterns that insiders take as given. Insiders bring an understanding of organizational culture. They know how to move files through the bureaucracy and they know where the landmines are.
  2. Show don’t tell. As lab practitioners, we tend to be process geeks with a strong belief in the superiority of our own methods. There is a temptation to cast oneself in the role of the missionary bringing the good word to the unwashed masses. Not only is this arrogant, it’s counter-productive. It’s much more effective to show your clients how your approach adds value by starting with a small collaborative project. If your approach really is as good as you believe it is, the results will speak for themselves. Once people are envious of the results you have achieved, they will be curious and open to learning how you did it, and they will demand more of it.
  3. Be a catalyst, not a bottleneck. Jess McMullin gave us this advice when we founded CoLab. It’s why we developed a six day training course to train over 80 systemic designers across the government. It’s why we run communities of practice on systemic design and strategic foresight. And it’s why we publish about our experiences and share the toolkits we develop. If the innovation lab is an ivory tower, it will not change the way government works. Think instead of the lab as the headquarters of a democratic grassroots movement.
  4. Select projects based on the potential for reframing. There are many criteria we apply when we decide whether to take on a new project. Is it a strategic priority? Is there commitment to implement? Are the client expectations realistic? Can our contribution have a positive impact? These are useful but apply to almost any service offering. The unique value a social innovation lab offers is discontinuous improvement. The source of discontinuous improvement is reframing — seeing a familiar challenge with new eyes, from a different perspective that opens up new potential for positive change. If a project ticks all the boxes, except that the client is certain they already know what the problem is, then that already limits the kind of solutions they will consider. Unless they are open to reframing, they will likely be frustrated by a lab approach, and would be better served by traditional facilitation or good project management.
  5. Prototyping is just the end of the beginning. After one year, we went around and interviewed the first 40 clients of Alberta CoLab. We wanted to know what they had achieved since our co-design sessions. Unfortunately, for most of them, the answer was “not much.” They were very happy with the quality of the ideas and prototypes generated while working with CoLab and were hopeful that the ideas would eventually see the light of day. But they also noted that once participants left the lab and went back to their desks, they found it difficult to sustain the momentum and excitement of the lab, and easy to snap back to business as usual. We had to pivot our strategy to take on fewer projects, but take on a greater stewardship role through to implementation.
  6. Find a rhythm. It’s not useful to create a traditional project plan with phases and milestones for a non-linear and open-ended discovery process like a lab. Yet without some kind of structure, it’s easy to lose momentum or become lost. The best projects I have participated in create a rhythm: an alternating movement between open collaboration and focused delivery. The lab opens up every few months to engage widely on what needs to be done and why. A core team then works between collaborative workshops on how to make it happen. Each cycle allows the group to frame key challenges, make progress, and receive feedback, which builds momentum and commitment.
  7. Be a good gardener. Most of the participants of our workshops arrive with a full plate. They are already 100% committed in their day jobs. Even when they are enthusiastic to ideate, they will be reluctant to take on any additional work. If we want our organizations to innovate, first we have to create the space for new work. We need to prune those projects that we have kept on life support — not yet declared dead but not priorities. This often means making difficult decisions. The flip side of pruning is to actively search for positive deviance and help it to grow. When you find something that’s already working, you just need to turn up the good.


This story is adapted from a talk I gave at an innovation dinner in Toronto that was hosted by SiG’s Tim Draimin and MaRS Solutions Lab’s Joeri van den Steenhoven. The attendees all asked one question about Alberta CoLab. I didn’t get an opportunity to answer every question at the dinner, so here are their questions and my answers:

Q: How can we work with the city to get them to go with innovation?

A: Work with the willing. Find a champion and work with them on a sticky issue. Then tell the success story to build a new narrative around innovation that resonates in the local context. Snowball your efforts by connecting to related issues and projects with participants from the first project.

Q: How do we know it works?

A: I don’t. We do participant surveys after each workshop. We do client impact interviews every year and publish an annual report. We have a developmental evaluation framework to assess our performance and learn from our practice. We have organizations we can point to that we designed and strategies that our clients published and novel collaborations and prototypes. I can point to outputs but I can’t give definitive evidence that we have causally affected systems change. I am confident that what we are doing is better than what we have done in the past.

Q: What is the role and nature of leadership required for this work?

A: Without two Assistant Deputy Ministers who were willing to accept risk and try something that had never been done before, Alberta CoLab would not have happened. Without the support of our Deputy Minister we would not have a permanent presence or the permission to work across the whole of government. Leadership within the lab is a form of informal leadership: leadership without authority. We have very little control but outsized influence that is based on our ability to add value to strategic conversations and identify and engage elephants in the room.

Q: What are some emerging ways of working at the level of culture and identity?

A: We like Geels’ theory of technology transitions. It provides a way of thinking of multi-level change, from niche to regime to landscape (the level of culture and identity). Hatch’s theory of cultural dynamics also provides practical guidance on how to operate at this level through the use of symbols and processes. The other point I made above is that we find that it’s often more effective to target this level indirectly, by modeling new behaviours and enacting new identities, rather than through a stand-alone culture change initiative.

Q: How do we create a kind of “permanent impermanence” in bureaucracies that are designed for stability and endurance?

A: Build a “Best Before Date,” sunset clause, or a periodic review into the design of your organizations and strategies. We did this with the Rail Task Team — it had a six month window to achieve its mission and then the work transitioned back into the Department of Transportation. You can also create a list of Triggers for Reframing: what events would cause us to re-examine a structure, strategy, policy or project? For communications, Snapchat is an interesting platform for permanent impermanence.

Q: What is the role of labs in the evolving relationship between government and civil society?

A: Citizen expectations of government have already shifted because of the user experiences they have become accustomed to from corporate applications of design. Why do I still have to download, print, sign, scan and email a government form when I can One-Click Buy on Amazon and use my Apple Watch to buy my Tim Hortons coffee using Apple Pay? As commercial services become more convenient and user-centred, the provider-centred and department-centred nature of government services becomes more anachronistic to citizens. The experience is frustrating at best; de-humanizing at worst. In the age of Wikipedia and Wikileaks, government also appears opaque and this erodes public confidence. We are not moving quickly enough towards open government. If government continues to be unresponsive to shifting citizen expectations, new forms of community organizations will step in to service unmet needs. Government could find itself increasingly irrelevant. Labs have a role in: discovering new ways to engage citizens in policy development and service delivery; new ways to make services more citizen-centred; new ways to crowd-source options and solutions to public challenges; providing a safe space for citizen — civil servant dialogue; exploring the implications of service digitization; and re-imagining the relationship between polities, politicians, and public servants.

Q: As Canadians, do we need less decency and more dynamism if we want more innovation?

A: As an Australian who has lived in the U.S., I have noticed that Canadian politeness can mask embarrassing or threatening issues. These issues are usually embarrassing because they are undermining learning or improvement in the system. If we are not engaging the underlying barriers to learning it is unlikely that we will produce breakthrough innovation. There can also be a Canadian tendency to not land on a decision until everyone is on board, leading to endless deliberation. At the risk of over-generalizing, Australians tend to be more direct and speak truth to power, while Americans tend to be more competitive and willing to act. I think innovation stretches any culture though. Different cultural biases produce different blind-spots. And the micro-culture of teams is more important than national culture, since the team is the fundamental unit of innovation. If you look at the story behind any celebrated innovation, it is not going to be a story about operating inside a comfort zone. Innovation is more likely occur when teams deliberately operate outside their comfort zones.

Q: How do we remember in our work that government is not the solution to every problem?

A: When I taught at the School of Advanced Military Studies, a pet peeve of one of my fellow instructors was that in their oral exams, when students were asked what to do about a trouble spot anywhere in the world, they would always present a solution that involved the use of U.S. military power. Civil servants can be guilty of the same bias. In the medical profession, there is documented evidence of intervention bias. Because this is a systematic human bias reinforced by self-interest bias and confirmation-bias, even if we make public servants aware of the bias this is unlikely to change their behaviour. A better antidote is to design a decision-making environment where ‘No Intervention’ must be considered as an option in any cost/benefit/risk analysis. Transparency of decision-making processes can also help, by allowing for external criticism of government over-reach.

Q: How do we move past pilots?

A: Innovation labs are optimized to prototype and pilot. A prototype is quick, cheap, and generative (rich in learning). Prototyping is used throughout design to test and refine assumptions and solution ideas based on participant feedback. Whereas the purpose of prototyping is contextually embedded learning, the purpose of a pilot is to prove that a solution idea works on a small scale before scaling it up for wider application (or terminating it because it doesn’t work). Mark Cabaj has recently been advocating that social innovation labs use the terminology “pathways to impact” rather than prototyping for lab outputs. This shifts our focus from one particular technique to the intended result of giving tangible form to innovative ideas. Pathways to impact can include prototypes, pilots, events, projects, financing, products, services, programs, policies, standards, regulations, and legislation. The challenge with bringing some of the more time- and resource-intensive pathways inside the lab space is that they would quickly dominate all of the lab’s attention, shutting down exploratory activities and learning. Pretty soon your lab is going to look like any other government department. I think the key here is partnering between the lab and implementation areas. Individuals can choose to follow ideas beyond prototyping and piloting as they spin off into implementation, but this activity needs to occur outside the lab to create the space for continued experimentation within the lab container. As the lab spins off pilots and prototypes to partner organizations, it needs to retain a limited stewardship role to maintain design intent (discussed above).

Q: Why don’t we act with the urgency we say is necessary?

A: I think that we have a commonsense belief that knowledge is enough to motivate action, when the evidence shows this is simply not true. Most of us who speed, over-eat, over-drink, under-exercise, and multi-task know that these behaviours are harmful to us. Humans are not motivated by reasons. We are motivated by desire. Bruce Mau believes that design can play an important role in closing the know-do gap. He sees the role of design as making smart sexy. Rather than trying to convince people (and ourselves) how we should act, we should be designing environments where the best choices are also the most convenient and appealing choices.

Q: What didn’t you know you would say about working in government?

A: I have never met the stereotypical public servant. Everyone I have worked with is passionate about making a difference in the lives of Albertans. I have never once doubted their work ethic or commitment to building a better province.

Q: How can we stand tall in the need to experiment in the face of the public eye?

A: If you’re honest with the public and the media I think most people recognize that real life is not like a 50 minute episode of CSI, where advanced technology and the scientific method reveals the single right solution on time, every time. I think we can and should frame experimentation as an essential part of evidence-based policy making and sound risk management. One of the most admirable examples of leadership I’ve experienced along these lines was a General in the U.S. Army who realized he needed to change his strategy in Iraq. His forces had been stationed inside so-called Super-FOBs — really large forward operating bases. While this provided good security, it provided poor intelligence. As a result, they were losing in his area. Before changing strategy, he gathered the spouses of his troops and explained the situation. He explained that the new strategy would involve more engagement with the population, and in the short term this would likely lead to more deaths. But it would also lead to better intelligence, which was expected to reduce the number of roadside bombs over the long term. This was an experiment to test a theory, and the cost of experimentation would be paid for in lives. It was a really tough conversation, but the General received the support of the spouses and his troops, and the shift in strategy succeeded. There is a very real cost to experimentation, but the cost of shutting down learning is almost always higher.

Q: How do we initiate the culture change of embedding innovation in the daily work of the public service?

Q: How do we take innovation out of the labs and into daily life?

A: A combination of incentives for innovation (such as an annual public sector innovation prize or funded shark tank) and capacity-building in innovation methods can help to democratize innovation. Dubai The Model Centre is a really good example of this approach. I find it interesting that the neural pathways that are responsible for creative and non-creative thought in the brain are exactly the same. The same network can produce routine patterns or novelty. I believe our organizations are similarly organized.

The counter-intuitive insight I started with above is that the culture change will not happen if we launch a culture change initiative in isolation. Culture is like a vapour — it’s hard to shape until you condense it into something more tangible. Civil servants need to see how they can be innovative on their everyday work through co-designing, coaching and mentoring. If you offer to help a team out with their most complex challenge, and while helping you introduce innovation methods that make sense in that context, you are modelling the behaviour you want to see and providing opportunities to learn by doing.

Q: Innovation in the government sector: How?

A: There are as many ways to be innovative as there are to deviate from routines and norms. If we ask what is preventing deviation in our organization, then it is the forces that promote herd mentality, that encourage us to copy from past best practice, to think and act like our superiors, and to accept their guidance uncritically. If we want more innovation, then we should start by weakening the grip of these forces. But variation is just a precondition for innovation. An innovation is a new idea that works. The second part of the equation (variation + selective retention) is the hard work of iterative experimentation and amplification. This is costly. It requires time and space and support. If we want more innovation, we need to foster variety and exploration, as well as fund and support iterative experimentation.

Q: What can we learn from military innovation?

A: Military innovation teaches us that chaos and uncertainty is not something to be controlled, but rather the source of creativity and new potential. On a competitive landscape, the team that can cope with complexity, ambiguity and volatility best can accelerate the chaos, which disorients their adversaries (John Boyd, creation and destruction). We can learn that bureaucracy can be overcome by providing direction to subordinates about what to do and why, but not how (the Commander’s Intent). When this discipline is supported by dedicated training, shared rules, a high level of trust, and a willingness to assume responsibility, we can create large, agile, high-performing organizations (Auftragstaktik). Rather than organizing into silos, we need to form teams of teams that self-organize from the bottom-up (Stanley McChristal, Teams of Teams). These teams are composed of and led by free thinkers who are odd and special (Ofra Gracier). We can learn how to design grand strategic narratives that are hopeful, forward-looking and drive towards sustainability from the bottom-up (Porter and Mykleby, A National Strategic Narrative). Much of this innovative thinking is underpinned by an alternative design tradition to IDEO post-it note brainstorming, that synthesizes deep insights from post-structuralist philosophy, architecture, cybernetics, complexity theory, and operational art (Shimon Naveh, Systemic Operational Design).

Q: Do design thinking and systems thinking really work together?

A: Absolutely! ST and DT share a common aspiration to develop practical interdisciplinary approaches to improving complex situations. They come at this from opposing, but not opposite, directions. Design is an evolution of craft. It is grounded in making tangible things. Recently it has begun to move upstream, from making products, to services, to user interfaces, to experiences, to organizations and strategies, to contexts and discourses. Systemics is a response to the fragmentation of science. The early systems theorists sought to create a meta-science of organization that could unify the sciences in a non-reductionist way. General System Theory failed in this lofty ambition, but subsequent generations of systems thinking have become less abstract and more grounded through techniques such as action research.

As ST and DT enter into one another’s orbits, they can be combined to compensate for each other’s weaknesses. DT encourages an action bias, but that action does not always operate on leverage points. Most of the things designers produce end up in landfills. ST provides a synoptic view of the landscape, allowing us to spot the leverage points. But systems thinkers often struggle to move to action, becoming paralyzed by complexity as they sweep in more and more context.

When we integrate ST’s bird’s eye view of the system with DT’s worm’s eye view of the user, we see contextually AND deeply. When we combine ST’s evolutionary search algorithms with DT’s iterative prototyping, we act in a way that can rapidly adapt to a complex and dynamic environment. For this to work, we need to mash up ST&DT, not just concatenate ST+DT.

Q: How do we reconcile the vertical decisions of the Westminster system vs the horizontal process of innovation?

A: I think we have to fundamentally re-think the assumption that the Westminster model of divided accountability is the best way to organize governments in a complex and interconnected world.

Until we are ready for that conversation, we can create a parallel operating system that is more like a meshwork or a network to build ties across the silos. I think of this parallel operating system as less of a formal structure and more like a hive of bees (the lab) to cross-pollinate ideas and create unexpected connections across different trees (the ministries). That’s why we have adopted a consulting model for our cross-ministry lab. In the corporate world, consultants are the cross-pollinators that recognize best practices in one industry and adapt them to clients in other industries. Our team does the same thing as we work across all ministries. We help to accelerate the spread of local innovations and we also pick up on common patterns and pathologies that transcend ministry boundaries.

Q: How do we match the rate of change of innovation with the rate of change of government?

A: As Jack Welch famously said of organizations, “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.” This is why government is becoming increasingly vulnerable to disruption. However, I’m not convinced that running faster just to stay in the same place is the answer to this dilemma. Speeding around the decision cycle faster and faster will not lead to better decisions. Speeding around the innovation cycle faster will not give us the innovations we need. We may actually need to slow down a bit and decouple from the current issues management cycle and look more deeply at the structural barriers to innovation in government. I think this is what the Martin Prosperity Institute is doing with its Licence to Innovate report. We need more of this type of research.

Q: How do we ensure that with our methodologies as hammers, we don’t see every problem as a nail?

A: As practitioners we can be quite dismissive of theory. We are under pressure to deliver results and we just want to know what works. So we distill best practice into simple 5 step methods for how to run a world cafe or how to create a systems map. There are hundreds of these methods online and in books. The problem with these tools is that none of the methods disclose their own boundary conditions. What is their domain of applicability, and when you stretch them, where do they break? With experience, we may develop an intuition for those break points, but only by repeatedly overstepping the line, and only if we reflect critically on practice. These intuitions are stored as tacit knowledge, meaning that it is inaccessible to other practitioners, who will have to make their own mistakes to discover the boundary conditions. The same thing applies at the level of the lab as a whole.

Typically we discover the boundaries only by falling off cliffs. I think occasionally falling off cliffs can be a good thing for us, but if we want to do that less often, we need to be more serious about developing practical theory. Method guides us on what to do and how to do it. Theory addresses why we think that is the right thing to do and provides clues as to when it is not the most appropriate thing to do. As long as we lack a theory to underpin our practice we will not be able to tell our clients when they should use our methodology and methods, and when they should not.

Q: How do we value and build capacity in R&D for social issues?

A: Right now our mental models associate innovation with technology, and R&D with the natural sciences. That’s why we our community had to tack the word Social to the front of Social Innovation, so that people wouldn’t think our labs were prototyping new iPhones. As a society we still look to technology to solve our societal problems, and we look to the natural sciences as a model for how to develop knowledge.

As a result of these mental models, we privilege STEM research over social research, and we privilege technological innovation over social innovation. Until we challenge the myths and metaphors that underpin this bias, and construct new narratives that value social technologies, we will not continue to under-invest in social R&D. These new stories need new heroes: who is the Steve Jobs of social innovation? And why doesn’t the public know all about her? We also need to make social innovation much more tangible — until you can hold it in your hand like an iPhone, it will be difficult to tell a story that resonates.

Q: Would this have worked in any line ministry?

A: No. In Alberta, the Department of Energy is the major revenue-generating ministry. Energy policy has such a significant impact on Alberta’s economic, environmental, and social future that it touches on almost every strategic issue in the province.

Q: Why do Australians like Vegemite?

A: Vegemite is a yeast extract bi-product of the brewing process. Australians like beer and everything associated with beer. Therefore, Australians like Vegemite. QED*

*This proof was constructed by an Australian who likes beer but does not like vegemite.


These views are my own and do not represent the official position of the Government of Alberta.



Alex Ryan
The Overlap

CEO, Synthetikos. Depolarizing place-based transitions.