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.


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.


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’.


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).


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.!end-of-dreams-image/c3pq

‘Ways of world-making’ by Nelson Goodman (1970).

Notes to myself on beginning a painting” by Richard Diebenkorn.

“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.

“Politics of labs”, panel discussion at Labworks, London 2015.


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.

How do we create mandate for change?


By Jesper Christiansen and Sarah Schulman

As a product on an immersive residency at InWithForward, Jesper and Sarah explored the next practice of innovation labs – focusing on factors of risk, accountability, power, and politics. This is Part III in the blog series.

Sarah’s prompt: says that mandate is the authority to carry out a policy or course of action. We often hear the word after an election, when a decisive win gives the elected official the ‘mandate’ to push through their proposed reforms. This mandate supposedly comes from the people. From both the ‘average’ Joe on the street and the ‘elite’ in their high-rise. The challenge is that once the policy is passed, or the service is re-designed, who holds the real mandate for change? Ultimately for most policies to be successful, they have to be owned by the implementers: by the people charged with carrying out that policy, and with the end users who now have to act differently. Take, welfare reforms. It’s the street-level bureaucrats and the welfare recipients that ultimately have to embody the mandate for change over time.

So, why not start with them? And create a bottom-up mandate for continuous change? How can we get the folks on-the-ground to demand that their politicians – and the bureaucrats that service them – create the space for local experimentation? In other words, how can citizens agree to some of the risk that innovation entails and give politicians the assurance they need to back off from the regulatory red tape?

We haven’t always seen our work in this kind of movement-building light. Seven years ago, when we worked with the service design agency Participle, we saw our work as designing one new public service. But we neither built a bottom-up constituency for the service, nor had top-down authority to spread the service. Five years ago, when we worked with The Australian Centre for Social Innovation, we managed to create a bottom-up constituency: families who were powerful advocates for the new service we co-created. And yet the focus was still on building a constituency base for one new service or network.

So, over the past 18 months, we’ve started (and just barely scratched the surface) with building movements of families and service providers who aren’t just asking for one new service, but for the space and resources to continually develop new services that meet their needs and aspirations. These are families like Patrice and her daughter Jordana, who interfaces with the community living system. As Jordana’s needs shift with age, different solutions are required. The answer definitely isn’t a single new service or policy. But the answer just might be in their ongoing engagement in making, testing, and improving the services and systems with which they come into contact.

Jesper’s response:

In our work within the Danish public administration, one of the longest ongoing conversations has been about the responsibility of the policy-maker and the success indicators of the work carried out. We attempted to challenge the previous consensus that the job was finished once the policy was formulated, the law was passed or a decision had been made. Instead, we have tried to facilitate a conversation about outcomes; and not least the ways in which policy-makers are bound to them. In this light, much of what we do is aimed to at creating ‘professional empathy’ and bind civil servants with public problems and people’s experience in a more direct relationship.

The good news is that this conversation has been lifted up the ranks. Ministers and permanent secretaries are now publicly stating that “a reform is not a reform before there is an actual change in behaviours and experience in practice”. This emphasis changes the mandate for change significantly. It corresponds well with Sarah’s description above (and also with Michael Lipsky’s description of street-level bureaucrats as ‘everyday policy-makers’). This begs the question of how we are involving citizens’ experiences and the concrete practice of the frontline in the development and implementation of public policy?

So despite being an internal innovation lab deeply embedded in the central administration, the theory of change is the same: we need to reframe the development and implementation of policy as an explorative innovation task where the goal lies beyond developing a single new service. We need to public service systems where the backbone is the open and ongoing engagement of the public and the public sector ecosystem in making, testing, and improving the services and systems.

This is a cultural shift in the government role. It reframes public interventions as an actual change-making effort (inventing to intervene) rather than merely an analytical exercise. It is dependent on developing a qualitative intelligence base and feedback mechanism where citizens, practitioners and professionals in collaboration with (the official) policy-makers form new partnerships and create dynamic relationships between national initiative and local experimentation. In this way, a real dedication to outcomes and the continuous creation of the mandate for change require reversing the policy cycle and becoming comfortable with and capable of acting as a platform for bottom-up development.

To some extent, this characterizes MindLab’s current collaboration with the Danish Ministry of Employment. We are currently trying to assist an experimental effort to create joint ownership of reforms across central and local government. We are trying to redefine the implementation challenge of public policy from a ‘plan and deliver’ mentality to an outcomes-focused practice of realizing the political objectives through involvement, collaboration and co-design.

However, there is still a long way to go if we wish to work systematically with creating a bottom-up mandate for change. What is needed is for the lab itself to become distributed. While maintaining a positioning in the central administration as strategically focused user-oriented innovation unit, we increasingly become deeply involved in experimentation in local settings. We need to be creating and empowering local experimental platforms that over time are allowed to be the ongoing feedback mechanisms for policy development. And that will move innovation efforts beyond the project and reposition the central innovation lab as a more distributed entity.

Who should hold the risk in public and social innovation?

As a product on an immersive residency at InWithForward, Jesper and Sarah explored the next practice of innovation labs – focusing on factors of risk, accountability, power, and politics. This is Part II in the blog series.

Jesper’s prompt:

As an innovation lab, there is high tendency to be considered as a consultant: someone that comes in to facilitate a certain part of a process, deliver a piece of research or develop a ‘proof of concept’. At MindLab, we have always emphasized the different nature of being an internal innovation unit. We need to be able to move beyond the project and into real partnership – away from ‘one-off’ detached delivery to continuous, collaborative innovation efforts.

This is cultural change in how the public sector traditionally involves different sets of methods and processes to creatively ‘disturb’ its practice. As an internal innovation unit, we are formally public servants. This is something that we surprisingly have to remind our colleagues and ourselves of quite frequently. Perhaps it is because the staff of MindLab don’t fit the formal job description of public servants? Or perhaps it has more to do with the informal identification mechanisms of what it means to be serving the public? Both of which are relevant when we explore the role of a lab in the larger public or social innovation effort as well as in what way a lab is held accountable for the outcomes that are created.

We often talk about our work in terms of an evolution from ‘projects’ to ‘partnerships’. The notion of partnership is to highlight that we wish to build continuously on a diverse set of activities that will help our owners to succeed in creating good outcomes. We also wish to build long-lasting relationships with our partner organizations where a real collaborative exchange can begin emerge – which we consider one of the most important foundations of building capacity from within.

However, this partnership is an unequal one as well. As a lab, we are also saying that we are per definition not the ones that have the ultimate responsibility for the successful creation of outcomes. It is important that the responsibility remain with our colleagues that are directly tasked with developing policies or ensure successful implementation of these.

This is an important distinction for us. Not only because it is a way of managing expectations in light of our limited resource capacity. But also, more importantly, it is also a way of emphasizing that an innovation lab is not about creating a parallel development practice termed ‘innovation’ within public organizations. Actually, the real value-creation is about embedding innovation methodologies and practices within the existing operations.

So our ministerial and municipal owners are not just ‘owners’ of MindLab. They are ‘innovation leaders’ or ‘innovation partners’. They are tasked with the incredibly complex challenge of reforming public service systems. Our task is to help build the capacity for them to succeed in this endeavor. This is the partnership that we are engaged in.

In this sense, you could say that it does not live up definitions of partnership where you share the risk equally. But you could also say that this kind of partnership is reflecting a vision of contributing to the continuous creation of public outcomes. As a lab, we should supplement or reinvent the existing bureaucratic structures to increase the legitimacy and effectiveness of public interventions. Our role isn’t necessarily to redistribute power relationships or task responsibilities.

Maybe this is also a question of the difference between ‘public sector’ and ‘social’ innovation? Between changing the existing system or creating a new one?


Sarah’s Response

Words like coordination, collaboration and partnership abound with ambiguity. We all agree that change cannot happen alone. That we require meaningful relationships with multiple stakeholders in order to move from innovative ideas to actual realities. And yet, believing in the value of relationships is not the same as structuring those relationships so they yield transformative results. (I wrote a far too lengthy PhD on the topic, which you can read here at your own risk).

Where coordination is about stakeholders aligning their activities (a homeless shelter offering legal services one day a week), collaboration is about stakeholders aligning their outcomes and activities (the homeless & legal services both trying to get members housed). We see partnership as a step beyond. It’s about stakeholders sharing resources, outcomes, and activities. It’s about everyone putting some real skin in the game.

Our past projects, whilst always framed as partnerships, had no collective accountability mechanisms. When the funding ran dry, the design team faded away, and no one had the same ownership over seeing the solution come to fruition. Or, in the best case scenario, the design team felt real attachment to seeing the solution live, but were relegated to the margins of systems. Solutions went forward as separate social enterprises, rather than as instruments for wider systems change.

When we started InWithForward, we were determined to try and build that collective responsibility. We would not be consultants with briefs set from our funders. We would not come in for short amounts of time and deliver recommendations or proofs of concepts. We would put some of our own resource on the table to equalize the power relations, and demonstrate our commitment to longer-term change. We would be accountable, with our partners, for measurable change amongst end users and practitioners.

Over the past two years, we lucked out and found four extraordinary organizations (with Chief Executives, senior leadership, and boards) who want change as badly as we do. These are particularly reflective organizations (Burnaby Association for Community InclusionposAbilitiesSimon Fraser Society for Community Living and West Neighbourhood House) who can acknowledge their strengths, but not be content with them. They get that social organizations should be vehicles for social change, rather than self-perpetuating entities. We found them by sticking our necks out, and offering up our time and critique pro-bono. We knew that if organizations welcomed us without strings attached, and then offered to act on the ethnographic data we collected, we were on to a different kind of partnership.

In the last 18 months, the partnership with BACI, posAbilities, and SFSCL has taken us down some highways, back-lane ways, and plenty of dead-ends. We’ve had no map – and instead, have made lots and lots of course corrections along the way to get us closer to an unfinished destination: a future where Research & Development is a permanent function and where organizations are serving much more as a platform for developing solutions, rather than delivering services.

It turns out that being a partner engenders totally different feelings than being a project manager or innovation expert. When you know that you are in it for the long-term, you make different decisions in the short-term. When you know that everyone is sharing in the financial risk, you open yourself up to a different level of vulnerability. When you see your partners as courageous people – not just effective professionals – you put a different level of investment and grit into the mix. A level of investment and grit that we hope are important preconditions for innovation to last. No more one-hit wonders.


Inside or outside?

By Jesper Christiansen and Sarah Schulman
As a product on an immersive residency at InWithForward, Jesper and Sarah explored the next practice of innovation labs – focusing on factors of risk, accountability, power, and politics. This is Part I in the blog series.
Top-down? Bottom-up? Inside? Outside? New? Established? Every map of social innovation differentiates labs accordingly. InWithForward never fits neatly on the map. We’re outside government, but inside service delivery organizations. We start bottom-up, with the intention of reshaping the top. We’re a new organization, but building on more than a decade of practice in five countries. At first glance, MindLab appears to be the total opposite: an established and embedded lab within Denmark’s public sector, influencing top-down strategy, and regaling international imaginations.

We’ve spent the last three weeks learning from one another, and recognizing that we are moving towards a similar theory of change. That getting to the systems change we both desire requires much more than a project-based approach. That the job to be done is building Research & Development capacity, and mobilizing movements – of civil servants, of practitioners, of families, of individuals. Yes, we start at different places – reflecting some distinct values around politics & power – but ultimately we’re each trying to tear down the boundary line between policy and practice, and recast implementation as innovation.

Why would MindLab seek inspiration from InWithForward?

As an internal public sector lab, funded entirely by three ministries and a municipality, the premise of most of MindLab’s activities is to work from within public administration. This form of organization means that a significant part of the legitimacy of MindLab comes from its ability to enable better stewardship of political intentions and embed itself within existing structures and knowledge practices in order to improve them over time. While maintaining the emphasis on the qualitative experience of people, the main purpose of MindLab is therefore to make government better and more legitimate.

But being a centralized lab has its limits. While the task of reforming public services has become more urgent, frequent and complex, the ever-present policy challenge is to generate the right kind of intelligence and energy for changing public service systems.

When MindLab In 2014 included Odense municipality as part of its funding partners, it was with the intent of creating a site of local experimentation to enable outcomes-focused and practice-oriented feedback mechanisms. However, we are far from illustrating the any substantial alternative to top-down instruction and regulation. So while we as a centralized lab is a way of actively contribute to a new capacity in government to make the state more connected, legitimate and effective, we have a lot to learn about how to create better outcomes through bottom-up development processes.

InWithForward is pioneering new approaches within this domain. They are working directly with people and service providers to change outcomes and behavior through experimental co-design, social movements and peer-to-peer influences. And they are ambitiously attempting to design service systems that correspond with actualities of people in their communities and let this define the very intent of the new public service system. Both of which seems to be a significant part of what it could mean to develop public policies in the future.

Why would InWithForward seek inspiration from MindLab?

Aaron just graduated from high school, and is living in the gap between the special education system and the adult community living system. He’s been offered the suite of disability policy instruments: an individualized budget, an employment program, a day program. And yet none of these instruments have managed to draw out Aaron’s real potential – as a comedian or storyteller.

We’ve spent the last nine-months working closely with young adults like Aaron, and co-designing a range of new practice to build Aaron, his family, and staff’s capacities. We want to spread this new practice – without it getting perverted by the system’s existing contracting and measurement process. At the same time, we want to reshape how policymakers see the nature of the problem to be solved and revise the very intent of the solutions they design.

The question is, how? How do we really get to the big P policy change? Without such policy spawning plenty of low-fidelity practice knock-offs? When do we invest in bringing policymakers aboard? And when do we invest in the bottom-up movement of individuals and families that will demand change? Or do we do both at the same time?

One answer seems to be re-defining the role of the middle layer in all of this: the service deliverers. We initially partnered with service deliverers because we had a hunch that they could be a key lever for both bottom-up and top-down change. But, how do we reposition them from being contractors or implementers to being suppliers of policy intelligence, holders of risk, and movement builders?

MindLab has a track record of supplying policy intelligence, holding the risk for experimentation, and building internal movements of civil servants – all from a centralized unit. Their job is to find better ways to bring to life political intent. We see our job as finding ways to revise political intent. All by offering a viable alternative.

So who should get to set the agenda for change? Who should own the risk and have the accountability for change? What are the really practical ways to bring people along for the journey?

Collectively, we highlight the need to start thinking beyond the “lab” and taking a more networked approach to change: where we’re working to engage and mobilize the enthused at the bottom, the middle, and the top.

Blog: Innovation as a coping mechanism

This blog is previously featured on the LSE blog: 

Whether you are a politician, civil servant, frontline worker or any other kind of decision maker taking active part in public governance you are frequently reminded of the current state of ‘crisis’. One prominent side-effect of this persistent emphasis on crisis has been the rise of the public innovation agenda. Innovation, in this sense, takes on an almost magical character as a direct answer to the crisis itself. This notion is not only problematic in terms of the immediate pressure on public employees to innovate, but it also manages the expectations to the processes and outcomes of public innovation in very unproductive ways.

In the discussion paper published by MindLab and Nesta “Innovation in policy”, Laura Bunt and I try to address this misrecognition as well as seeing it as concept capable of driving much needed explorative and creative processes in public governance. Innovation is not an end or an answer to challenges in itself. Rather, it should be applied as a way of coping with problems with no tangible or, at best, quite complex solutions.

Whether the crisis is perceived to be economic, financial, demographic, environmental, social or even democratic, it seems to imply a ‘failure of agency’ among public institutions and organisations. Not only in terms of putting the existing and known modes of dealing with present circumstances into question, but by involving a failure to act sufficiently to understand, handle and change its implications. But failure of agency is not an option of the public state; decisions have to be made despite acting in a context of overwhelming pressure, complexity and uncertainty.

So in dealing with increasing unemployment rates, entrenched inequalities, changing social needs and a significant economic pressure on public budgets, we are not only experiencing severe constraints in existing welfare models. It also poses serious questions regarding the adequacy of welfare services bound within 20th century models. You can to point to a health system dominated by acute hospitals based on static formalism, prisons designed largely to contain and not prevent crime, or social care services increasingly stretched to provide standardised care to individuals and families with cross-cutting and complex needs.

In this sense, these examples represent a movement in Western societies, perhaps long underway, that has called for radically new ways of organising public service systems to deal with problems that might have been present all along. Crisis is, in this light, merely a mobilizing metaphor: are our public institutions, our ways of exercising authority and our dominant ideas of the social contract between the citizen and the state serving the purposes we want them to serve? Are they creating the outcomes we want them to create?

In the discussion paper, Laura Bunt and I suggest that innovation efforts are directed at the practice of public policy itself through a new set of principles first and foremost with the intention of regaining public through the incorporation and validation of more explorative, learning-based and open-ended (in short, ‘creative’) processes in public sector contexts. Here follows a short overview of these principles:

#1: Outcomes, not ‘solutions’

Social reality does not pause for implementation just as public problems are not solvable in fixed ways. Whether they exist in order to secure civil rights, a well-functioning job market or a reliable tax regulation, recognizing that public services are operating within a wider system of organisations, influences and interventions give way to new possible paths forward in terms of creating more empathetic, co-productive and well-functioning public service systems. In this sense, the goal is not some kind of redemption in relation to the public problem, but to search out potential ways to address social and wicked problems. The challenge becomes how to institutionalize an adaptive capacity in public governance that can make the best possible use of public resources to create better outcomes for the population rather than merely ensure ‘service delivery’.

#2: Experimentation as an approach to policymaking

By the very nature of addressing public problems through implementing policy and programmes, public sectors are already doing multiple ‘experiments’ as their everyday practice. The question is if we wish to continue believing in our ability to foresee how our plans will unfold in practice or if we instead wish to accept and make use of the unpredictable consequences that go with attempts to intervene in complex social realities? Given the current state of uncertainty, I suggest that the legitimacy of public governance increasingly should come through policymaking as a process of discovery. The experimental approach is necessary because innovation inherently destabilises existing operational, organisational and administrative structures. Experimentation not only ‘rehearses the future’ through imaginative foresight and prototyping, but pro-actively encourages challenges and critique from the public, potential users, colleagues, partners, experts and other relevant actors devoted to the experimental search for the possible.

#3: Exercising a new type of authority

Where the prompts for public problems are unknown, authority comes not just from having access to superior resources or formal powers, but in understanding the context and conditions that affect problems. For example, a doctor prescribing treatment is endowed with formal authority. But in managing long-term conditions that require behaviour change or engagement from family and local networks, the doctor often to take on a new type of authority role to ensure an effective outcome. Rather than control or specify activity and outputs, this role to a larger degree has to distribute various efforts and resources in order to lever the collective capacity for better public outcomes. Here, there is not necessarily a direct causality between authoritative knowledge and public interventions since the reasons and conditions for making decisions often have to be explored and learned rather than be known fully or in advance.

#4: Re-thinking useful evidence

The shift to new types of processes and effects (innovation) and different types of roles, functions, and activities (coproduction) seem to involve a fundamental shift in what we consider as legitimate and useful ‘evidence’. What is particularly challenging for policy makers in this context is that (innovation) policy not only invents new forms of thought and foundations for decisions and actions, but also involves the invention of novel procedures of documentation, computation and evaluation. In this light, we should certainly ask whether it is innovation projects that fail or whether they are failed by wider networks of support and validation. Innovation in policy innovation thus implies taking a good hard look at the formalizing processes themselves in order to build systems and legitimizing processes that take the premises of creative and potentially innovative processes seriously.

#5: Designing for policy

Innovation processes constantly set up new horizons, directions and incentives for decision-making. Here, the concept of design is useful since, rather than formulating a plan that sits distinct from practical application, it is in the testing and iteration that the plan truly comes to life. The consistent emphasis on understanding and using the ‘architecture’ of the problem as a driver in exploring possible ways of addressing it will inherently build questions of implementation and systemic implication into the design process; both focusing on the concrete causes and consequences involved as well as the interconnected systems and networks involved in dealing with it. In this way, design approaches deliberately create a tension with common interpretations and thus subverts instrumental logics of policy while by opening up for the ‘agentive powers’ and imaginative capabilities of the people involved.

While public managers and employees struggle to navigate the cross-pressures of budget cuts, the insoluble character of public problems has never been greater. My contention is that the legitimacy of the public sector has become something that is ‘at stake’, relying on the ability to act more productively and responsibly in very complex and uncertain settings. What in particular should characterize public interventions under these circumstances where, at the same time, consistent budget cuts risk jeopardizing not only public productivity and positive policy outcomes, but also the general well-being and living standard of citizens? Innovation as a concept is vitalized by a desire to imagine the world in its possibility and to push current perceptions of what can be done. In many ways, it can prove to be an excellent coping mechanism in pursuit of building new kinds of public services and, with this, facilitating a process aimed at a necessary renewal of the foundations of public legitimacy.

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