A call for stronger theorization of public sector innovation labs

Lindsay Cole (she/her)
9 min readJun 16, 2020

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Stories from the City of Vancouver Solutions Lab

Time for some shoegaze. Image courtesy of Amanda Mitchell.

Opening

This blog is the first in a series that tells stories from the second iteration of the City of Vancouver Solutions Lab (SLab), which ran from July 2018 — February 2020. This post is written from my points of view as a practitioner and an academic, and it’s infused by my current Ph.D. research into the transformative potential of Public Sector Innovation Labs. This first post advocates for stronger theorization of public sector innovation (a.k.a. different ways of thinking about how change happens) using the experiences from Vancouver’s SLab as a case.

Innovation is a fuzzy word that is widely used in the public sector, yet rarely defined and described clearly in practice. Stronger theorization would force practitioners and academics to make choices, get explicit, and be articulate about what we do and do not mean when we practice “innovation”. I believe that when innovation initiatives more strongly theorize what we do, that the learning, movement-building potential, and lasting changes from our work will be much more significant. At the end of this post I suugesta theorization framework, and pose some questions for the broader public sector innovation lab field to experiment with and consider.

You’ll probably be interested in this article if…

  • You wonder about how innovation labs can have more durable and meaningful impact.
  • You like wrestling with different ways that labs and innovation efforts theorize their work.
  • You enjoy reading stories from other innovation labs to learn what they are doing, and why.

Briefly — What is Vancouver’s Solutions Lab?

The Solutions Lab (SLab) is a public sector social innovation lab inside the City of Vancouver, Canada. SLab is inspired by, and aims to contribute to, the current proliferation of innovation units working in- and with- governments around the world. We began our efforts in 2016, and are now entering our third iteration.

From the beginning we’ve held the core orientations of:

  • Focusing on transformative, systemic change in the core policy areas of environment and the social determinants of health;
  • Using a mix of frameworks and tools to guide our work, drawing most heavily from systems practice, social innovation, and experimental governance;
  • Working co-creatively across City departments and with community stakeholders; and
  • Cultivating leadership throughout our organization and community.

How these orientations have been translated into practice have shifted and changed as we have iterated the SLab, and early on we did not have an explicit and strategic theory of change to guide our work. This blog post shares the journey to a theory of change for the SLab, and how our thinking and practice have shifted and adapted along the way.

What is a Theory of Change?

For those who don’t use this language, a theory of change makes explicit how an initiative thinks about and implements its change efforts. There may be other names for it, but it usually includes these key ingredients with strong threads weaving them together:

  • Vision, direction, or north star — describes values, ambition and directionality.
  • Context statement — how you see the world that you are operating in.
  • How change happens — what theories guide your understanding about how change happens. This is the piece that is most often missing.
  • Our contribution to change — this connects your description of how change happens to the strategic choices you make about what you do.
  • Activities — this is a high level description of what you do.
  • Measures + Outcomes — how do you make sense- and meaning of the results of your work.

Why is a Theory of Change Important?

There is currently a proliferation of “innovation” initiatives in the public sector. However, there is very little in practitioner or academic literature that explicitly describes the theories of change that we are using to define what innovation means, and how it is shaping our work — the “how change happens” piece of the puzzle. Some innovations are about improving customer experiences, and others are concerned with digital transformation. Some innovation efforts are about transforming systems, and others are focused on democratic and co-creation with those outside government. All of these approaches can be called “innovation”, but there are very different understandings of how change happens, and the directionality of that change, that are implicit in each of these approaches.

A theory of change makes this explicit. Words matter, and so does transparency. A good theory of change is concise and easy to read, and clearly describes the positionality and change orientation of an organization or initiative. This then informs choices about process design, who is involved, what the ambition of the innovation effort is, and eventually what tools and techniques are used and how outcomes are measured. This allows the initiative to be understood, compared, critiqued, and evaluated much more effectively than very loose understandings and approaches to change that are missing some or all of these key ingredients.

I believe that when innovation initiatives are collectively more explicit about our understanding of, and contributions to how change happens in our unique contexts, the learning and movement-building potential of our work will be much greater. Stronger impact evaluation frameworks can also be created when this foundation is put into place, rather than continuing to focus mostly on measuring outputs and activities, or the application of specific tools and techniques, that do not tell the full stories of change. It is possible that this may help to lead public sector innovation labs out of the hype cycle, and into more robust, durable and impactful results.

SLab 0.0 + 1.0 Theorization

SLab has a similar origin story to many other start-up public sector innovation initiatives, from whom we have had the benefit of learning a great deal. We did some early research into what other leading labs were doing, focused on our process design and method set, got clear enough about our “what” and “why” to get permission from senior leadership and elected officials to begin, and then jumped in and started experimenting. We didn’t have an explicit theory of change when we began, nor did we have a clear and nuanced working definition of what “innovation” meant in our work. In hindsight, this would have been very helpful, but I also think that we needed to find the path to our theory of change by walking it.

As we moved into our second iteration, having done a great deal of experimentation and learning of our own (SLab 1.0 learning is shared in this post and in this report), we developed a theory of change to guide our work. This was also informed by my Ph.D. research, drawing from interviews with practitioners, review of academic and practitioner literature, and action research. In short, these inputs made it clear that if we were going to have a decent chance at achieving the ambitious impacts that we were hoping for in SLab, then it was important for us to more strongly theorize our work in our second iteration. Here is where our thinking, experimentation and learning led us in constructing the theory of change guiding our work.

SLab 2.0 Theory of Change

Context

Our city is facing increasing pressure to address convergent and complex challenges like reconciliation and decolonization, affordability, the opioid epidemic, equity, climate change, sustainability, social isolation, falling trust in government, recruitment and retention of talented staff, and many others. The go-to structures and processes of local governments were set up for a very different reality, and for significantly different work and responsibilities, and if governments don’t adapt we’ll be left behind. We’re being called, both as individual public servants and as an organisation, to experiment, learn, and scale new solutions in response to these pressures. We’re being called to respond to the root causes of these systemic challenges, not just apply incremental quick fixes. The Solutions Lab is a response to this call.

North Star

A Vancouver that collaboratively, systemically and effectively responds to complex challenges facing our city in order to improve the lives of current and future generations and restore a relationship of care with the land, water and people. This is made possible because City of Vancouver staff and key partners are growing greater capacities to experiment and learn in service of addressing these complex social, economic and environmental challenges.

Figure 1: Solutions Lab 2.0 Theory of Change

How Change Happens

Although we draw from a wide and eclectic set of theories to inform our work, there are six that form the foundation of our work:

- Social Innovation

- Strategic + Systemic Design

- Experimental Governance

- Equity + Decolonization

- Transformative Learning

- Developmental Evaluation

SLab is working toward transformative change, and as such takes strong positions about the theories, values, practices, and approaches that inform everything that we do. The shaded petals in the innovation flower (Figure 2) describe these positions. Dark petals indicate a strong commitment to the approach, shaded petals indicate inclusion of that approach, and unshaded petals indicate that the approach is not part of SLab’s position about how change happens.

Figure 2: How change happens in SLab

Our Contributions to Change

We focus catalyzing transformative change in five priority policy areas: City of Reconciliation; Equity Strategy; Healthy City Strategy; Greenest City Action Plan; and Climate Emergency Response. The SLab has two main activities — convening co-creative labs on complex challenges, and building capacities and competencies of City staff and partners through a community of practice. These two activities contribute to our vision by:

- Shifting organisational culture to enable creative and stimulating experiences that encourage people and organizations to shift their usual ways of working and being together.

- Building innovation infrastructure that delivers ongoing research, invention, innovation, implementation, and scaling of solutions to complex challenges co-creatively and collaboratively.

- Unlocking the potential of people by building adaptive leadership, transformative learning, self-in-system, and intersectionality capacities, competencies, behaviours and experiences for CoV staff and partners.

- Growing authentic and high impact partnerships to amplify the potential impacts of our work through reciprocal and action-oriented partnerships with the many collaborators working toward a similar vision for Vancouver.

- Telling our stories of change through deep reflection, monitoring, measuring, evaluating and reporting practices.

Theorizing Public Sector Innovation — Where Might Our Field Need to Go

It is time for our field to get much better at describing and positioning the theories of change we use in our work. “Innovation” can mean many different things, yet right now we tend to include them all in one big, messy collection of generally “doing things better/differently”. But one person’s “innovation” and “different” and “better” can be very different than another’s. How power is considered is a great example of this — one effort might be working to invert or dismantle current power structures, while another might uphold them. In current public sector innovation practice both of these approaches can (and do) call themselves “innovation,” yet they will likely have vastly different values, intentions, approaches, and results. These differences matter.

In response to our experience in the City of Vancouver, my research, and the variety of strong opinions from other practitioners about how they think innovation should be described and practiced in the public sector, I suggest that explicit theories of change, and this theorization framework, may be helpful to fill the “how change happens” gap in many public sector innovation efforts. Theories of change can aid strategic thinking and choice-making early in an innovation effort. They can surface the choices that are being made when defining “innovation”, and provide a structure to question the underlying and often unstated assumptions, values, and ambitions of these initiatives. Theories of change should aim for rigour, nuance, definition, accountability, and transparency about different orientations and approaches to innovation so that the field can see itself, practitioners can compare efforts and learn from one another, and we can develop some shared ways to evaluate and understand outcomes.

Other examples of Theories of Change in (social) innovation initiatives:

If you know of other examples of public sector innovation labs, or multi-stakeholder social innovation labs, using theories of change to describe and guide their work I would love to hear about them!

Vancouver’s Solutions Lab works in the unceded and traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səl̓ilwətaɁɬ / sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) nations. Many generations of Indigenous Peoples have cared for the land, water, people and animals that call these territories home, and the SLab takes guidance and inspiration from this leadership.

Lindsay Cole is the founder and manager of the City of Vancouver’s Solutions Lab, and a Ph.D. candidate and Public Scholar at the University of British Columbia. She’s worked on a variety of exciting projects during her 10 years with the City, including leading the planning and public engagement process for the award-winning Greenest City Action Plan. Prior to joining the City, Lindsay co-founded and co-directed Sustainability Solutions Group, a workers cooperative consulting company doing climate change and sustainability work.

Graphics designed by Lily Raphael and Lloyd Lee.

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Lindsay Cole (she/her)

Lindsay Cole is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow, exploring transformative public sector innovation at Emily Carr University and UBC.