City of Vancouver Solutions Lab: A Behind the Scenes Look At The First Two Years

Lindsay Cole (she/her)
17 min readApr 1, 2019

And, five re-frames and five successes as we move into iteration 2.0

Image credit: Amanda Mitchell

For more context about the first iteration of Vancouver’s Solutions Lab please check out our report: Navigating Complexity.

Vancouver’s SLab is inspired by the generations of xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səl̓ilwətaɁɬ / sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh), Indigenous leaders who continue to care for the land, water, people and animals that call these territories home, as they have done for generations.


This is a story of what I have learned by building the first iteration of the City of Vancouver’s public sector innovation lab, called the Solutions Lab (SLab). Vancouver’s SLab began in January 2017 in response to the City’s comprehensive Healthy City Strategy, and in particular to an action focused on Collaborative Leadership. This action acknowledged that it was not possible for the city to implement it’s many interrelated policies, particularly the Healthy City, Greenest City, and Economic Development strategies, without changing our approach to working with complex adaptive challenges.

SLab has taken inspiration from the many innovators bringing their heart, talent, and tenacity to complex challenges in communities all around the world. Many lab practitioners find themselves regularly swimming against the current of the cultural norms that they are working within. That is our job description, and it can feel relentless. There is a rich body of case studies and literature that speaks to the dimensions of public sector innovation. We’re told what leadership for public sector innovation needs to look like, what skills are required, the types of challenges we should work on, the tools that we should use, and other important enabling conditions for success. At the same time each one of us is operating from our own skills and talents, within a unique culture, and in an ever-changing context. The place where theory meets practice can be muddy and challenging to find your way through. My hope is that by sharing five re-frames, five successes, and a few closing thoughts from my experience building our SLab, that you’ll experience a few moments of clarity in finding your way through your own murky waters. I share it as an act of reciprocity; a way to contribute back to the community of generous people that have helped us to get off the ground. I also share it with the hope of helping to grow the collective impacts of all of those working on public and social innovation labs and initiatives.

The five re-frames are:

1. From individual labs to growing innovation infrastructure

2. From expert-driven lab processes to a community of practice

3. Integration of decolonization, inclusion, and equity

4. From discrete lab challenges to a transformation focus

5. From City-driven to multi-partner collaboration

The five successes are:

1. Cultivating leadership from the middle

2. Developmental evaluation

3. Participatory action research

4. A focus on complex challenges

5. Using a broad method set and holding methods lightly


Re-frame #1: From individual labs to growing innovation infrastructure

SLab 1.0 chose four different complex challenges to work on in the first iteration. These challenges were selected because they were complex, had strong staff leadership willing to try a new approach, and offered co-creation opportunities with partners across departments and in community. Each challenge had its own lab team, and each used a mix of social innovation, design, and developmental evaluation methods over 6–12 months. Each lab was productive and generative in its own way and had some important outcomes. At the end of the formal “lab” processes however, the energy to further develop, test and implement our prototypes waned. For already busy public sector staff and the community partners that we worked with in each lab, sustaining the energy required to move into prototyping and testing higher fidelity solutions and hopefully moving them to scale, proved too challenging as the pressures of their already full days won every time. Many other labs have experienced this same challenge, and few have figured out what to do about it, so we’re in good company. What to do about it?

The re-frame we’re trying next is to grow innovation infrastructure rather than focus on one-off labs. We’ll use a lab to kick-start an innovation process, to catalyze collaboration, generate new ideas, and build momentum for change. When we begin a lab with a new staff lead and team, we’ll design the lab process, and we’ll also look ahead to what happens afterward. In this looking ahead, we’ll focus on building capacities and competencies for ongoing innovation, working to create enabling conditions for change once promising prototypes are developed, and setting a line of sight to resourcing the ongoing cycle of experimentation and learning in service of the complex challenge at hand.

What, exactly, this re-frame is looking like so far is showing up in two of our SLab 2.0 challenges. The first is focused on the creation of a new collaborative governance structure that pushes decision-making down the hierarchy, provides more autonomy over use of experimentation and learning funds, centres action (rather than further planning), is organized around multi-partner collaboration structures, and moves more quickly and adaptively through cycles of prioritization, action, and learning. In the second case where the lab is just beginning, we’re looking ahead to what happens after the lab kick-start phase during the first 12 months, and beginning to line up resourcing for both community- and City-led initiatives that will expect will come afterwards into 2020 and beyond. We’re also practicing new ways of City staff from multiple departments working across silos, with one example of this being how planning and implementation work can continuously happen in dialogue with one another rather than separated into different and disconnected functions.

Re-frame #2: From expert-driven lab processes to a community of practice

The delivery model for SLab 1.0 consisted of one lab manager working with contracted facilitators for each of the four labs. This was a great way to build the capacity of the lab in the early days without having a staff team. It also allowed the experiences and perspectives of a larger number of talented people to inform how the lab processes could be designed and facilitated.

As we evaluated the results of SLab 1.0, a key insight was that much of the deepest learning about how to develop and deliver a public sector innovation lab was happening for the facilitators; people who were outside of the public sector organization that we were trying to change. Expecting that the resourcing available to staff the SLab would remain small for the foreseeable future, a delivery model that grew the “team” by growing innovation skills broadly across the organization (rather than a model of a lab as an in house consultancy) became a promising option. Thus the second major re-frame is to bring this learning in-house in order to grow the competencies, capacities, and confidence for City staff to lead innovation processes themselves as a part of how they approach their day to day work.

The way that we are experimenting with this re-frame is by building a community of practice (CoP). This CoP includes City staff from multiple departments, and is being delivered in partnership with the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia. The learning journey for Core CoP members will consist of nine half day sessions over ten months. Core CoP members will bring a complex challenge that is on their work plan this year into the cohort, and will learn, practice, and teach a range of innovation processes and practices to get them to some tested prototypes. A second way to engage is as a Constellation CoP member, allowing for interested City staff to engage in a less time intensive way. Constellation members will join the learning and teaching part of each CoP session when there is a topic of interest for them.

Re-frame #3: Integration of decolonization, inclusion and equity

In SLab 1.0 we aimed to include the lenses of decolonization, inclusion and equity into each lab through the framing of each convening question, lab team membership, and how the facilitators held space and designed the processes for sensing, systems mapping, ideation, and prototyping related to these lenses. With this approach, two of the four labs developed prototypes that quite directly responded to issues of unequal access to City systems and resources, and also issues of how some of the behaviours, systems, and structures inherent to the way that the City currently works continue to perpetuate problematic power dynamics. This is an issue that many social innovation practitioners in Canada are currently wrestling with and being called to account on in a variety of venues. Many practitioners are concerned about ensuring that this current wave of “innovation” doesn’t continue to result in colonizing, oppressive outcomes that perpetuate white privilege.

The re-frame in SLab 2.0 is to integrate stronger practices of decolonization, inclusion and equity into how the lab works. The CoP has included these three ethics and practices as core competencies, and we’re figuring out how to adapt tools and frameworks used by many labs and other innovation processes to integrate these lenses. We will continue to bring diverse teams together for each lab, and the facilitation and process design will include a stronger emphasis on how decolonization, inclusion and equity is integrated into research, sensing, systems mapping, ideation, prototyping, user testing, and evaluation. We have much to learn in this space, and will invite engagement, critique, and sharing with other social innovators working to radically improve our collective practice.

Re-frame #4: From discrete lab challenges to a transformation focus

SLab 1.0 had a mandate to work on complex challenges and deliver novel solutions to these challenges. These included policy, service, program, process, engagement, governance, and other types of solutions, yet they were still oriented toward developing, testing, and hopefully implementing promising solutions to a very specific convening question. Many labs are oriented this way, and an important insight from our evaluation and our research was that this focus on outcomes may be holding labs back from realizing a fuller potential.

SLab 2.0 is re-framing to embrace a transformation orientation at three levels — personal, organizational culture, and systemic. The intention is that this will form a more powerful change logic than a collection of individual labs focused on their own specific convening questions. Many western governments are already strongly oriented toward a performance management and evidence-based culture, concerned with delivering measurable and tangible outcomes on a relatively short-term time horizon. They also tend to be outwardly oriented, and forget the role of the individual civil servant and their interior condition (i.e. one’s own thoughts, beliefs, privilege, values, and mindsets), and most labs are following suit with this omission. If labs continue to play to this same culture, I think that they may become trapped by the very system that they are trying to change. Labs need to redefine what impacts, outcomes, and success looks like, and we need to change our theories and stories of change. SLab 2.0 will experiment with this transformation oriented theory of change at these three levels, and orient our processes, practices, evaluation, and storytelling toward this frame.

Re-frame #5: From City-driven to multi-partner collaboration

Three out of the four 1.0 labs were City-driven. City staff shaped the convening questions, identified and invited lab team members to participate, shaped and facilitated the processes used, and were the ones expected to follow-up with what would happen after the first set of prototypes were developed and tested. SLab 1.0 was 100% funded by the City, and accountabilities were to a steering committee and senior City staff. Lab teams did include community partners in a co-creative mode, however accountability to these community partners for what happened after the lab was complete was limited. The fourth 1.0 lab was co-led with a strong community partner, the Collingwood Neighbourhood House, with City staff in a more supportive and enabling role. This lab was arguably the most successful, as the community partner was able to secure funding to continue the work of the initial lab for a further three years, led by, for and in community.

The re-frame for SLab 2.0 is to diversify the accountabilities of the lab through building a richer set of meaningful community partners and collaborators. In part this is out of necessity due to the limited resources available to the lab from the City. Funding is required from different sources. More diversity and talent is needed in the team of people engaged with the SLab. Accountability to more partners will hopefully help with implementation and scaling of impacts. More importantly it is driven by a desire for greater impact. The seed for Vancouver’s lab was initially about collaborative leadership, and we’ve come full circle to embracing that more fully in the lab DNA.

The five successes that worked well in our first iteration and that we will be doubling down on in SLab 2.0 are described next.

Image credit: Janet Webber


Success #1: Cultivating leadership from the middle

Public sector labs operate within strong hierarchies. Many labs enjoy leadership from their elected officials and/or senior management, and this greatly informs and affects the nature of their strategy. In fact most literature about public sector innovation and organizational culture change tells us that leadership from the top levels in a hierarchy is an essential conditions for change. In the case of Vancouver’s lab we take our primary inspiration and motivation from staff who are leading complex change from the middle of the organization, and both the labs and community of practice are designed to support, grow and enable this leadership further.

The staff leads at the centre of each of the SLab questions have been in middle management, each holding a unique motivation and spark of possibility to be able to work differently on the complex challenges that they are tasked with. They feel deeply accountable to the communities that they serve and the issues that they are trying to shift. They are connected to the ground through their projects and teams, and they are also connected to the senior decision-makers. They are ambidextrous strategists, practitioners, partnership builders, and trouble shooters. They know how to find the room to maneuver and innovate within constrained contexts. They see the complex interactions of systems and also have an action bias. These leaders from the middle, as well as more junior staff, are the leaders that SLab focuses on supporting in both the labs and the community of practice. They are ones who will guide governments, and broader society, into the next 20 years of change and so we focus here. Their fires burn brightly, and the SLab aims to kindle and fuel these fires.

Success #2: Developmental evaluation

Developmental evaluation (DE) is a form of user focused evaluation that is uniquely oriented toward evaluating complexity. Unlike more common public sector performance measurement and evaluation frameworks that are designed to measure outcomes at the end of a process or project, DE uses cycles of strategic learning and reflection to understand and adapt interventions as they are tested. DE has helped us make sense of what we are learning as we go, and to be responsive to changing course and adapting approaches based on what is emerging.

In our case, DE helped us to move from a design brief focused on lab methods, our delivery model, and performance measures to a more strategic theory of change for SLab 2.0. Our theory of change describes our context, vision, and description of how change happens in our context, and draws from relevant theory and practice. We then describe five ways that the SLab supports this change including: shifting organizational culture; building innovation infrastructure; unlocking the potential of people; growing authentic and high impact partnerships; and telling our stories of change. With strong pressures to use more typical performance measures to describe impact, DE helped us to create and articulate a more robust, comprehensive, and hopefully higher impact change strategy and a way to understand our impacts as we work. It also provides us with a process to continuously act, reflect, and adapt our work and to strategically learn along the way.

Success #3: Participatory action research

I am privileged to be doing my PhD research on public sector innovation alongside my work as a practitioner. SLab has also partnered with the University of British Columbia with funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Public Scholars Initiative. We have worked with a class of interaction design students at Emily Carr University of Art and Design to support prototype making and testing in one of our labs, and have had UBC graduate students supporting lab work in a variety of ways as well. Taking a participatory action research (PAR) approach to building Vancouver’s lab has added rigour, reflection, credibility, and peer review that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible. It will also help with telling stories of our work, comparing the case of SLab to others with similar change agendas, and adding knowledge, experience, and cases to the broader public sector innovation lab field that is only just beginning to emerge in the academic literature. Incorporating a PAR approach to our lab-in-development has been a success of our work so far, and we hope to grow the ecosystem of researcher-practitioners as we continue to evolve.

Success #4: A focus on complex challenges

A focus on complex (rather than complicated) challenges has helped our lab to be more discerning about the types of work that we are doing, the nature of collaborations that we are growing, and the theories, frameworks and methods that we are using. In SLab 2.0 we are getting even more focused. We are working on complex challenges that relate to social, environmental, and economic sustainability to see if we can help to more rapidly advance solutions on these important urban policy issues. We are intentionally staying away from some of the practices that public sector labs are using to tackle complicated, administrative, and/or evidence-based types of approaches. Although this work is important to support the public sector in becoming more efficient and delivering better services, public sector innovation labs aren’t the best delivery model for these types of challenges. SLab is most concerned with truly complex challenges that do not respond well to linear logic models, for example improving the social determinants of health, and the intersection of issues related to food, climate change, and equity. We are firmly in the camp that believes that implementation is necessary for innovation to happen and that generating novel solutions doesn’t on it’s own lead to transformation. I believe that if lab practitioners aren’t careful, we may inadvertently perpetuate current problematic systems and structures of power, privilege, short-term solutionism, and other practices of ongoing colonization, while giving these practices continued legitimacy by renaming them as “innovation.”

Success #5: Using a broad method set and holding methods lightly

There is a proliferation of processes and tools available to lab practitioners to draw from, with OPSI’s Toolkit Navigator and Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience Lab Guide being two good examples. Many labs (including ours) began with a focus on trying to understand and apply this tool kit, and some labs choose a particular method and aim to implement it with high fidelity on multiple challenges. With some experience, practice, and wise counsel we’ve learned to hold methods and tools lightly and to focus more on the personal, organizational culture, and systems transformation objectives of our lab. We’re grateful to all of those who have taken the time to develop, collate, and curate this immense toolkit so that we can grow our efforts and impacts from this strong foundation.

At SLab, we use social innovation, systems thinking, and design (in the broad sense, not the specific human-centred or service design sense) to guide our overall process design and delivery. From there we choose and customize specific methods, tools and practices that best support each unique lab challenge, team, context, and process as it unfolds. In SLab 2.0 we are going to do a better job of integrating a decolonization, inclusion and equity lens into the tools that we use to make sure that these lenses are more fully integrated into our work. So even though some say we’ve reached peak tool-kit, we may have some additional tools to share once we come through this phase of our work.

Image credit: Maggie Low

Closing Thoughts

After two years working in the field called “public sector innovation labs”, after 8+ years working as an innovator in the public sector, and after a 20 year change-making oriented career, a few things are becoming clearer as I try to improve my own practice.

We need to pay more attention to the interior condition, and the personal place where public sector innovators lead from. Each innovator that I’ve met has their own unique calling, talents, perspectives, contexts, and connections and these arise from their personal stories, histories, beliefs, cultures, and mindsets. Some of us pay close attention to who we are becoming (no matter our age), and how we show up as innovation leaders. We work hard to model the discomfort with ambiguity, vulnerability, courage, and thoughtfulness that we’re trying to cultivate in others and in our organizations. Others of us do not bring the personal into our practice, choosing to understand innovation as an outward-oriented, organizational culture and systems change activity. We each shape culture and systems in small and large ways every day, and more attention to the personal part of public sector innovation is needed in order to grow the impacts of our work.

We can’t allow public sector innovation to become yet another exclusive, expert-driven group of special people in our organizations. We need to radically democratize the skills, tools, practices, and methods of innovation. If transformation is our goal, then this needs to be an inclusive, movement-building space.

We need much stronger power and political analyses of what these labs are doing, and to embrace how counter-cultural this work truly is. From this place, public sector innovators and labs can strategically and effectively work to change these institutions, rather than continue to adapt our innovation spaces to be more acceptable to the organizations that we’re in. This is the time to push ourselves. If labs lose this edge, and become too beholden to the organizations that we’re trying to transform, we’re doing a disservice to the opportunity for transformation that we have in front of us.

We need to be more discerning and explicit about what we mean by innovation. Past generations of “government innovation” have given us some highly problematic outcomes. In my country “innovation” has given us massive ecological destruction through energy projects like the tar sands in Northern Alberta, and multi-generational social injustices through residential schools for Indigenous peoples and ongoing colonization. Let’s be clear and ambitious about what innovation really means, and connect this to a vision of what Western governments need to become in our rapidly changing times. This should be a call to action to create a values-based definition of innovation that is founded in being in right relationship with the planet and each other.

Sourcing Is Caring!

My work is standing on the shoulders of giants, and takes inspiration from:

  • InWithForward and their call for labs to move beyond research and invention and into true innovation and implementation.
  • Chile’s Laboratorio Gobierno and their Experimenta program, and Nesta’s evaluation of this program.
  • The Indigenous Peoples and people of colour who are working to make social innovation a decolonizing practice. Special thanks to those people who are generously teaching me including: Nadia Carvalho, Aslam Bulbulia, Crecien Bencio, Kamala Todd, Spencer Lindsay, Alexander Dirksen, Jason Hsieh, and Alan Chen.
  • Mark Cabaj, Moura Quayle, and Rob VanWynsberghe, my PhD guides.
  • The other social innovation lab practitioners who I’m so privileged to learn alongside.

Lindsay Cole is the founder and manager of the City of Vancouver’s Solutions Lab, and a PhD student and Public Scholar at the University of British Columbia. She’s worked on a variety of exciting projects during her 8 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.



Lindsay Cole (she/her)

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