Just Lab it? – by Remko Berkhout and Amis Boersma

Just lab it?


Over the last decade or so labs for social change have developed into a force within the ever expanding family of ‘the social’. From the Finance Innovation Lab in the UK to the Human Centered Design lab in Cambodia. From the Jameel Poverty Action Lab at Harvard to MindLab in Denmark, labs pop up around the world in increasing numbers.

Hivos too experiments with lab-like approaches to change. For example, with Ushadidi and Afrilabs, we pioneered support to the emergence of a thriving scene of tech hubs in Africa. These now form the backbone for innovation in our Making All Voices Count programme. In the Middle-East we support incubators and creative spaces for new discussions, impulses and ventures in the region among young (social) entrepreneurs.

In order to understand better how these labs function, we are building up a body of critical knowledge about labs in our Civic Explorations Knowledge Program, in close cooperation with Kennisland. In this spirit, Hivos and Kennisland brought together 40 lab practitioners and policy makers in Amsterdam in 2013. Based on this meeting, Marlieke Kieboom of Kennisland wrote this article critically highlighting the dynamics which are often overlooked in the hype around labs. She underlines labs often fall prey to solutionalism, tend to overlook the power of politics, over emphasize scaling of solutions and underestimate the messy nature of human beings. While pointing out the potential value of labs, the paper adds a number of critical perspectives about labs that both funders and lab practitioners can’t afford to miss.

Taking a step back, we may ask for a definition of a ‘lab’. Kieboom mentions seven working principles most labs seem to go by:

  • Show, not tell – they prefer doing over studying from paper.
  • Take end-users as leading experts
  • Focus on systemic social problems
  • Improve or challenge systems
  • Develop new change methodologies
  • Assemble a multidisciplinary team and work in collectives
  • Scale solutions to affect systems

It is exactly in these working principles that labs do have new perspectives on offer to deal with complex challenges. These include spaces for experimentation, a multidisciplinary and inclusive approach, and a networked way of working that better fits our liquid 21st century society. Yet it’s early days to assess how such offerings make a dent in reality. To find out more about how labs work and what they achieve, we need to pay more attention to the practices ‘on the ground’ and the practitioners that shape them. This is also why we recently convened a so-called booksprint with practitioners from leading labs around the world to start documenting some of their experiences. More about that in the weeks to come.


This blog first appeared at www.hivos.org at 18 May 2014


One Response

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