The future of innovation labs: accelerating social movements or convening solutions ecosystems?

Friday, July 31, 2015

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

At the Global Labworks conference in London a few weeks ago, Charles Leadbeater and Bill Eggers put forward two very different views on how innovation labs ought to position themselves in the future. Leadbeater argued that innovation labs ought to graft onto / align themselves with a social movement and use that movement / help that movement to scale. Eggers on the other hand argued that innovation labs ought to position themselves as the conveners of the solutions ecosystems. Both talks are embedded below.


The difference in theory is slight albeit important.

First, I have difficulty imagining a world where government run innovation labs could align themselves publicly with a particular movement while maintaining their public service neutrality. Neutrality is key and while in practice their is always a brokering of ideas within the civil service, directly espousing a particular position would risk politicizing the civil service and turning an internal innovation lab into a lobby group (think regulatory capture). Now it is very much worth pointing out that this is not a concern for privately run labs that operate outside traditional government controls where neutrality isn't an issue.

Second, if you are sympathetic to the idea that governments are losing their traditional monopolies, incumbents are struggling to remain relevant, and innovative upstarts are growing exponentially in both numbers and impact then you are also likely sympathetic to the idea that the emerging role for governments is to use their convening power to help influence a larger ecosystem in favour of their citizens.

The difference in practice is more apparent.

If labs were to join movements than in the field of transportation the may decide to champion public transportation as their movement (there are plenty of pro-public transit voices out there). In so doing they would likely position themselves as a trusted and vocal champion and marshal resources towards making the public transit system more efficient for transit users. As such, their efforts are likely to be aimed at the system itself and its supporting assets.

On the other hand, if labs were to act as conveners of solutions for the broader transportation ecosystem then the public transportation system would be one input of many being considered by the lab; others could include regulated taxis, unregulated taxis ride shares, bike shares, long-haul commercial transportation providers, automotive manufacturers, technology companies, etc. As a result the lab could be looking at things like social transport, automated driving, shared transportation models, real-time traffic management, tax incentives, employer matches, road pricing, etc. All of which means of course that the scope for innovation is much broader than improvements to the public transit system.

In fairness, I doubt very much that Leadbeater's was thinking about public transportation when he advised lab practitioners to "link to a social movement" but my fear is that that narrow scoping of the issue (from ecosystems approach to the myopia singular input) is the reflex in most public institutions.

If nothing else the two presentations, when coupled together, should highlight that there are is distinct choice in front of lab leaders to decide where to intervene and how. In my experience it is generally a choice that we often speed right through in the interests of innovation but ultimately that decision set informs, underpins and/or undermines those downstream efforts. I may not agree with Leadbeater's advice to link to a social movement, at least in the context of in house government labs, but I whole heartedly agree with his affirmation that having a clear expectation of what your lab does from where is paramount (See: Quick Thoughts From Nesta's Labworks 2015).