Public Sector Innovation Labs: Experiments in Transformative Learning + Scaling Deep

Lindsay Cole (she/her)
18 min readMar 1, 2023

By Lindsay Cole, Angie Tangaere, Penny Hagen + Aimee Hadrup

Niho taniwha (Chevron skink), photo by Rod Morris


In our previous blog we gathered up our shared insights about transformative learning and scaling deep from working across two different public sector innovation (PSI) labs, the Solutions Lab in the City of Vancouver and The Auckland Co-Design Lab in Aotearoa New Zealand. We articulated an additional PSI lab archetype focused on transformative learning and scaling deep, and six moves that public sector innovators and lab practitioners might consider as a pathway to deepening the impacts of lab work.

In both of these cases the focus on scaling deep and transformative learning evolved over time, and through efforts to ensure and evaluate the potential impact of different approaches. This blog post provides some more about the journey of each labs’ shift towards transformative learning processes and some specific examples of what these shifts looked like in our different settings.

We are deeply grateful for our colleagues and collaborators in our respective labs, organizations, and communities, and we hope that the ways that we’ve gathered up this thinking honour what we’ve learned together alongside each of you.

Article 1: Scaling deep and transformative learning.

Article 3: Implementing a scaling deep and transformative learning approach.

Related open access journal article here.

You may be interested in this article if…

  • You are exploring the potentials and practices of transformative learning and/or scaling in your own public sector and/or social innovation work.
  • You’re a public sector innovator and/or lab practitioner who is interested in how a learning-oriented approach — at the individual, relational, and systems scales — might support your practice.
  • You enjoy reading about how other public sector innovators and labs are reflecting on their own practice.

There are two main sections in this post where we share specific examples of shifts toward transformative learning and scaling deep — first from Vancouver’s Solutions Lab, followed by Auckland’s Co-Design Lab.

Vancouver’s Solutions Lab (SLab)

SLab began in 2016, and the first iteration featured time-bound lab processes working on specific challenges. After about two years of working in this way, developmental evaluation revealed many helpful insights, including the possibility/need to move toward transformative learning and scaling deep. The specifics of how SLab shifted in this direction in our second iteration happened in three key ways: integration of learning into lab processes; adding a community of practice; and scaling out beyond the City of Vancouver.

Shift 1: Integration of Transformative Learning into Time-Bound Innovation Lab Processes

Time-bound lab processes focused on discrete, complex challenges remained a part of the second iteration of SLab; however, they were done with a redesigned approach where they were co-designed and co-facilitated by the lead(s) in each of the labs rather than being led by SLab staff. For each of the eight labs in the second iteration, these leads were City staff from different departments, and in two cases also included community partners. These co-leads were the primary convenors of the lab alongside SLab staff, and their day-to-day work focused on the complex question being addressed in the lab process. Instead of the more expert- and client-oriented approach to lab design and delivery which was followed in the first iteration, these staff and community co-leads formed a design and facilitation team alongside the SLab staff.

Practically this looked like the lab co-conveners actively working together between lab workshops to: discuss, develop, and design lab workshops; reflect on how the process was working; debrief what was emerging; determine skillful process responses; design a variety of process interventions to support the team in moving toward transformation; protect and grow enabling conditions for the work with senior managers, other departments, and community partners; and gather up learning, results, and outcomes. In this way, the co-conveners built their own competencies and capacities for designing, leading, and evaluating a social innovation lab process in an action-oriented and applied way, while working alongside the SLab team for coaching, learning, and support.

Shift 2: Community of Practice

The community of practice (CoP) was a new addition to the second iteration of SLab and took inspiration from Chile’s Experimenta program, calls for equity and reconciliation to be more fully embedded in public sector work, and literature and practice from transformative adult learning and adaptive leadership. Overall, the CoP used a hybrid of Theory U and systemic design to create a coherent learning journey for members. This included sessions focused on: co-initiating; sensing and action research; systems practice; reflection and reframing; self-in-system; ideation; prototyping; evaluation; storytelling; and co-embodying.

The purpose for the CoP was to:

  • Learn, discuss, practice, and apply theories, frameworks, and techniques that support transformative public sector innovation;
  • Generate, test, implement, and potentially scale meaningful and innovative solutions to some of the city’s most complex challenges;
  • Create a supportive place for members to challenge themselves, reframe their assumptions, take some risks, reflect, and get uncomfortable in order to build the leadership capacities and capabilities that will enable them to continue their systems transformation work long after the learning journey is complete; and
  • Build a creative, engaged, and joyful community of shared learning and practice with a cohort of City staff where they support each other’s personal and professional development.

In 2018 a prototype series of six experimental workshops with City staff was designed and facilitated to develop and test some early ideas about the purpose and pedagogy for the CoP. In 2019, after securing additional action research funding, a first full year of the CoP was collaboratively designed and facilitated by a team from the City of Vancouver and the University of British Columbia. A second full cycle of the CoP was iterated and led by City of Vancouver staff in 2020 as a virtual experience.

The CoP had two levels of engagement:

  • Core/Supernova: a more in-depth (half day each month with invitations to practice in between sessions) 10 month long applied learning journey for a smaller (15–20 people/year) cohort of City staff and (in 2020) community partners. Core/Supernova CoP members brought a complex challenge into the CoP on which they practiced and applied their learning from beginning to end (and beyond).
  • Constellation/Nebula: a lower commitment, more accessible (90 minutes/month), drop-in CoP for staff and community partners (~100 people in total) during the same time frame. Constellation/Nebula CoP members came to the first learning/teaching focused part of each session in a more flexible arrangement.

Shift 3: Scaling transformative learning beyond City of Vancouver

As this work inside the City of Vancouver continued, and the SLab team continued reflection and evaluation work about the impacts we were having (including the enabling conditions for this work in our organization at this time), we decided to iterate on the learning journey once again. We wanted to share this transformative learning experience with innovators in other cities, and also deepen our impacts on policy issues of particular importance for us — those at the intersections of climate, equity, and decolonization. “We” in this case is Lily Raphael and Lindsay, SLab team members who decided to stretch beyond our work inside one city.

From 2020–2021 we designed and facilitated an applied and action research program in collaboration with the University of British Columbia, with funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. We grew into a diverse, seven member research team and co-created the Transforming Cities From Within Learning journey. Ten Canadian city-based teams and two network-serving organizations supporting local governments (totaling ~40 people) came together to work on complex challenges at the intersections of climate, equity, and decolonization that were of specific relevance and importance to their home communities and places.

Transforming Cities From Within learning journey process map

Different things become possible when working across governments/organizations than are possible when staying inside one that provides insights about transformative learning and scaling deep. Stuck and systemic patterns common to public sector work become even more prominent. Having network-scale organizations working alongside specific cities surfaced different opportunities for how they might work together/enable one another’s work. Relationships around shared commitments and concerns were seeded and nurtured. People had a collective experience of being in this work together and feeling less alone. They built/deepened the language and practices of transformative social innovation in service of climate, equity, and decolonization work.

Transforming Cities From Within: visionary, relational, and personal practices. With gratitude and acknowledgement to Lily Raphael, Maggie Low, Mumbi Maina, and Kyla Pascal, collaborators and co-creators of Transforming Cities from Within.

Auckland’s Co-Design Lab (The Lab)

The Lab was established in 2015 to address complex social and systems issues through participatory and design-led ways of working as a partnership between local and central government. As a learning and innovation initiative, The Lab’s remit is to help build the capability and readiness of the public sector to shift the norms and patterns of working that hold inequity in place. The Lab does this by taking a local view with a systems lens, working with families, communities, and other system partners to understand and demonstrate the conditions (e.g. policy, practices, resources flows, mindsets) for equity and intergenerational wellbeing and to model and promote investment in the social and cultural infrastructure and ways of working that enable this. The Lab works in partnership with The Southern & Western Initiative (TSI/TWI), a place-based socio-economic transformation unit focused on prosperity for communities in South and West Auckland.

Like the SLab, The Auckland Co-design Lab was initiated around a series of co-design challenges and co-design Master Classes presenting co-design as a means to address complex socio-economic systems issues. This first phase demonstrated the value of a cross agency, participatory and systemic perspective on such issues. It also showed that the “challenge” model which brought together public servants and community to “innovate” around an issue in a defined time frame, was not on its own enough to bridge the gap between the reframing of issues, design concepts and policy recommendations that emerged, and meaningful shifts in system behaviours inside agencies. More problematic was that co-design practices initially promoted by The Lab were also grounded in western design and innovation concepts, and while seeking to address inequity also had the potential to perpetuate colonial approaches and mindsets.

Like the SLab has above, we describe how The Lab shifted direction away from an emphasis on co-design and towards more foundational practices around complexity, equity, learning and Indigenous-led innovation, through three key shifts:

Shift 1: From western co-design methods and processes to Indigenous and Te Titiri-led models of practice

During the first phase of The Lab, there were challenges and questions raised around the use of western design processes (e.g the double diamond) and their suitability and flexibility in the cultural context of working with and within Māori and Pasifika communities and within the framework of Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the founding document of New Zealand that outlines the relationship between Māori and the Crown). Māori and Pacific practitioners such as Angie Tangaere (now Lab co-director) led a reclaiming and reshaping of the innovation process through a cultural innovation lens, bringing in the values and practices aligned to tangata whenua (Māori) and other cultures of the Pacific to The Lab and wider TSI work, (see for example The Early Years Design Challenge, Uptempo). Over time and as a result of this partnership with TSI, practitioners shifts were made to ground the practices and methods developed, shared and promoted in and by the Lab more respectfully to the culture and perspectives of Aotearoa. There was an intentional move beyond the non-critical teaching and promotion of western design practices and tools, towards the development of and re-connection to practices that more appropriately responded to the cultural diversity, capacity, context, histories, complexities and inequities experienced in south and west Auckland, and the obligations of Te Tiriti.

Initially there was a focus on indigenising western models of design through the development of culturally appropriate practices, evolving into ‘whānau centred design’ lead by tikanga practice. This was followed by a fuller move to reclamation of Indigenous practices at the forefront. The practice continues to evolve intentionally drawing on multiple evidence bases including Indigenous knowledge, western knowledge and lived experience. At the heart is a shift towards approaches that are relational, values-led, placed-based, and ensuring processes intentionally lead with, prioritize, and re-balance power through centring Indigenous practices.

This shift is visible in the growing roles within the Lab that are dedicated to mātauranga Māori and a move to a shared leadership model that reflects the partnership intended by Te Tiriti, with a Kaitohu (Director) Tangata Whenua and Kaitohu Tangata Tiriti. It is also visible in practices such as Hautū Waka, an Indigenous innovation practice based on navigation and wayfinding, and Niho Taniwha an evaluative learning practice that draws upon mātauranga Māori and western system change practices to track and connect innovation work and embed a learning culture. Foregrounding Indigenous knowledge systems creates the conditions to recognise new tohu (signs/indicators) and value different things, based on ancient wisdom and what whānau say will make a difference. It shifts what we are observing as impactful for building the capabilities for system change. The practices named above draw upon inherent holistic perspectives and by default provide the means for deep reflective practice, they are complexity informed and work with rhythm, pace, space, relationship and learning rather than reductive planning approaches. They require teams to acknowledge and attune to all their senses, each other and different environmental tohu. They support teams to learn their way into new journeys and new destinations, whilst also bringing forward, testing and contextualising existing evidence.

Shift 2: A shift from co-design to foundational practices

As part of deepening the practice from a place and cultural perspective, The Lab also stepped back from sharing co-design tools, methods and processes to focus on the underpinning conditions that are necessary for intergenerational wellbeing and that currently hold inequity in place. The Lab began to experiment with learning programs that were deliberately focused on scaling deep, meaning they helped teams to surface and grapple with the fundamental mindsets and practices within the public sector and how these perpetuate inequity or enhanced equity.

Foundations wheel describing foundations of The Lab programs

As an example, the Design for Equity and Intergenerational Wellbeing Foundations programme was focused on building the capability of public sector practitioners and teams to hold a complexity and equity lens to their daily work, and to embed a learning and critical reflective practice approach. It was intentionally designed to enable people to go deep into the foundations that underpin everyday practice and decision-making for public servants and grapple with how these served (or conflicted with) the intentions of their daily work. Teams were supported throughout the programme to explore the questions outlined in the Foundations Wheel, and to build their competency and comfort in traversing these issues that are rarely given time in normal day to day practice. It is structured around four phases.

  1. Connecting in together and grounding in Hautū Waka: an Indigenous innovation and navigation approach based on deep mātauranga that is as a complexity informed way of understanding a social innovation and systems change journey.
  2. Ways of working and being together: unpacking the values that underpin public sector work and how these impact our daily actions in the public service, who these normally serve and whose priorities they reflect, understanding what values-led and place-based practice looks like, and building a shared understanding of how history and equity are bound up in the current systems in tangible and intangible ways.
  3. From transaction to transformation: paying attention to how we work as public servants, and the outcomes and benefits of working differently together and in relationship. From a focus on the output to a focus on how and who we work with as change making in itself. Rethinking scaling as being about principles and relationships and conditions, moving beyond projects as a means for change, and paying attention to the six conditions of systems change to understand where and how change actually happens.
  4. Building (systems and personal) evaluative learning and reflective practice capacities into everyday work: what is tracked and paid attention to, changes in the system as well as in communities, building a learning orientation, understanding the role of transformative learning in system change and systems innovation by drawing on systems innovation theory and kaupapa Māori developmental evaluation.

While the questions posed in the Foundations Wheel seem daunting at the outset of the programme, the process took groups of practitioners into courageous challenging conversations and provided them with tools to reflect on and explore those questions more with their wider team and within their agency. This often revealed a conflict between personal values and the values on which the system operates. It also helped equip practitioners and teams with the means to disrupt these and identify ways to prioritize other mindsets and practices as a contribution and step towards equity and transformational change of the system. As practical examples, this includes the incorporation of safe reflective practices and spaces within complex work, a strengthened and collective position on the role of whānau and communities in decision making, the resetting or resisting of conventional ideas about scale and impact and actively challenging the notion that things that scale up and out are more important than things that scale deep or are particular to place.

Shift 3: Systems learning

At the same time as the above, there was also a shift away from discrete innovation projects or prototypes, towards embedding longer term ongoing live implementation learning processes that would create the space for learning at both practitioner and systems level and for scaling deep as part of implementation. Two specific examples are given below.

Example 1: Implementation Learning Platforms (ILPs)

ILPs are an experimental approach to supporting public sector teams to bring a transformative learning practice into existing and ongoing public sector transformation and reform work. It is an attempt to bridge the policy and practice divide, connecting decision-making at national and regional levels to the human scale and lived realities, creating a transformative learning process for both the system and the people within it. Often there is a strategic and/or policy mandate for public teams to innovate for transformation, contrasted with a lack however of practice, processes and mechanism to support this innovation. ILPs help provide the infrastructure for public sector teams to learn into the desired capabilities and capacities for system change.

The context for this approach is a commitment in the public sector in New Zealand for a shift to more wellbeing oriented practices, where the central government acts as an enabler for locally led responses and leadership. A critical aspect of this is realizing our Te Tiriti (Treaty) o Waitangi obligations including prioritizing Māori leadership, mātauranga (Māori knowledge) and Te Ao Māori (Māori world view) ways of being. Enacting these new structures and ways of working requires significant change, including effort and investment in new capacity, capability, and connections for the public sector. It also requires investment in learning (and unlearning) processes especially around power sharing, accountability and structural racism. The ILPs are a response to the need for investment in the learning processes required at a systems level, to build the kinds of capability and capacity into the system (and the people within the system) that the shifts laid out in current visions for reform require.

The approach draws on the evaluative learning framework Niho Taniwha. The Niho Taniwha learning system was initially developed to support innovation teams to track systems change impacts and strategic learning at The Southern Initiative. We are now experimenting with it as a systems wide learning platform that connects policy teams working on specific issues with teams and families on the ground in place and in locality seeking to model leading and transformational practice around those issues.

Niho Taniwha (Teeth of the Taniwha)

With similarities to the Human Learning Systems approach ILPs integrate a learning practice and framing around the implementation of reforms to policy, investment approaches, strategy, structures, and practice. Rather than a capability program that runs separately to the work streams teams are charged with, ILPs are a ‘learning wrapper’ around business-as-usual efforts embedding a critical and reflective learning process, based on mātauranga Māori and western approaches, into the day to day work of public sector teams. It assumes that the process of trying to work differently is something that we need to learn our way into by doing it, rather than plan, research, or even design our way into.

Importantly this is not research or co-design. The transformative learning comes through trying to actually implement change in practice, and creating a reflection space for unpacking some of the aspects of scaling deep that might surface as barriers along the way. This includes mindsets, values, and mental models underpinning policy and reform structures that may need to be shifted or challenged. In particular the colonial ideology, mindsets and attitudes that are often underlying and contribute to reinforce inequity. Using the Niho Taniwha framework of grounded and collective learning questions, the ILP helps support and connect learning between people and whānau working in place and the teams involved in the policy and structural conditions and behaviours that support that, using learning questions, reflection, data, insight, and evidence gathering and wāhi ako (collective learning spaces).

Example 2: Early Years ILP

A specific example of this approach is the Early Years ILP initiated in 2022. The platform connects teams from across different government agencies who are responsible for child and youth wellbeing strategy, reform, and implementation, and those who are already experimenting with different approaches to early years and to child wellbeing. The platform has three core objectives.

  1. Building and sharing practice-based evidence about what matters to whānau and tamariki wellbeing in place (as determined by them), through collective action and learning on the ground with communities.
  2. Connecting that to the policy, systems, behaviours, relationships, and values we need at different levels to be responsive to lived realities and place.
  3. Supporting learning cycles that build evidence and capability at different levels — across and between community and government.
Early years learning platform.

The platform creates a shared connecting and learning space for teams that are moving towards or modeling the future desired qualities of an early years system that is centrally enabled, locally led, and culturally grounded. Central policy development and infrastructure can then be developed and iterated on the basis of what is learnt about how to best create enabling conditions in locality. The process involves learning about what works on the ground whilst identifying, lifting up, and building the system competencies and capabilities to achieve that at a systems level.

In Closing

We hope that these rich descriptions of the different ways that we are thinking about, practicing, and enacting scaling deep and transformative learning in the contexts of Vancouver and Aotearoa New Zealand provide some provocations, inspirations, and food for thought for your own practices. As practitioners, we are excited by the potential that this public sector innovation lab archetype of transformative learning and scaling deep offers to the field in our efforts in increase and deepen the systemic impacts of our work. We would be interested to hear from other practitioners who are experimenting and learning in this space, and to continue to grow these practicies with one another.


Dr. Lindsay Cole (she/her)

Lindsay is an uninvited settler on the unceded and traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səl̓ilwətaɁɬ / sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) nations, and the swiya of the self-governing shíshálh Nation. Lindsay founded and leads the Solutions Lab at the City of Vancouver, where she is motivated and inspired every day by her colleagues — both in- and outside government — who are doing their very best to make Vancouver more sustainable and just. She’s worked on a variety of exciting projects with the city over her 12 year tenure, including leading the planning and public engagement process for the award-winning Greenest City Action Plan. Lindsay is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of British Columbia, where she researches and teaches about transformative innovation for social and ecological justice.

Angie Tangaere Ngāti Porou (she/her)

Angie Tangaere was born in Papakura and raised in South Auckland with a whakapapa to Ngāti Porou on her father’s side and Pākeha from Taranaki on her mother’s side. Graduating with a law degree, Angie was keen to work at a community level and took up a role at Te Puni Kōkiri working with iwi and Māori trusts in South Auckland. Angie then worked with the Ministry of Social Development in South Auckland communities looking for ways to develop better services and engagement with communities and whānau, as well as with Māori health NGO, the National Hauora coalition. She has a Masters in Māori and Indigenous Leadership at University of Canterbury Aotearoa New Zealand and is currently Kaitohu Tangata Whenua, Auckland Co-design Lab where she combines her experience with government agencies, community and whānau to develop and co-design whānau-led innovation initiatives, disrupting ineffective ‘business as usual’ systems.

Dr. Penny Hagen Pākehā (she/her)

Penny is the Director Tangata Tiriti of the Auckland Co-Design Lab where she assists organisations, teams and communities to take a systems-oriented approach to wellbeing. Working across Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, Penny has supported cross-sector teams and communities to respond to complex social issues by connecting policy and evidence to the lived realities and aspirations of communities. Penny has a PhD in participatory design and her work integrates approaches from wellbeing, health, design, youth development, systems, and evaluation disciplines. In addition to leading the Lab mahi on design for equity and intergenerational wellbeing, Penny is the design representative on the Ministry for Social Development Ethics committee, on the Understanding Police Delivery Independent Panel, and Ngā Aho Kaupapa Whānau. She is a strong advocate of social design and ethics practices that are of Aotearoa, supporting events and forums that develop and strengthen local practice and networks.

Aimee Hadrup Pākehā (She/her)

Born and raised in rural West Auckland, Aimee is passionate about enabling people most affected by complex challenges to play an active role in shaping solutions with system-level impact. She holds a Master’s degree in Public Health and has dedicated more than 15 years to improving community health and wellbeing through a variety of roles spanning the commissioning, development, implementation and evaluation of social change initiatives. This included senior roles at the Ministry of Health. Prior to joining TSI, Aimee was a part of the leadership team at Innovation Unit, where she had the privilege of working on a wide range of significant social innovation and co-design projects across New Zealand and Australia alongside some of the world’s leading innovation practitioners. Aimee is driven by an unwavering belief that we must do more to improve equity in Aotearoa. This has led her to exploring how the disciplines of co-design and systems thinking can be brought together to disrupt the conditions preventing all people from thriving.



Lindsay Cole (she/her)

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