Exploring the Social Lab Framework

April 16, 2015

About a year ago I discovered the work of Zaid Hassan around Social Labs through social media and a new book he wrote The Social Labs Revolution about designing and implementing the Social Lab concept. I was especially interested in how this work would apply to a new project I am managing that seemed to lend itself to a Social Lab framework. The working definition of a Social Lab used by Hassan is: Bringing together a diverse, committed team and taking an experimental, prototyping-based approach to addressing challenges systemically, that is, at root cause level. Keep going as long as necessary to shift the situation. It incorporates many of the approaches I have always loved and practiced: diverse, committed teams; experimenting; focusing on systemic change and long-term outcomes; and multi-year commitments to try, fail and adapt.

As I began to reflect on the Social Labs framework I realized that a number of the projects I have worked on in the past have used a similar framework, although we didn’t necessarily call it that. The first time I used this framework, perhaps on some level we did realize that we were involved in “lab” work as there was a popular book at the time referring to U.S. states as “Laboratories of Democracy”. I was working as the director of the Council of Great Lakes Governors and we were exploring ways to sustain a commitment to great lakes water quality. We brought together a diverse, committed group and although we didn’t actually experiment or prototype different ideas, we did brainstorm and work through a number of different ideas over a period of years that finally resulted in the Great Lakes Protection Fund, which itself supports experimental projects.

More recently I worked again with a diverse, committed team to brainstorm and experiment with how to bring the practices of safe child birth to more birthing situations around the world. This process over a period of years resulted in the Helping Babies Breathe network.

Many of us in the social sector have become pretty good at ‘developing plans’ but addressing complex, systemic challenges requires more than just the one or two year strategic plan. If you are involved in or considering social lab type work, a few things to keep in mind that Hassan outlines in his work:

1) Clarify your challenge – is it clear what you are trying to accomplish and why? This focus and passion will help you both to bring in more stakeholders, and keep working at it through the ups and downs.

2) Find the people who can be your long-term committed team (or at least the core of it).

3) Spend time on your ‘pre-conditions’ (the Social Labs Fieldbook) can help you think this through)

4) Find your cadence – ‘push but don’t be aggressive’ – however you describe it, find approaches that will help your group to keep at it over the many years it may take.

I find the Social Labs framework another important contribution to how we approach complex challenges in a practical way, and staying with the particular challenge you’ve set for your group for the time it takes. Here’s to more of us having the opportunity to experiment our way to the solutions that can address the complex and systemic challenges we face, and continuing to learn with each other.

Bonnie Learn Share Lab 02.14 #3