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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”.

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