A call for stronger theorization of public sector innovation labs

Stories from the City of Vancouver Solutions Lab

Time for some shoegaze. Image courtesy of Amanda Mitchell.


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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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:

  • 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.

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.

Figure 1: Solutions Lab 2.0 Theory of Change
Figure 2: How change happens in SLab

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.

Lindsay Cole is the founder and manager of the City of Vancouver’s Solutions Lab, and an Adjunct Professor at the University of British Columbia.