Galvanizing the Canadian Social Labs Field

In June 2018, RADIUS hosted CONVERGE, a gathering of over 130 active social innovation lab practitioners and key ecosystem enablers in Vancouver, BC.

The Canadian labs field has grown substantially over recent years. We understood that this proliferation has been happening in a fairly divergent way with a lack of connective infrastructure that would allow coordination for greater systems change. We heard that practitioners were eager to learn from each other and build robust practice together, so we hosted CONVERGE as a response to this growing demand.

CONVERGE aimed to:

  • Deepen relationships and trust among lab practitioners, laying the foundation for an active pan-Canadian Community of Practice;
  • Create a space for lab practitioners to add value to each other’s work through Peer Input Processes;
  • Make visible the diversity and impact of social innovation labs in Canada through system mapping;
  • Begin to build a shared set of tools, practices, language, knowledge, and expertise across the lifecycle of a lab; and
  • Identify key problem/opportunity areas where Canadian labs can better align for increasedcoordination and impact.

Working minimum specification for labs

One of the statements we heard repeatedly at CONVERGE was,  “I don’t know if I’m in a lab or not”. Many things are being called ‘labs’ these days. What labs look like and the methodologies they use in Canada is beneficially diversified.

This minimum specification has been devised by RADIUS to help people answer that question.

A lab must:

  • Think and act across scales (systemic)
  • Include diverse stakeholders, including people with lived experience of the problem area being examined (social)
  • Involve  sustained, iterative experiments (experimental)
  • Solve highly complex, intergenerational, wicked problems (transformational)

Impact of labs

The impacts labs can have is three-fold. Our outputs are prototypes which can be implemented as systemic innovations, but the greater impact labs have is in empowering citizens and increasing the connectivity of communities; creating high-trust constituencies equipped to understand and evolve systems.

 

Canada is home to one of the most diverse social innovation lab ecosystems in the world. They’re being established from government, non-profit, for-profit and academic sectors, addressing a wide range of intractable issues that Canadians care deeply about. Prior to CONVERGE, we sent out an online survey which 56 labs from across Canada completed. Some of the results of this survey are captured in this report. For the full results see this slidedeck Canadian Labs Landscape 2018.

90% of labs surveyed were established in the last 5 years, and close to half were established in the past 2 years. This rapid and diverse proliferation demonstrates both the increasing recognition of labs as a powerful approach for social innovation and also the relative immaturity of the field.

The CONVERGE Report details tensions and questions that emerged from our collective discussions, and opportunities that are on the horizon to advance this field of practice. These include increased coordination in the sector, getting to scale and implementation, increasing fluidity and opportunities for public sector innovation, and using labs to host important conversations about 21st century ethical dilemmas.

CONVERGE happened at a critical and optimistic time for labs in Canada. Participants highly valued the opportunity to connect and learn together as a field. We hope that this foundation will allow us to be more bold, daring and rigorous as a field.

  • Prior to CONVERGE, almost 70% of participants were connected to less than 20 of the other attendees. Post-event, over 70% of participants were connected to over 20 other attendees.

 

  • Over 65% of those who filled out the post-event evaluation survey had already been in touch with someone they had met at CONVERGE.

A final thread that emerged while looking around the room was the question of inclusion. We recognize that while we have a commitment to including diverse peoples in our work, that was not hugely reflected by practitioners who lead labs. We realize that we are largely white, educated, middle-class people. Further discussion about how we, as a sector, can address issues of racial equity and representivity in included in the report, as well as the CONVERGE handbook.

So what happens now?

Connected to the community organizing work that happened at CONVERGE, is an emerging pan-canadian platform to to strengthen and sustain the field of social innovation and systems change. For practitioners who wish to learn more about social innovation labs and their promise. Please visit socialinnovationcanada.ca.

If you are running a lab in BC, please feel free to contact kbird@radiussfu.com to join our emerging community of practice. If you are running a lab elsewhere in Canada, MaRS is maintaining a national list of labs practitioners. Contact Claire Buré cbure@marsdd.com to learn more.

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