Held in London during July, the fourth global LabWorks event brought together a growing network of public sector international innovation labs, units, offices and teams – all working inside and alongside government on society’s biggest challenges. Here Stéphane Vincent, director of Paris-based lab La 27e Région, reflects on the event and what it means to be a lab.

To think beyond modernisation and to promote systemic innovation within the State: this is the mandate of LabGob, the new innovation team created by the Chilean government (see this interview with Juan Felipe Lopez, its executive director). Inspired by Denmark’s MindLab, it’s a cross-disciplinary group whose goal is to “put citizens at the core of the Chilean government policies” by using human-centered and experimental methods.

LabGob was one of the projects presented in London this July as part of LabWorks, a two-day event designed by Nesta as the largest gathering of public innovation labs in the world. Over 200 participants attended the first day, including 40 initiatives of national or local governments, but also many public or private organisations such as the Nesta, investors such as Bloomberg Philanthropies, think-tanks such as Kennisland, researchers and students.

Nesta's Brenton Caffin at LabGob, the Chilean government's new public service innovation lab

The themes of the workshops and plenary sessions covered impact measurement, partnership and the ecosystem of labs, the role of politics and the sector’s comparison with the business world. There was also a two-day ‘labs retreat’ session with a group of 15 selected project – we were part of the coaching mentors involved in this interesting session.

New buzzword but real movement

For sure labs has joined the list of tech buzzwords with the same risk of ‘solution-ism’ as ‘smart cities’ or ‘moocs’. One can easily critique what can be deterministic, techno-centric and de-politicised visions, along with the excessive ambitions of some proponents – from “eradicating malaria” to “eliminating extreme poverty”. The lab has become a new business for consulting firms, government agencies, associations and the think- and do-tanks around them. But we must look beyond the hype.

They have emerged worldwide and without a clear unifying political agenda, simultaneously within governments

First, one is struck by the number, the diversity and to some extent the spontaneity of the initiatives: they have emerged worldwide and without a clear unifying political agenda, simultaneously within governments and large departments (Canada, US, Denmark, Great Britain, France, etc.), in cities (the city of Austin, US, or the City of Graz, Austria) and in local communities (Loire-Atlantique in France).

The initiatives come not only from the Anglo-Saxon world and Scandinavia, but also the southern hemisphere (Mexico City, Medellin, Cape Town). However, beyond their exteriors it is difficult to grasp the cultural and political differences between their liberal and social visions. For some, the main goal is to renew the relationship with the citizen, while for others it is a priority to rethink the system from within.

Why labs?

So why the interest in labs? And what are the underlying motivations of the initiators of the labs?

The LabWorks conference offered imperfect answers to these questions. Is it the economic, democratic and social crisis that invites to rethink our institutions? Is it a statement of exhaustion of conventional forms of intelligence, such as academic research, leading consulting firms and auditing, trade unions, think tanks, political parties? Is it the opportunity for governments and communities to re-internalise intelligence, just like some municipalities are re-integrating basic functions (water management, energy) formerly outsourced to external operators? Is the digital tsunami, or the increased complexity of our major challenges highlighting the structural deficit of public R&D within our institutions? Is it the failure or insufficiency of “new public management”, performance-based and rational efficiency, and the revival of “experimental government” as suggested by Geoff Mulgan, CEO of Nesta?

Nesta Chief Executive Geoff Mulgan opens LabWorks 2015

Through these conversations, the deep motivations for a lab are rarely explicit. Charles Leadbeater, innovation expert, provided some analysis: for him, some labs innovate to “limit the damage” in the ancient world, others already are clearly new models, others are in the “wringer”, this uncomfortable area at the intersection between the old and the new world, while others, more rare, have already reached a new level. “But all are useful and welcome,” said Leadbeater, “because they all contribute to the transformation of the system.”

For some, labs carry in them a transformation of the public policy process (see the Public policy crash test in Pays de la Loire). For others such as William D. Eggers (Deloitte US), their systemic virtues enable them to converge the efforts of public, private and civil society to address increasingly complex issues.

The process of creating labs

So how are they designed? Many are inspired by existing experiences such as MindLab, which generously and abundantly documents its work – see for example the MindLab journey, a poster showing 15 years of history and presented at LabWorks. But most feel their way and the learning process is still slow.

It’s about launching an experimental process in stages and gradually moving from a series of “one shot” initiatives, to something more systematic.

Almost all new projects come from an institutional request, with a strong political and media pressure. Most of them had no opportunity to start under the radar in early pre-testing. Some of them have a lack of innovation skills: there are still few designers and sociologists in the teams. In this context, what are the chances of survival for a lab? The necessity of “labs engineering” arises very clearly. But how? And where to start? What target path, with what steps? What kind of governance, which funding and who decides what?

There are probably lessons to be learned from the successes and difficulties in programmes such as Creative Councils (led by Nesta in the UK), La 27eregion Innovation Teams, the US programme funded by the Bloomberg Foundation. The latter accompanied a first wave of four major US cities to help them develop their own “Innovation Team”. The Bloomberg Foundation has invested alongside the selected cities (about $1 million to finance the operation of each team over three years) and took them them through a four-step program. A new group of 14 cities has recently joined the programme, including the cities of Austin and Syracuse. It’s a systematic approach, which seems to reinforce an idea (which we share La 27e Région) that you cannot simply decree yourself a lab, but have to become one over time. It’s about launching an experimental process in stages and gradually moving from a series of “one shot” initiatives, to something more systematic and continuous.

Cultures that converge

One of Nesta’s great ideas was to gather in the same event a variety of disciplines that inspire labs, from workshops and masterclasses dedicated to design (design service design thinking, social design), to ethnographic approaches and observation, to also nudge techniques, behavioural economics and research in psychology, social experimentation, and of course open data and research around big data and predictive policies.

For now, the feeling that prevails is that these disciplines are still in silos, ignoring or distrusting each other and showing their muscles to pretend that they perform better than the others. The techno-centered experts consider that the socio-centered experts are too soft, while the latter accuse the former of a lack of reflexivity and an exaggerated fascination towards the Uber-isation of society. But obviously bridges exist. Samir Doshi, who advises the lab of the US agency USAID, is one of the authors of Principles for digital development, which precisely seeks to make the link between sustainability and open data.

And as suggested by Giulio Quaggiotto of Nesta, the future is probably the link between qualitative approaches (the ethno side) and more quantifiable approaches (the data approach). Giulio cites the work of Premise, which is committed to drastically reducing the time normally used by official statistical agencies to collect data in the villages of Brazil. No doubt in the future labs will work with a multidisciplinary approach if they aspire to treat systemic issues.

DDC's Christian Bason in conversation with David Halpern of the Behavioural Insights Team

But controversy exists, especially when it comes to asking whether it is the arts or the sciences that will help to transform the public sector – a debate that pitted Christian Bason, new head of the Danish Design Centre and David Halpern, chief of Behavioural Insights Teams and a strong proponent of behavioural methods and social experimentation, against each other. For Bason, “in eight years of management consulting with Ramboll, I had never seen a relative change in people’s lives. With design, I did”. For him, it is especially leadership on which we must work, creating curiosity among the leaders and bringing them strong insights. Design suggests what does not yet exist. To the question “what is the future state?” design may build scenarios, when scientific data can not.

Of course, in the end everyone agrees that we need to combine both. But we should remember that all the science in the world will fail to grasp the human complexity…


Labs present at LabWorks included:

  • New Zealand - Auckland Co-Design Lab
  • France - le SGMAP, le i-Lab du Départment de Loire Atlantique
  • UAE - the MBR Centre for Government Innovation
  • UK - the Northern Ireland Executive Innovation Lab, the UK Policy Lab, BIT and the UKTI Ideas Lab
  • Austria - CityLab Graz; from Chile - LabGob
  • Singapore - PS21
  • Canada - Alberta Co-Lab and the Innovate lab of the City of Guelph
  • Netherlands - Future Centre De Werf
  • USA - Innovation Teams in Jersey City, Memphis, Syracuse and Boston (New Urban Mechanics), the Center for Economic Opportunity in New York and at the Federal level, the Office of Personnel Management and the Dept of Labour
  • Georgia - the Innovative Service Lab
  • Denmark - MindLab
  • Israel - the Innovation Lab of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the Innovation Teams of the cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv
  • South Korea - The Seoul Innovation Bureau
  • Armenia - the UNDP’s Kolba Lab
  • Brazil - the Centre for Research and Innovation in the Supreme Audit Office and the i-Lab of the City of Sao Paulo
  • Mexico - Mexico Abierto and the Laboratorio para la Ciudad
  • Colombia - ANSPE
  • Malaysia - Pemandu
  • South Africa - the Centre for Public Service Innovation
  • International instituation - the UNDP Global Public Service Excellence Centre, the OECD’s Observatory for Public Sector Innovation and the EU’s Foresight and Behavioural Insights Unit