Innovation labs and other animals

Snails I met on a train last week
I have been thinking a lot about innovation labs recently and this post is a collection of some of the examples which are in my mind as I ponder this.  I’d be really grateful if you could add any other examples to the comments – I know I have not got a comprehensive list here.
What’s in a name?
So – my first confession is that I am not really convinced by the term innovation lab – I think it can imply that innovation just happens in special circumstances and it can bring exclusive language and feel to the whole thing.  I am really looking for a term to describe a physical and virtual space where people can come together from different parts of a system, put aside the way things work now and think and develop ideas about how they could work in the future.  Yes – that is terrible language and perhaps even more excluding that the innovation lab label – but what to do about it?  How do you settle on language which describes a space where you are creating new things?  Both lab and studio are descriptions of spaces where new things are created so perhaps I out to stop there and stop obsessing.
My first example though is a project which has overcome this problem by adopting new language: is a digital health project/organisation/movement led by Victoria Betton.  This is how they describe themselves:
We’ve used the metaphor of a habitat  as it captures our ambition to create an environment which has the right factors for mHealth to thrive. In the natural environment this might be physical factors such as soil, moisture and light. In themHealth environment this might be digitally included citizens and clinicians, developers, designers as well as resources and investors. We keep learning about what factors are important as we develop our habitat.
Lots of great work in here and well worth a look.  However – this is a new thing rather than an innovation space operating within an existing organisation which is where we come to…..
Public sector innovation labs
Innovation labs are not a new thing (check out HPLabs for a 45 year old history lesson!).  Public sector innovation labs are now a global movement – as you can see from the Nesta Global Labs event earlier this year.  Of these labs one of the best examples (and also the best description of some of the methods) is the work that Andrea Siodmok and team are doing at the Policy Lab in Cabinet Office.
Here are four excellent public sector innovation labs from which are being run from a local rather than a national perspective:
  • Shift Surrey: working with FutureGov Surrey have created Shift Surrey – an innovation space for Surrey which combines physical space with method and skills support
  • The Create Devon programme is also worth a look – note the different language around creativity rather than innovation.
  • The longer running (8 years and counting) Social innovation Innovation Lab for Kent – SILK – describes itself as ‘a small team based within Kent County Council that was set up in 2007 to ‘do policy differently’. Over the past 8 years we have been doing projects that have demonstrated the benefits of working in a different way.’ 
  • Shorter running but also interesting was the work of the Civic Systems lab in Lambeth.  I want to find out more about what has been happening in Lambeth so will be hunting down Noel Hatch who is now working there and who was the instigator of the SILK work – a good reminder that this stuff is about people as well as process.
This brings us nicely onto the new Trafford Lab led by the mad genius of Jamie Whyte is notable for its focus on data and the fact that its a partnership project drawing on content from different parts of the public sector.  The Bromford lab – from the housing world – is another brilliant example
The Monmouthshire Intrantrepreneur programme was another take on the idea of a public sector innovation lab but as the name suggests focused on developing internal skills and approaches.
Thinking in Public
Monmouthshire provides a good link to one particular aspect of the Public Sector Innovation lab which I think is really crucial – the ability to think in public.  Monmouthshire (and its CEX) have embraced the ability that social media offers to think in public and they have a wide ranging and engaging blogging platform:
There are a few other blogs which I really admire as great examples of combing personal reflexive practice with open discussions of organisational challenges:
  • Mark Roger (CEX for Birmingham) has blogged consistently since moving to Birmingham
  • Carl Haggerty who leads the Create Devon work is also a thoughtful and reflective blogger both personally and for the programme he is leading.
  • Phil Jewitt in Leeds uses his blog to work though his experiences day to day and to shape them into learning for his ‘day job’
  • And Paul Brewer and Dave Briggs are both brilliant at opening up their thinking as they develop a very different (and exciting) digital vision in Adur and Worthing


So what?

I actually wrote this post as a colleague asked me for some background on the innovation lab idea and I started to write an email.  It brought me up short as I have, for a long time, been in the habit of blogging and sharing background content like this rather than keeping it internal and there isn’t really any reason to change that.  Working in a new context I find myself considering a lot of my work practices (and yes – I do talk to much in any context it turns out) and I realise how much I value the discipline and reflective effect of blogging – so here you go – my field notes on innovation labs which I hope you can improve on with suggestions!

Next up on the blogging queue is the write up from #localgovcamp and some developments on the democracy stack….


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