The art of the lab

As the public and social innovation landscape gets populated with an increasing number of ‘labs’, the need to be clear about why this development is happening and what could be gained from it, remains a highly relevant conversation. A detour into the arts provides a useful reminder when trying to answer these questions.

By Jesper Christiansen

Some time ago I was given the opportunity to get a new sense of the current refugee crisis when I visited Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen’s exhibition ’End of Dreams’ in Copenhagen. This exhibition was displaying different artful expressions (fx. sculptures, photos and video) that illustrated the dangers, trauma and sense of loss among the refugees and immigrants trying to get across the Mediterranean to reach Europe. With the dream of a better life or just attempting to ensure their survival.

Nicolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen
Nicolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen,2014.05.28,Pizzo Calabro

Skyum Larsen’s original plan was to create a sculptural installation portraying body bags marked by the wear and tear of the sea. This plan was compromised by an unanticipated violent storm that ravaged the raft that was holding the structures in place. Larsen made use of the unexpected development and instead hired divers to film the scene and collect all the debris and sculptures that could be found. Working with this material, he created a new work consisting of a multi-media installation comprising a five channel HD video shot under sea, and a composition of some of the remains of the sculptural elements.

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Walking out of the exhibition, I felt like that I had been taken on an emotional rollercoaster. Skyum Larsen had managed to get me emotionally and cognitively connected in a new way; by the lives and loved ones lost; by a sense of human companionship combined with a feeling of shared responsibility for not preventing this to happen; by the global magnitude of the conflict and our collective inability to prevent the sufferings to continue; and by an overwhelming feeling of meaninglessness fuelled by various questions beginning with the word ‘why’.

After the immediate feelings had diminished a bit, some reflections surfaced more connected to the experimental nature of his work itself. Not only was it a reminder of what imaginative use of an experimental process, only adding to the narrative of the piece by bringing the work’s production even closer to the experiences of trauma and peril that he was trying to express. But Skyum Larsen’s exhibition also took me on a journey that unmade my current perspectives on the sufferings of refugees and created a new sense of comprehension.

While I considered myself to be pretty well informed about the refugee crisis developing from the war in Syria, my perspective was now being remade and recast in a new light; the refugee crisis simply became re-cognizable in a new way. Or as Nelson Goodman expresses it: “What a portrait or a novel exemplifies or expresses often reorganizes a world more drastically than does what the work literally or figuratively says or depicts” 

 The refugee crisis simply became re-cognizable in a new way

What can innovation labs learn from art?

Innovation labs and teams seem to be a timely structural intervention in times of economic pressure and under-developed public service offerings. Especially considering that our level of our imagination and ingenuity will determine our ability to legitimately respond to the everyday lives of people in their local, national and global context. So as the public and social innovation landscape gets populated with an increasing number of ‘labs’, the need to be clear about why this development is happening and what could be gained from it, remains a highly relevant conversation.

One concerning recent development is that an increasing number of innovation labs and teams are initiated as or reoriented towards top-down implementation. The positive aspect of this is that it is making user-centered design methods a central part of creating a better dynamic between public policy and practical realization (which should be the back-bone of any public sector organization).

However, for innovation labs, there is a real risk of becoming technocratic instruments that act as ‘filters’ of people’s responses to political initiatives. The unwanted consequence often is that innovation labs become ‘delivery agencies’ without sufficient mandate to challenge or influence problem definitions or hypothesis for creating change. In other words, the overall (political) intent and/or problem framing remains unchallenged by the work of the lab.

The unwanted consequence often is that innovation labs become ‘delivery agencies’ without sufficient mandate to challenge or influence problem definitions or hypothesis for creating change

Whether innovation labs are applied as projects or as more permanent structures within or outside public sector organizations, they are all fighting to create large-scale impact and obtain executive ownership. But in this process of getting institutional acceptance, the risk is to lose the very virtues and design principles that made innovation labs relevant in the first place. This is where art exhibitions and artistic expression become relevant inspirational sources for the work of innovation labs.

 Opening up the debate rather than ending it

A core element of this has to do with how experimentation is framed. Many innovation labs are currently being tasked with responsibilities where experimentation is being applied as a way of getting ‘silver bullet’ solutions from a more trial-based approach; managing the expectations towards public decision-makers as if there is one true way of ‘solving’ the problem. Or as if it is about finding the perfect execution of a public policy. You just have to ‘experiment’ – try a few times and then you get it right.

This is a slippery slope. Because public problems are like the art exhibitions: the issue needs to be ‘solved’ over and over again with no final solution to be had. Poverty, housing, unemployment, education, social wellbeing, health, inequality – all issues with an infinite ways of being dealt with. When developing public interventions in this space, the rightness of design or the truth of the intent is relative to the system wherein it is carried out. As artist Richard Diebenkorn phrases it,“the pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued – except as a stimulus for further moves.”

Public problems are like the art exhibitions: the issue needs to be ‘solved’ over and over again

Consequently, it is to a lesser degree about proving a certain idea than illustrating what your idea can do to address the problem at hand. Every ‘solution’ enables efforts to build on it and try something else. Richard Sennett and Hans Joas (2005) exemplify this by referring to the example of the painter Henri Matisse, who was “constantly working on the problem of colour and constantly solving it”. Similarly, a new solution concept is not implying a closure of the development process, but is the moment where the people involved in the creative process leave it as an indication for the ways in which existing realities might be understood and/or changed. So when you do an experiment, you repeat all the features which the hypothesis determines are relevant within the given context. And what you get is an example or illustration of the hypothesis.

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What I am getting at is that the innovation lab in this kind of application largely is being under-tasked when it comes to doing experiments. Rather than merely be tasked with the goal of creating concise solutions, innovation labs should be in the business of illustrating and framing the challenge to be dealt with. This is why labs should really consider how to run multiple, smaller, parallel experiments rather than few grand ones. We want to have as many illustrations of how to address the problem; not investing in one experiment that we imagine can end the policy debate. Crucially, it is a multitude of advancements in understanding that enables useful strategic thinking about new possibilities.

Drastic recognitions: rediscovering the mandate for change

It is no coincidence that many open government-initiatives are focused on opening up the definition and authorization of the problem to the collective intelligence. This exercise is also about creating new relationships between decision-makers and the broader societal community. In my work at MindLab, we systematically tried to bind decision-makers with the problem through removing the physical distance between them and the citizens they serve; what we often referred to as creating ‘professional empathy’.

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However, as with the purpose of artwork, it is about more than empathy. It is also about making new perspectives possible from advancing a combination of empirical, emotional, and imaginative understanding. The purpose of enabling face-to-face interactions between decision-makers and citizens was in a way of exposing them to a “drastic version of reality” that was capable of unmaking and remaking their perceptions and “recast them in new remarkable ways”, as Goodman phrases it.

In this light, collaboration between public organizations and innovation labs is all about the dual process of remaking reality in a way that both creates motivation for change as well as a sense of agency in pursuing explorative routes when acting on this motivation.

This is a crucial component in defining the intent of the public intervention. Considering the failures of previous public interventions when dealing with complex problems, it is worth reforming the process of how this (political) intent gets created and authorized. Just as the function of artwork and art exhibitions, this is about more than advancing rational understanding and technical description. Experiments should allow for the ambigiuity of people’s lives and, as with artistic expression, expand the scope of how to illustrate the character of the problem. It is hard to talk about the concrete subject-matter of painting, dance or music, but they ”nevertheless manifest, exemplify or express forms and feelings” (to quote Goodman again).

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So even though innovation labs are often critiquing themselves for merely coming up with new insights or reframing of problems, this should not be seen as a failure in itself. Failure would be to not be able to let this advancement in understanding have a significant impact on the development of what would at some point be deemed the political intent. In this sense, rather than thinking of innovation labs as delivery units or implementation teams, I think we should see them as being in the business of creating new ways of mandating and enabling change.

Failure would be to not be able to let this advancement in understanding have a significant impact on the development of what would at some point be deemed the political intent.

The art of the lab: enabling a new political opportunity space

But if innovation labs are in the business of mandating change in new ways, what does this actually imply? In this reflection, I have claimed that the innovation lab is successful when it is able to re-cognize and re-make public problems in ways; and that it is essential to go beyond being a human-centered implementation unit, but rather focus on making new authoritative perspectives possible from advancing empirical, emotional, and imaginative understanding; much like Skyum Larsen’s exhibition ’End of Dreams’ was capable of impacting its audience.

But is the work of innovation labs then more about enabling the political than policy development? Marco Steinberg, founder of Snowcone, talked about this at LabWorks in London Summer 2015 and argued that “co-creation means building political movements”. He was referring to the importance of taking politics seriously when working as a lab since most innovation processes are challenging how political envisioning and technical appropriation are connected. I tend to agree.

The current focus of improving the capacity of government is not only about developing new processes and tools of government, but is inherently about political innovation as well. What the art of the lab reminds us is that lab work should be an authoritative part of creating the political opportunity space. This is both about enabling new societal and political movements, but equally about being involved in qualifying the political debate through testing and challenging current assumptions and concretely illustrating and exemplifying what could be good and for whom.

Labs should more be in the business of problem-searching than problem-solving; characterizing and posing the challenges rather than merely promising to solve already defined ones. A significant part of building government capacity is about redesigning public policy to work as platforms for creative exploration of new understanding and enable new imaginative (political) horizons. This, in my view, is the actual art of the lab.

Labs should more be in the business of problem-searching than problem-solving; characterizing and posing the challenges rather than merely promising to solve already defined ones

Valuable reads and views:

The exhibition ‘End of dreams’ by Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen.  http://www.nbsl.info/#!end-of-dreams-image/c3pq

‘Ways of world-making’ by Nelson Goodman (1970). http://www.amazon.com/Ways-Worldmaking-Nelson-Goodman/dp/0915144514

Notes to myself on beginning a painting” by Richard Diebenkorn.  https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/diebenkorn-ten-rules

“Creativity, Pragmatism and the Social Sciences” by Richard Sennett and Hans Joas. Distinktion, vol. 14: 5-31.

“The irrealities of public innovation” by Jesper Christiansen. http://mind-lab.dk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/PHD_afhandling.pdf.

“Politics of labs”, panel discussion at Labworks, London 2015.  http://www.nesta.org.uk/watch-videos-labworks-2015/politics-labs

About

This page will host a series of reflections and loose thoughts on the practice of innovation efforts around the world. Rather than consisting of finalized arguments, the content will be of more speculative and imaginative with the purpose of exploring better ways of addressing our current challenges.

Most of the content will focus on:

  • How to go beyond the innovation lab and make governments innovation leaders (as Jocelyne Bourgon would phrase it)?
  • How to make better use of the collective intelligence and resources (as Geoff Mulgan would phrase it)?
  • How to create new and more impactful constituencies for change (as Sarah Schulman would phrase it)?
  • How to create new public movements (as Charlie Leadbeater would phrase it) and enable the political in better ways?
  • How to create the right kind of disruption within our public organizations and institutions (as Stephen Goldsmith would phrase it)?
  • How to create better knowledge practice and increase the legitimacy of public interventions (as I have tried to write about in my PhD dissertation)?

 

About the author

Jesper is Senior Program Manager at Nesta, contributing to the work of helping people and organisations get better at innovating for the public good.  Jesper is a public innovation thinker and practitioner. His work is focused on how to deal most effectively with public problems through better capacity and ecosystems for innovation and learning.

From 2009-2016, Jesper was the head of research and program manager at Danish cross-public innovation unit MindLab and has worked with and advised several governments, public agencies and international institutions around the world. His work focused particularly on creating more inclusive public service systems for vulnerable people in society.

During the period at MindLab, Jesper also completed a Ph.D. degree in Anthropology with a thesis focusing on embedding human-centred innovation practices in public sector organizations. He also carried out shorter term secondments in Australia, UK and Canada. He also holds a Master’s degree in Anthropology from Aarhus University and an additional degree in journalism from the Danish School of Journalism.