Conversation with Adam Kahane & Jeff Barnum [Reos]: managing labs, change and power.

Adam Kahane and Jeff Barnum play lead roles in the global change lab movement, through their organization Reos. They’re in Vancouver this week to meet with leaders in social innovation and to help launch the Belonging Lab. Moura and I met them in a small group to chat about our own change lab work, both in the Sauder Studio and the fledgling Co.Lab network. Reos has a rich history of change initiatives and its teams are deeply engaged in new, large scale initiatives at a global level to tackle some of our toughest problems.

As Moura and I reflected on our conversation, two things stuck with us.

Adam identifies one key element of change labs as “an alliance of powerful actors”. While it makes sense to me that we need those with power and the will to make change, I had to ask him where those who lack power, yet have the will fit in. What role do those who are disenfranchised, yet in desperate need of change, play in the change lab methodology? What I heard was that, finding a way to include these people becomes one of the design problems the change team addresses in the implementation of the lab. In my mind, this eliminates “users” or key stakeholders from leadership positions in which they can initiate a lab themselves, and puts them in a passive position of having to participate in a lab that is designed by others – those with power. This seems, in many ways, contrary to the basic tenets of social innovation that I’ve heard from other change leaders, including Christian Bason of MindLab. Bason calls for “citizens” to be key players in any change initiative from the very beginning. I might be mis-interpreting what I heard yesterday, but I believe that those who will be most affected by change need to be empowered to drive it. Maybe it’s really a question of who “owns” the lab. For me, the lab design problem becomes – how can you empower people to take a lead role in launching a change lab, rather than trying to engage with them once the work of the lab has begun?

The second thing was that, as we hear more and more about change labs and their work, we’re seeing strong resemblances to the work that was done for years by the built environment design industry in the latter half of the last century. Engaging communities in co-creating change in their environments is and was standard practice. So we can’t help but wonder – what is the value-add of a change lab approach?

All good fodder for our on-going research and navel-gazing!

[article originally posted here]

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