How we got here: from labs working solo to a learning network.

By Bas Leurs, Lead Learning Designer, Accelerator Lab Network

By the time UNDP launched its Accelerator Lab Network in 2019, the organization had been working in the social and public innovation space for quite some time. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that “labs” form the unit of action for UNDP’s Accelerator Lab network.

But how did we get here? How did we move from single labs working solo to a network of labs? In this blogpost I will take a non-exhaustive look at the origins and history of social and public innovation labs, their networks and the role of labs in UNDP’s innovation journey.

The birth of public innovation labs

Social and public innovation labs — or simply “labs” — come in many different shapes and forms. Usually they are a team, or an organizational unit, that is tasked with innovation aiming to improve how a government works to deliver greater public value.

Across the world we see, among other things, that policy issues are becoming increasingly more interconnected and complex, that the gap between governments and citizens is widening, and budgets are constantly being cut. Solving problems “as we have always been doing” — while expecting different results — simply doesn’t cut it.

Labs have a mandate to challenge and question how things are done, as well as suggest, test and rehearse new ways of working, introducing new skills and mindsets to an organisation.

They create a safe space for experimentation and change by exploring alternative futures, identifying emerging problem spaces, working on specific issues that require new forms of collaboration or partnerships (e.g. between departments and with the private sector), enabling co-creation processes that directly involve citizens in the policy cycle or service design process, and/or by building capacity around a specific technology or innovation method.

Public and social innovation labs have been around for about 20 years now. Kennisland (The Netherlands), Nesta (UK), Sitra (Finland) and MindLab (Denmark) are often seen as one of the first.

Particularly MindLab’s journey reached an almost iconic status. MindLab demonstrated that it was possible to embed an entirely different logic and way of working, grounded in social science and design, in the heart of the Danish government. This has inspired many other governments and innovators to set up labs as well.

Having a multidisciplinary team of scientists, policy makers and designers, stimulated a culture of action and reflection that helped MindLab to test, improve and codify their practice continuously. Their generosity to share their expertise and support newcomers has created a vast legacy. And even though MindLab had to close its doors after sixteen years recently, its legacy lives on.

In the early days there were few such labs, but we now find public innovation labs in every corner of the world. There are hundreds and perhaps thousands of them working at the federal, regional or local level. Usually they have the word “lab” in their name while there are also many teams and initiatives that don’t carry that lab-badge but do operate as one.

Various events, conferences and meetups: Lab retreat after the LabWorks conference at Nesta (London, 2015); informal meeting with GovLab, Nesta, La 27e Région and MindLab (Copenhagen, 2015); Design for Europe symposium by La 27e Région (Paris, 2015); Estado Futuro conference by Laboratorio de Gobierno (Santiago, 2016); States of Change faculty meeting at Nesta (London, 2016); Edge of Government pavilion by MBRCGI at the World Government Summit (Dubai, 2017)

Over the past ten to fifteen years, the practice of public innovation labs has matured. Various awards, conferences, events (e.g. Nesta’s LabWorks, MBRCGI’s Edge of Government, OECD’s Innovation in Government) and numerous smaller meetups, have served as crucial platforms for connecting lab practitioners, from different parts of the world, including newcomers as well as seasoned experts. Also, a prolific body of knowledge has been produced and disseminated through various newsletters, publications, blogs, toolkits, playbooks, guides (see e.g. Nesta’s or OPSI’s compendium of tools) and learning programmes.

Over time these activities have contributed to the establishment of an active and loosely organised global community of practice, pushing the field of public innovation forward, advancing its methods, spreading its tools and skills and building legitimacy by demonstrating tangible results.

UNDP’s Innovation Journey (2012–2016)

At some point in time, while the need for doing innovation in a large bureaucracy like UNDP became inevitable, the notion of a lab also started to get traction in the development sector. For UNDP, that journey started around 2012, with some first innovation projects “under the radar”. Innovation got a formal position in UNDP with the Budva Declaration in November 2013. Since then, various innovation labs have been set up within UNDP or with governments in Moldova, Armenia, North Macedonia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Egypt, to name a few.

The rise of innovation networks

Several people running labs, or their governing agencies, realised at a certain moment that they needed to connect with a wider ecosystem to mobilise talent, build capacity and create impact at scale. Over the past five years or so, we have seen various national and international networks of public innovators emerge.

The National Meeting of Chile’s Innovadores Publicos (Santiago, December 2017)

Take for example, at a federal or state level, Taiwan’s network of innovation officers, Chile’s Innovadores Publicos, Victoria’s (Australia) Innovation Network or Canada’s Free Agents. The size and zeal of these networks show there is an appetite among public servants for doing things differently.

At the same time we have also seen some global networks of public innovators emerge: some are initiated as bottom up like One Team Gov or as a start-up like apolitical, and others are curated by inter- or non-governmental organisations like Nesta’s States of Change, OECD’s OPSI Network, or the UN’s Innovation Network.

These networks have generally been helpful in advancing and spreading the practice of public innovation, but so far none of them have set an agenda and executed on it to address the world’s most pressing issues we find around the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development — issues that affect the livelihoods and lives of billions of people.

Istanbul Innovation Days 2017

Planting the seeds for UNDP’s Accelerator Lab Network….

This absence of concerted effort was addressed during the Istanbul Innovation Days in 2017: How can labs operate at a much larger scale, creating more impact? At this conference, UNDP, Nesta and a cohort of innovation practitioners critically reflected on the practice of public and development labs and their impact.

Labs as a single change agent normally don’t operate beyond their remit or political mandate and are, for that reason, struggling to address complex challenges like youth unemployment, corruption, waste management, or transnational issues like immigration, terrorism and climate change. In order to address these challenges, we needed to re-imagine the lab as a concept as well as its practice.

The suggested way forward was a collective approach and to

“…build a movement that needs new political capital and a very different set of alliances — as well as possibly new skills and competencies — to address the step change in the type of challenges governments are facing that underline a class of issues underpinning the Sustainable Development Goals.

Although this was easier said than done, the seed for building a movement — a collective where the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts — was planted.

In the summer of 2018, when Millie Begovic, the driving force behind the Istanbul Innovation Days, met with UNDP’s Administrator Achim Steiner, the opportunity arose to bring this vision of a movement to life.

The Administrator had observed that a lot of innovation was happening at UNDP, but often at the fringes of the day and not in a joined-up way. Likewise he also noticed that many of the programmes in UNDP with momentum, energy and new partners often occurred somewhere around a lab-like space. And even though some argued at that time that we may had well reached “peak labs”, as some notable labs like MindLab and Mexico’s Laboratorio Para la Ciudad had just closed their doors, the Administrator wanted to learn from these experiences. Thus he set out an audacious plan to launch a global learning network of 60 labs, all at once, in a staggering six months.

Building on the previous experience that UNDP had with innovation, but with no precedent in terms of scale and ambition, the network is one of a kind. A large-scale experiment that is intended to create a “shock to the system”, the Accelerator Labs reimagine how development is done and accelerate progress on the 2030 Agenda by a globally integrated learning approach.

Common innovation sense would advise anyone with such a plan to go for a staged implementation: starting for example with 5 labs, then add 10, 15 and 30 more, while feeding the learnings from previous cohorts into the next. Yet it is March 2020 now, and we already have all 60 Accelerator Labs up and running and creating a systemic shock inside this large public sector development organization.

Given the short timeline and the sheer scale, it certainly has not been an easy ride, but we are learning at speed from all the 60 labs and their partners on emerging or the most pressing developing challenges. Depopulation, plastic waste, informal economy, youth unemployment are some of the issues the labs are exploring.

For this year we focus on embedding, spreading and learning within and beyond the network. ​We’ll be embedding the accelerated learning cycle into lab practice and into UNDP as an organisation. We will be exploring how to spread the solutions, insights, and ways of working with partners. And we will be setting up a sensory network using machines and humans learning together to follow the emergence of what the network is learning.

Special thanks to Giulio Quaggiotto, Millie Begovic and Jesper Christiansen for their input and feedback.

Building the world’s largest learning network around development challenges. 91 Labs in 115 countries. http://acceleratorlabs.undp.org/