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Christian Bason

2014 will be the year of experimentation

By January 16th 2014

This article was previously published in the Danish weekly Mandag Morgen.

Public sector leaders around the world are trying to make experimentation into a more systematic, integrated part of their organisation. There are indications that 2014 will be the year in which the innovation laboratory becomes more mainstream. But the strategy is not without its pitfalls.

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt said in her New Year’s Speech that “if we make changes to our country and give it the right resources, there will be the funds for pensions, home help and hospitals.” Very few people would disagree with this. But the question is how do we find the best ways of changing Denmark and giving it the right resources? Which investments should we make if we are to get real change for the money that is spent?

One possible answer is not to invest in actual new solutions, but to invest instead in the ability to experiment with potential future solutions. By first of all undertaking experimentation, we can find out more quickly what works. We can also increase the likelihood of achieving the effect we want to attain politically. This is where the idea of innovation laboratories (or “labs” in short) comes into the picture.

Experiments with people as the central focus

There is no clear definition of what a “lab” is within the context of the public sector, but a range of organisations have made some good suggestions. Some years ago, the EU Commission published a vision statement, which defined labs as being temporary or permanent organisation forms with the following characteristics:

They involve users in a process of innovation (co-creation) by, for example, implementing idea workshops with patients at a hospital ward or with the unemployed at a job centre.

They bring parties together from the public and private sectors, as well as civil society. For example, private companies might put forward innovative ideas for welfare solutions or volunteers might rethink tasks that are out of reach for the public sector.

They bring together professional disciplines such as technology, social science, the Humanities and design, perhaps with engineers, public servants, high-level academics and designers collaborating as part of a project team.

They establish a dedicated (physical and/or virtual) space for the development of ideas and for experimentation with possible solutions, such as a physical workshop area with materials, frameworks and media to assist creative processes and the design of prototypes.

More sophisticated definitions are indeed conceivable, but most people agree that laboratories put people in the central position, which means a development process that is experimental and inclusive. I have also pointed out that, increasingly often, labs are closely linked to design methods, which is a subject that Canadian organisation MaRS has published a rather good pamphlet about.

A new movement

The thought of creating environments in which it is possible to experiment under controlled conditions with new public-sector solutions is not in itself a new one. The notion of “the experimenting society” goes at least as far back as social scientist Donald Campbell’s 1971 essay of the same name and, as likely as not, is even older than that.

What is new is that laboratories are being set up as formalised structures by governments all over the world. The ability to innovate is thus being anchored organisationally, often at a completely central level:

In the summer of 2012, the American government’s Office of Personnel Management set up The LAB @ OPM as a platform for rethinking Office services for over two million American state employees. In the same year, Singapore’s Ministry of State opened The Human Experience Lab. In December 2013, the British government announced that it was looking for someone to be in charge of an Open Policy Lab, which will belong to the Cabinet Office. And right now, the EU Commission is investigating whether to set up its own lab, in line with recommendations in a new report about strengthened public sector innovations in Europe.

Calling this a trend would be an understatement. Developments are so extensive that you would need a map of the whole world to be able to see the overall picture. Parsons School of Design in New York has drawn up such a map.

Here in Denmark, where MidtLab and MindLab have already existed for a good number of years, the Danish government has, in its municipal and regional agreements for 2014, added a new dimension to lab-thinking, with its ambition to launch a number of “governance laboratories”.

The idea is that these laboratories should contribute to the development of new governance forms in the public sector, focusing on trust and co-operation and crossing such boundaries as administrative levels and professional skills etc.

Fragile machines of opportunity

Despite growth in laboratories both at home and world-wide, developments are not all headed in the same direction. In June 2013, Helsinki Design Lab (part of the Sitra fund for innovation) closed down in Finland. The Australian government also recently mothballed its own DesignGov.

Precisely because focus on experimentation is the reason for their creation, the continued existence of laboratories is uncertain. Labs are often set up in partnership with a host or operating organisation for the purpose of helping it to facilitate new and as yet uncertain futures. In his book “Partnerskabelse” (“Building Partnerships”) CBS-researcher Niels Åkerstrøm Andersen characterises public and private sector partnerships as “fragile machines of opportunity”. From my point of view, I also think that this is a very pertinent way of characterising laboratories. Just as with a public and private sector partnership, a laboratory is the expression of a mutual promise of potential future value creation between two very different partners.

The actual creation of that value is far from guaranteed. It presumes that at least four dilemmas which pose a risk to the laboratories very existence are able to be dealt with.

1) The laboratory is highly dependent on its host organisation, but must at the same time challenge its core tasks.

2) The laboratory holds the promise of future value creation, but may find it difficult to document that value creation in the here and now.

3) The laboratory must support and facilitate the work on innovation being done by its host colleagues and must therefore not take the credit when something succeeds, but must often act as lightening conductor when it does not.

4) The laboratory must promote experimentation and uncertainty within a culture that is increasingly biased towards knowledge and predictability.

Most of all, laboratories are fragile because they need to keep changing all the time if they are to continue to give the host organisation any added value. Laboratories that do not survive in the long run include those that are unable to reinvent themselves at the same rate at which the host’s demands are changing.

Paradoxically, the prerequisite for a successful laboratory is therefore that it should take its own medicine and behave as a continual experiment. Even though it might seem apt to do so, it is a perfectly deliberate choice that leads me to call 2014 the year of experimentation, rather than the year of laboratories.

Experimentation is what both host organisation and laboratories alike need more of if we, like the Danish Prime Minister, want to “get Denmark ready and give it the right resources”.


  1. Martin Stewart- Weeks kl. 01.25 18/01/2014

    These kinds of initiatives are exercises in sustained ambiguity. And the one thing we know formal structures and institutions, especially in the public sphere, hate most is ambiguity, even though that has been the territory they have worked in pretty much since the day they were formed.

    This is a great summary of the current and prospective state of play in what we might call “labland” in the public sector. Based partly on the Australian experience you have briefly referenced, I would add a couple of other considerations:

    1. As in pretty much everything else, leadership is everything. My sense is that, with a very few notable exceptions, political and bureaucratic leadership necessary to sustain these kinds of exercises in sustained ambiguity is sorely lacking. Much of what is being done is superficial and reaches barely beyond lip service. Some is genuine and reflects an authentic desire for shape-shifting change. But that is rare and usually insufficient to sustain lasting change.

    2. Genuine innovation is rarely systematic or programmed. It is almost always serendipitous and often the result of annoying people insisting on ideas that break open orthodoxy and insult the status quo. Maybe we’re expecting far too much of labs which can often do little to genuinely shift the deep values and attitudes of the cultures which spawn them.
    3. Maybe labs aren’t the point any more. Maybe we need to dismantle labs and learn a new game, which is (roughly speaking) a game intent on harnessing, but not organising, loose and often contrarian networks of clever, stubborn and sometimes even rude people who want to play, test and push at the boundaries.

    The other point that occurred to me in reflecting on this terrific piece is theoken but central concern with the persistent absence of any really deep new operating models that are comfortable working in new cross-border collaborations with private, civil society and individual actors.

    Obviously that is what many of the labs, and the innovation rhetoric they attach to, seek to do. But we’re not really any closer to creating what US social scientist Lisbeth Schorr once described as a “public purpose” sector, except in sporadic and fragmented efforts which, however successful they may be in their own right, remain stubbornly peripheral and even irrelevant to many who remain in possession of the commanding heights of mainstream public power and institutions

  2. Martin Stewart- Weeks kl. 08.36 19/01/2014

    A brief addendum…

    It struck me on re-reading my earlier comment that perhaps it was too pessimistic and even a touch belligerent.

    The guts of the point I was trying to make – that innovation stands in ambiguous and sometimes hostile tension with the organizations and institutions it seeks to change – I don’t think is arguable.

    The more interesting point, especially given Christian’s predictive speculations, is what role therefore should or could different forms of lab-based innovation play in the public sector especially.

    Even though it is tough and sometimes fruitless, the truth is that public sector innovation does happen, is possible and is always worth the effort. Because what places like Mindlab and the other examples Christian references (including the sadly truncated experiment with DesignGov in Australia) clearly show us is that determined and creative work to improve the design and conduct of public program and policy leads often to better performance and stronger governance.

    So I will remain somewhat trapped between an impatient frustration with the sometimes less that completely deep and systemic response by public systems and institutions to efforts to change them on the one hand and, on the other, a more patient and realistic commitment to learn from, and hopefully add to the work of places like Mindlab, Nesta, the ‘nudge’ unit and the rest.

    The truth is that public sector innovation is about large, settled and very complex systems. We need to respect them for their strengths even as we claim a legitimate mandate to keep trying to reform them and make them work better. To paraphrase former Australian PM Malcolm Fraser, public sector innovation wasn’t meant to be easy.

  3. Christian Bason kl. 23.58 19/01/2014

    Thanks Martin for these excellent reflections; I find myself agreeing equally with both your entries, and equally caught in the midst of “impatient frustration” and “realistic commitment.” I suppose what is going on these years is an exploration of various means — including institutional ones such as labs — for getting at the deeper transformations which many of us are thirsting after. But before and after institutions, as you remind us, comes leadership; perhaps public leadership is the most under-appreciated innovation factor of them all. Any ideas about how to shape a new generation of public leaders, who could steward our institutions towwards the changes we need?

  4. Adarsh Desai kl. 18.14 27/01/2014


    thanks for this excellent post. It’s insightful and thought-provoking. Everyone invovled in innovation in public sector institutions should read this.

    The dilemas you mentioned resonate with our experience as well. I would like to add some observations from our own ‘labbing’ experience below:

    1. Often measures of success (and monitoring) are no different than other programs/units (e.g. predictable burn rates, pre-defined milestones, etc.) which creates a constant tension with the mothership.

    2. There’s an expectation that the ‘lab’ will keep churning new ideas and initiatives. This creates a tension between doing existing things well and creation of new.

    3. Flexible staffing is essential that allows the ‘lab’ to change over time. But is often difficult to do in public sector organization.

    4. Just like a startup, people are expected to incubate, develop a product, and find a market. However, unlike startups, people and teams often work on multiple initiatives, rather than focussing on one thing.

    5. Often the model for labbing is not clearly stated which could lead to the ‘lab’ being an incubator, an accelerator, a R&D shop, and/or a consulting firm at the same time, which is unhelpful.

    I would invite you and the readers to also join a conversation we are having on ‘Ecosystems for Innovation and the Role of Innovation Labs’ at https://strikingpoverty.worldbank.org/c000011



  5. Christian Bason kl. 10.23 28/01/2014


    Many thanks for this extremely relevant set of observations, which I must say are very much in tune with what we have been learning over the years. It all also demonstrates, I think, that the time is ripe for connecting innovation labs globally in a more on-going conversation about how to build our effectiveness and resilience in the years to come. As more labs join the community — most recently the UK government’s Open Policy Lab — there should be a growing range of opportunities for mutual learning and, potentially, collaboration. I believe the next gathering of labs, following our own How Public Design seminar in September 2013 (check our site) will be at MaRS Solutions Lab in Toronto CA in late May, back-to-back with the SIX summer school in Vancouver. If you are not already in the loop, let me know and I can connect you. Would be great to have you there…

  6. Jonathan Breckon kl. 17.02 17/02/2014


    Great blog. Another reason why this might be our year, is that the European Commission have launched a project to foster experimentation in social policy, a partnership between Nesta, JPAL-Europe and LSE. We will be running training, mentoring and ‘information days’ on how to do experimentation, and building a network across Europe. We hare holding an event in Copenhagen on 11 March. Would you be interested in joining us? More here: alliance4usefulevidence.org/spark/

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