Friday, March 28, 2014

The Next Challenges for ChangeLabs, IdeaLabs and DesignLabs

John Thackara gave a considered talk on ‘What Makes A Change-Lab Successful’ at Science Gallery on Friday 14 March.

His theme was that “to effect system-level change in health, energy, food, or mobility, a first step is often to reframe the question. Grassroots innovation is emerging wherever people seek new ways to meet their daily life needs. So the question becomes: what are the best ways to support, connect and amplify these experiments?”

John Thackara. Photo by Uros Abram
He began with an overview of what he has learned from his years working in this area. In recent years there has been a proliferation of ‘Labs’ across the world. They use many names: Change-Labs, Design-Labs, Ideas-Labs. As traditional models of economic development have come to an impasse, these labs are exploring new models. People are investigating how to build social capital.

What the work of these Change-Labs has demonstrated is that people have no problem generating lots of good ideas. The greater challenges follow on from the initial ideation process. The first challenge is how to choose the best ideas from those generated. The second challenge is how to take the next actions arising from those best ideas. For many interconnected reasons putting useful ideas into practice is a lot more difficult than anticipated. The third challenge is how to make all the ideas work together in a long-term ecosystem.

There was a definite sense of optimism meets realpolitik to his introduction. But that kind of reality-check seems unsurprising to me.

He looked at the contemporary research area of ‘Smarter Cities’. All cities are already rich in (often vernacular) service ecologies. Many of the solutions Change-Labs brainstorming today already exist. He advised Change-Labs that they need to get better at looking back in time and across to other countries and cultures for applicable solutions. True success lies in minimising the amount of times that people reinvent the wheel.

He asked how can a city be vital in ways other than spending money? Most cities do not acknowledge their hinterlands. They depend on them for the food, materials, and energy they need to survive. So it is worth investigating how to reconnect cities with the land.

Change-Labs try to foster trust to activate their projects. This takes time and effort. He advised that they ought to get better at connecting with the ‘trust that already exists in many local place-based organisations’.

Addressing the role of ‘Design Thinking’, his view is that designers add true value in moving the process from discussing things on to making things. What I call delivering tangibility

Thackara posed a set of questions challenging a common business orthodoxy that only activities operating at a vast scale generate the greatest value.

  • What value can accrue from that which cannot scale?
  • What value can accrue from within the local living economy. 
  • So-called ‘wicked’ problems are more meaningful when they are “unique to here”. 
  • What methods of collaboration will succeed within your specific context? 
  • What coalitions and platforms are possible within your specific context? 

One particularly interesting statement was his observation that there are lots of one-person Change-Labs out there. “There are innovators everywhere.” How can we create informal social structures that will support those change agents? Otherwise he is concerned that they will burn-out without achieving their true potential. “Change is not a trick we find in a Lab; it needs social supports.”

At a macro level, he suggested that Change-Labs could contemplate how they operate as an integrated combination of: Space, Place, People and Time.

His key insight concerned the issue of project timeframes. Most Change-Labs think and act in short-term and medium-term timeframes, due to the political and cultural contexts they operate in. To effect more significant change they need to begin to act in medium-term and long-term timeframes. In practice this means that the people who finish a project are not those who instigate it. So Change-Labs need to build self-sustaining projects with longevity baked-in.

He identifies the greatest issue facing Change-Labs as that gap between creating the initial big idea and realising the intended long-term impact. Change-Labs have a two-to-five year interstitial period in which to build “coalitions of constellations” that they can work with to tackle their chosen problems.

Thackara’s thesis is that Change-Labs need to transition from their current output-based processes to interconnected ecosystem-based processes. He posited that to be more successful they need to learn how to build “mindful systems-based and time-aware processes” which come after their Design Thinking activities.

Given the research I have been conducting into this topic, Thackara’s experienced-based observations and high-level analysis does raise many valid questions for anyone considering applying Design Thinking to tackle complex problems.