Introduction to Design Thinking for Social Innovation: A Tale of Three Labs (NouLAB, EPILab, and PhiLab)
The spring of 2019 was an experimental time for me. I was less than a year into my first tenure-track position; I had moved to Corner Brook despite only having visited Atlantic Canada once before; I was on a road trip through Nova Scotia to New Brunswick (including my first overnight ferry ride); my partner and I were navigating the challenges of being confined to a car with our toddler; I was anticipating visits with some in-laws I had never met before; and I was doing all of this so that at our final destination I could learn more about a new research interest: social innovation. We were ultimately headed to Fredericton so that I could attend a week-long workshop with NouLAB, a social innovation facilitation program affiliated with the University of New Brunswick. This article summarizes what I learned about design thinking from NouLAB, how I have applied those lessons to my own lab initiative (i.e. the Environmental Policy Innovation Lab or EPILab), and how they might apply to PhiLab in the future.
Before I continue the tale of three labs, I want to reflect briefly on the concept of innovation itself. My own research is focused on questions of positive impact for sustainability (e.g. how might we disseminate research findings so that they are actually used?). This intersects nicely with the concept of desirable social innovation, which Pol and Ville (2009, p. 881) define, in a widely cited article, as new ideas with “the potential to improve either the quality or quantity of life”. Such ideas are distinct from profit-seeking business innovations, although an idea can qualify as both. Of course, how to measure and compare improvements in quality or quantity of life can be a very tricky question, as explored in the June PhiLab newsletter (Richards 2020). Social innovation processes, in general, are not easy. Just as I encountered many new (and often uncomfortable) experiences as I pursued this new research interest on my spring road trip, addressing complex social problems may require governments, non-profit organizations, and charities to embrace the uneasy challenge of considering radical solutions and identifying the systemic roots of those problems. Such an undertaking can benefit greatly from design thinking and effective facilitation, which are strengths of NouLAB.
The type of NouLAB workshop that I attended, as an observer, brings together several multi-stakeholder issue groups to engage in “design sprints” for their identified problems. For example, the three groups attending during that week were respectively concerned with issues of forest land ownership, medical equipment supply, and leadership in the civil service. A design sprint is a business innovation process, typically five days long, originally developed by Google Ventures (a spinoff of Google), but it can be modified for desirable social innovation. The version used by NouLAB (see the NouLAB Playbook for more information) comprises:
- a day developing personas (i.e. archetypal “users” relevant to the issue)
- a day mapping out the broader system (i.e. identifying the roots of the problem)
- a day generating solutions (aiming broad for over 200 initial possibilities)
- a day on prototypes (i.e. any sort of physical representation of the chosen solution)
- e.g. one of the groups created a storybook brochure for recruiting participants into the pilot program they were proposing
- a day on testing and evaluating the prototype with potential users
It is important to appreciate the pacing and order of this process; our tendency is to leap to solutions before mapping out the problem, but the latter can take a very long time, and the NouLAB process does not even begin to touch solutions until the third day. Another NouLAB concept, the diverge-emerge-converge model, is instructive for this. Any project or development might follow a pattern of divergence (opening up to new ideas), emergence (sitting uncomfortably with all of the possibilities), and convergence (settling on the best ideas). To me, this is very similar to the exploration-exploitation cycle explored in organizational theory, which predicts that organizations will naturally alternate between periods of exploring new processes and periods exploiting the processes that seem to work best (see Li et al. 2008, p. 112).
It is difficult to capture the essence of what I found valuable about my time with NouLAB in just a few paragraphs. The facilitation itself, for example, was highly skilled and inspires my own development as a facilitator. But I would say the following lessons were most striking:
- genuine innovation takes time (i.e. focused and intensive thinking sessions)
- tension, discomfort, and frustration are natural during the innovation process
- moving from idea to action is easier than one might think, using prototypes
- lasting change is more likely with multi-stakeholder coalitions, led by champions
(Below, I indicate the resurgence of these lessons with italicized text.)
EPILab was only an idea at the time I attended the NouLAB workshop, but it has since become a major part of my research and practice. It has two major functions, which are synergistic (at least theoretically). First, it is a space for integrative, innovative, strategic, and experimental thinking and research around contemporary environmental policy challenges. Second, it is an open-ended channel through which my department can engage and collaborate with external partners from government, community groups, and industry. It incorporates elements of innovation labs, policy shops, and research shops. After EPILab’s official launch in the fall of 2019, my initial thought was to focus on NouLAB’s tools and facilitation. I imagined that we could help our partners with design thinking for social innovation, if on a smaller scale than NouLAB, and this is what I focused on teaching to the students affiliated with EPILab. It took until winter of 2020 for us to build enough recognition to begin formal collaboration with external partners, but all of those arrangements comprised research projects (to address partner needs) rather than design thinking sessions.
At this point, I realized that I had tried to move too quickly with EPILab; I had envisioned creating another NouLAB, which would facilitate and teach similar innovation lessons to its partners, but I had neglected to take those very lessons seriously myself. After all, innovation takes time. But, on the other hand, mistakes and experimentation are okay, because tension, discomfort, and frustration are natural. I needed to remember that EPILab was still in the early stages of the diverge-emerge-converge pattern (i.e. in a period of exploration rather than exploitation). In any case, it is now starting to fall into a (perhaps temporary) niche of providing short-term research services for partners. This is not what I originally expected, but it has turned out to be a great experience for students and partners. In any case, EPILab’s focus on partners is well aligned with the notion that lasting change is more likely with multi-stakeholder coalitions, but it takes time to build partnerships and pursue innovation. Indeed, the existence of willing multi-stakeholder groups is a precondition for the NouLAB workshop, rather than something it creates. Consequently, I am pleased with where EPILab is for now.
So what can these experiences offer to PhiLab? In PhiLab’s case, we have connections between academic researchers and charities, and both parties are interested in addressing social problems, so the general setup is comparable to NouLAB and EPILab. Of course, PhiLab is not a single monolithic partnership; it is comprised of many subsidiary hubs and projects. My view is that different lessons from the other two labs can apply to different hubs and projects of PhiLab. For those where the partnerships are relatively new and still developing, I think the current EPILab model is appropriate. Researchers and partners should continue to identify shared interests and conduct research together, for the benefit of both.
For PhiLab arrangements that are better established, perhaps it is now time for the strategic pursuit of social innovation processes. What would it mean to turn the PhiLab collaborations into multi-stakeholder dialogues, where the different parties participate in intensive problem-solving workshops? What would it look like to take the ideas generated in such workshops, or that have emerged naturally from the existing partnership, and move from ideas to action using prototypes? What positive impact could come from championing new ideas with multi-stakeholder coalitions grounded in the pre-existing relationships between researchers and partners? Ultimately, I believe social innovation offers a lot of potential for PhiLab. It is important to remember, however, that the related processes benefit greatly from experienced facilitation.
To conclude, there are a lot of promising techniques and processes in the field of social innovation (e.g. persona development, system mapping, prototyping), which can benefit any sector concerned with positive societal impact, including the charitable sector and, by extension, PhiLab. However, these processes are uncomfortable by necessity; they require deep thinking to identify the systemic roots of social problems, they encourage radical solutions, and they aim for lasting change driven by coalitions and champions. Thus, they depend on the existence of strong partner relationships. Such a requirement means that some relationships may not be ready for intense social innovation processes, and should first focus on strengthening partnerships through collaborations of mutual self-interest. This process is similar to the one I have previously identified as potentially applying to all transdisciplinary relationships between researchers and external partners: focus on partnership building, side benefits, and mutual self-interest at first, and then genuine co-production and social impact will become a possibility (Richards, 2019). The “road trip” of building partnerships may be a long one, but the social innovation destination is worth the drive.