The EU Policy Lab attended the 4th LabWorks Global Lab Gathering and the Practitioner Workshop on Thursday 9th July and Friday 10th July. Both events were hosted by Nesta – the UK’s innovation foundation – in association with Bloomberg Philanthropies and with the support of its GovLab, MindLab and MaRS Solutions Lab. It was a great occasion to share experiences and build future collaboration with other public and social innovation labs, units, offices and teams that are currently working inside governments worldwide or as independent organizations.

A growing and diverse community

The Lab landscape is rapidly changing, with new initiatives constantly emerging and adding to the already high diversity in the world of Labs. While this rapid growth is an encouraging sign of the interest and commitment of the public sector to explore alternative ways of working and finding solutions, it also poses two challenges: credibility and collaboration. With the proliferation of initiatives and confusion about methods, will Labs become just another hype that will fade in the near feature? With more visibility and investment, Labs will receive increasing attention and pressure to prove their added value. Being able to demonstrate credible and robust results will become more and more important. For this, there is a need to go beyond fragmented practices and think about mechanisms for assessing quality and structuring learning such as innovative forms of peer reviewing and learning and sharing.

In order to develop a shared infrastructure of Labs, mechanisms for collaboration will be needed. Here, diversity will be both an asset, in terms of richness of experiences, and a challenge, as it is difficult to articulate concrete discussions amongst Labs that are so different in scope, mandate and nature. It will be important to create mechanisms to facilitate self-organized discussions around centres of interests. Building on the excellent work out there, such as Understanding social and public labs and recent mapping efforts by Nesta, should we think about ways to help practitioners to navigate the complexity of the Lab world and find peers in other spaces for collaboration and exchange?

Labs as enablers of systemic change

During LabWorks many agreed that it’s time to move from pilots to scaling up of successful initiatives. After having worked on addressing specific and sectoral problems, it could be also time to focus on how to enable systemic change. Several inspiring ideas are demonstrating how Labs are enacting such changes. The journey of the MindLab is a compelling example, where one of the forerunners in the Lab world is moving towards a new vision: becoming and enabler of cultural change in the public sector. Charles Leadbeater (expert and adviser on innovation and creativity) and Marc Ventresca (Saïd Business School, University of Oxford) suggested that Labs should link with social movements. William D. Eggers (Deloitte) proposed a networked approach where Labs could act as ecosystems aggregators.

Next to this important outward looking agenda, systemic change needs to happen also within the Lab world, where there is work to be done on integrating methods and cultures that characterize, and often divide Labs. As illustrated by the debate between Christian Bason (Danish Design Centre) and David Halpern (Behavioural Insights Team), the two alternative approaches (design and behavioural-oriented) discussed have both strong assets and potential for innovation in policy making. To conclude with a metaphor, the issue is not so much about which side of the brain you need, but rather how to use both sides to move towards systemic change. Dedicated work on experimenting with the integration of Lab approaches will be critical for this.

Linking governance levels

Most Labs working on public policy issues focus on local, regional or national levels. Notably, cities seem to be an optimal space for innovation, with a multiplicity of Labs in cities in the US, Europe and Asia. All these Labs are anchored to a specific governance level, and located inside or outside government structures. Early attempts to deliberately connect and extend the experiences across these various levels have started to emerge. For example the 27th Region in France started to use the lessons learned in regional projects, which were not meant to be scaled up, to inform the formulation of national policies. What about the potential for connecting experiences from local, to national up to the international level? How can the rich experiences in city Labs be used to rethink national policies?

Making these connections is critical for exploring and scaling up innovative solutions to complex problems, which require global policies and local actions. What if global policies could be co-designed through a stronger connection with the local level? Are there structural limitations in using design approaches due to the distance from end users as in the case of supranational or international institutions? Organizations with a global mandate such as UNDP and Unicef have also set up labs or innovation units. However these Labs are so far aimed at finding solutions for local problems in the countries where they operate. For the EU Policy Lab, given the specificity of EU policy-making, the issue of linking innovation and change processes at regional, national and European levels is very central. We are therefore keen to exchange experiences with Labs that are facing similar challenges and we were happy to find at the LabWorks peers interested to broach a discussion on this issue.

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