Re-inventing life in the swamp

[originally posted here]

To borrow a delightful phrase from Soren Hansen and Henning Sejer-Jakobsen, one of the chief benefits of change labs for social innovation is that they allow us to lift our change process —

“away from the swamp of everyday activities — routine, fear of failure, prejudice, bureaucracy and rules.”

Instead, change labs offer us environments that nurture and celebrate novel ideas, collaboration and experimentation.  Sound a bit fanciful, like life on Mars?  Well it is, sort of.

I just spent the last 24 hours in MaRS (yes – in MaRS, not on it) exploring the emerging world of change labs.  The MaRS Discovery District is a collection of entities in downtown Toronto that share facilities and a passion for innovation.  This morning, it was also the site of a “fishbowl” dialogue among 20 change lab and innovation leaders, who gathered to explore the potential of and challenges to developing change labs for social innovation.

Change labs have been bubbling up across the country in the last couple of years, and have demonstrated promise in tacking complex social problems.  Now, thanks in part to the work of several organizations like MaRs, SiG and the BC Advisory Council for Social Innovation, interest in labs has piqued – and no where is it higher than in the public service.  Offering public servants a chance to escape the “swamp” in which they’re mired to explore ways to co-create new solutions to social problems with a variety of partners has the same effect as offering a Winnipeger an all-inclusive trip to Mexico in February.  Their faces split with a grin and they launch out of their chairs like a ski jumper going for gold.

This is all great for us at the Sauder Studio, as it confirms that we’re on the right track with our work  – teaching business students design processes and tools for solving wicked problems, in an attempt to change the way they think (and ultimately act).  Recently, we’ve expanded our programs to include external organizations, such as the BC Ministry of Health.  Still, when the theme of design education surfaced in the fishbowl today, I was keen to discover how these change-makers saw organizations like ours fitting into the lab movement.  It turned out that, leading the development and adoption of effective lab methodologies emerged as an obvious role for us to play.  Specifically, the group articulated a need to help folks in other countries learn to start and run change labs.

“What a great opportunity for us!”, I thought.  As I pictured this growing network of change labs around the world lighting little lamps of innovation everywhere, I realized that, at a certain point, the lamps will reach critical mass, eventually bathing the whole planet with their glow.  And it dawned on me – that’s what we’re working for.  That is the time when change becomes the norm.

So yes, change labs can and will play a key role in shifting our culture of innovation, by teaching those who use them to think and act differently.  But we may wish to consider them as a transitional tactic only.  Why limit the development of knowledge and skills in fostering social innovation to those working  within the lab community? Shouldn’t our ultimate goal be to increase our innovation capacity across all sectors, all industries, all disciplines?

Rather than looking for ways to just vacation from the swamp in the lab, why not re-invent life in the swamp instead, and re-plant it with something other than weeds?  Why not use change labs as seeds to sow a new culture; use them to help everyone learn to lead change?  Why not create a culture of innovation that is pervasive and desirable, that is normal – not an anomaly?

Lofty? Sure.  But a girl can’t just sit around!

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