Public Sector Innovation Labs: Implementing a scaling deep and transformative learning approach

Lindsay Cole (she/her)
20 min readSep 21, 2023

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

Swallowtail butterfly wing scales. Photo by Karl Gaff.


Through scaling deep and transformative learning, we are trying to create spaces and opportunities to challenge and shift fundamental assumptions and mindsets. This is in order to enable new ways of working and different kinds of outcomes in public sector innovation work. We are seeking to destabilize, re-form, and reimagine, and to build different capacities and capabilities along the way. We think that the practices of scaling deep and transformative learning are what help us to move beyond expressed shifts in institutional aims, values, goals, strategies, and outcomes that often remain performative or out of reach. Scaling deep and transformative learning are part of the pathway from where we are, to where we say we want to be.

This blog is the third in a series about scaling deep in public sector and social innovation lab practice from our experiences as practitioners working with Auckland’s Co-Design Lab and Vancouver’s Solutions Lab. The first post focuses on describing and defining what scaling deep and transformative learning are or might be (building on the work of Riddell, Moore and Tulloch). It offers a description of a lab typology with this focus, and describes six moves for practitioners to make when working toward scaling deep and transformative learning. The second post shares some stories from our respective experiences and experiments with scaling deep and transformative learning.

In this third post we expand on our description of the transformative learning and scaling deep lab typology, discuss why scaling deep and transformative learning matters for public sector innovation. We describe what this work has looked like in our contexts and how it relates to other forms of scaling. We also offer ways to understand when and if it is having an impact. We are still very much figuring this out in our own thinking and practices, so please read this as learning-out-loud, and as practices-in-motion. We also have published an open access journal article on these topics for anyone interested in having a look at that.

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 honor what we’ve learned together alongside each of you. We are also grateful to have been in such a generative dialogue where we’ve shared and built practice together.

You may be interested in this article if…

  • You are a public sector and/or social innovator, and enjoy reading about how other public sector innovators and labs are reflecting on their own practice.
  • You are grappling with what “scaling” means in your social innovation work, feel like there’s more to it than “more/bigger”, and are trying to find language to talk about scaling deep as a different way to understand, think and talk about impact.
  • You are a social innovator who is curious about some ways to think and talk about translating scaling deep and transformative learning into practice in different contexts.

This post has five main sections. The first expands the description of a public sector innovation lab typology focused on transformative learning and scaling deep, and the second section describes five qualities of what scaling deep has looked like for us in implementing this typology. We then explore the relationships between scaling deep and other types of scaling common in innovation efforts. This is followed by ways to evaluate and measure the impacts of scaling deep and transformative learning and then a conclusion.

Expanding the Transformative Learning and Scaling Deep Lab Typology

In the first blog we articulated four different lab typologies, or ways of thinking about the role of labs, that have been described by research and practitioner colleagues, these are (1) creative platform; (2) innovation unit; (3) change partner; and (4) systemic co-design. We also introduced a fifth typology, (5) transformative learning and scaling deep. We describe Type 5 labs as focusing simultaneously on the deep and challenging work of internal (hearts, minds, paradigms) and external (systems, power, culture) transformation. Based on where we’ve traveled in our practice and learning alongside one another, and in service to our colleagues, we wanted to share a richer description of this typology here.

Rather than working on discrete projects, the purpose of Type 5 labs is to help public sector teams and communities challenge and shift system conditions, and increase the pathways and opportunities for prioritizing outcomes focused on social and ecological justice and wellbeing. Such system shifts cannot be achieved through the usual ways of working in government, nor through some of the common approaches used in the other lab typologies. To do innovation work in ways that genuinely creates opportunities for different outcomes requires challenging and resetting organizational (and sometimes personal) values, goals, power dynamics, strategies, and approaches to those that centre people and place. These are visceral, transformational, and embodied shifts that need to be felt in people and in systems.

As we noted in the first blog, labs in this fifth typology stay entangled with purpose, acting, learning, inquiring, and evaluating in ongoing cycles. They move beyond working on discrete challenges in time bound ways and instead into much broader challenge framing. The innovation work becomes about growing the capacity of individuals, relationships, and the system to hold the complexities of working deeply, through transformative learning processes. The boundaries of what is or is not the “lab” become less clear and more embedded in “everyday practice” when working toward learning and scaling deep.

Source: Sharpe, B., Hodgson, A., Leicester, G., Lyon, A., & Fazey, I. (2016). Three horizons: a pathways practice for transformation. Ecology and Society, 21(2).

Innovation and transformation models like the Berkana Institute’s Two Loops, Three Horizons (above), and Adaptive Cycle (amongst others, noting their distinctly Western viewpoints) are helpful in making visible what this work is. In different ways, they all make clear that there are patterns and ways of working that need to be disrupted, hospiced, and/or re-formed in transformation processes. Systems transformation work happens at the intersection space of the three horizons; in the space between the two loops; in the adaptive cycles’ move from release to reorganization. They describe the work to be done to close the gap between our aspirational institutional aims, values, goals, strategies, and how they become new and implemented practice.

These models show us the need to simultaneously grapple with unpacking the things that are not working within the existing system, hospice what is no longer serving, and create space for the vision of what is to come. This implies an imperative to build the capacities of people and systems to skillfully make these moves. Cultivating a shift from focusing on “what” we are doing and “what” works and “what” will fix things, to a focus on “why”, “who”, “how”, “where”, and ways of being and doing are part of grappling with the deep issues and challenges that underpin ongoing ecological and social injustices and harm. This is necessarily a transformative learning process. This lab typology focused on scaling deep and transformative learning uproots some of the constructs of innovation labs that are becoming established, and invites/requires ongoing contestation with the theories of change at work in these labs as they change over time.

Implementing a scaling deep and transformative learning approach

We have found that we have needed to be thoughtful, deliberate, and strategic in creating the spaces and opportunities for scaling deep and transformative learning. This is not the natural state of working in the public sector, nor a commonly held expectation of innovation and lab work. We describe five qualities of what scaling deep has looked and felt like in our experiences with implementing this typology, acknowledging that we are still incubating and experimenting our way along.

  1. Scaling deep is about setting a new trajectory — it won’t happen without intention, commitment, and growing the capacities and capabilities for transformative learning.
  2. Scaling deep means working with mindsets, assumptions and values — this is emotional and transformative, and brings resistance and discomfort.
  3. Scaling deep involves connecting to culture, history, trauma and healing, and grappling with the specificity of people and place.
  4. Scaling deep requires working at multiple levels, and engaging in the relationships between people and systems.
  5. Scaling deep is something we can cultivate the conditions for in order to create the potential for different pathways and possibilities.

1. Scaling deep is about setting a new trajectory — it won’t happen without intention, commitment, and the capacities and capabilities for learning.

Scaling deep won’t happen without intention. It is counter-cultural and needs clear purpose and attention paid to it. How we work, and the processes and journeys that people go on together when working collaboratively on a complex innovation challenge, are as important as the outcomes. This includes building understanding of cultural practices, creating/expanding learning cycles and spaces, engaging in critical reflection, growing relational practices, building capacity to hold complexity and work collectively, and thinking beyond projects or programs and instead into systems. It includes embedding learning, equity, and systems capabilities into the everyday of government practices. We need to experience and build evidence of new practices, capabilities and processes that begin and proceed differently, and to experience intentional disruptions of old patterns and creation of new patterns. This takes a long time. Outcomes are non-linear, challenging to measure, and not directly causal.

2. Scaling deep means working with mindsets, assumptions and values — this is emotional and transformative, and brings resistance and discomfort.

Scaling deep requires creating, cultivating, and holding space for people to get into the messy, uncomfortable aspects of change and learning work. It is a growing and stretching space that moves beyond the transactional and into bigger questions and issues that are political, values-laden, entrenched, personal, and often go unsaid in day-to-day work. Centering and surfacing issues of equity, racism, values, power, and justice (for all beings) inevitably expose the ways in which current structures and patterns of working hold current outcomes in place, the harms that this causes, and how practitioners in this system are implicated in perpetuating this. This creates internal conflict and discomfort when people need to grapple with staying in a system that doesn’t reflect their values, or people are having their values and norms challenged, sometimes for the first time.

Many people, particularly those that hold white, gender, class, and other privileges, become aware for the first time of the multitudinous and different experiences that colleagues and collaborators are having even though they are in the same contexts and situations. This is because of their different histories, cultures, lived experiences, positionalities, privilege and identities. The presumed ‘neutrality’ of public sector ways of working are exposed (for some) instead as having a bias toward upholding dominant and oppressive ways of knowing and being. In colonised contexts grappling with issues of racism, power, and exploitation and the processes of decolonisation and Indigenisation need to be supported without re-centring whiteness. These are risky spaces, and require connecting with our own stories, history, lineages, and identities. Personal transformation is part of scaling deep. Transformative learning processes and practices can help us to hold the challenge and complexity of staying with the trouble, and of grappling with what this means as part of innovation processes.

3. Scaling deep involves connecting to culture, history, trauma and healing, and the specificities of people and place.

There is a precept that place-based policy, programs, and services are too challenging, time consuming, or bespoke when compared to working with abstracted national data sets and outcomes at population levels. Yet in reality, when we are working in spaces that are complex, or where inequity and trauma are embedded into systems and structures, a focus on the abstracted and generalized holds us in shallow, transactional ways of working. Little real or significant impact is made because these generic, replicable solutions don’t change anything beyond the surface in any fundamental way, or reinforce the inequities of the status quo. Scaling deep requires the capability to engage with the specificity of people in place, the histories and traumas, and the aspirations and capacities that reside there. Scaling deep enables the capacity to work relationally with those things, to confront them and give space to ways of working that are attuned to and respond to those specificities, and that grow the capacity of people in place rather than assume expertise and solutions best come from elsewhere.

The role of the public sector isn’t necessarily to do this work themselves, as often they/we don’t have the capacity or trust-based relationships to hold the important conversations with communities to develop their own responses. The role might instead be to provide scaffolding for communities themselves to do the healing work, to scale deep and create the spaces and things they need in place to grow wellbeing and to respond in their own ways, rather than prescribing what those communities need. The goal is for the public sector to show up in a different way, perhaps to create and support the conditions for communities to scale deep themselves in the ways that matter most for them. This might mean beginning with repair and healing. This might mean working in relation to what is already in place, including the cultural context and history, opening up to different knowledge systems and ways of being and challenging assumptions about what is important and of value. This is what moves us away from the transactional and creates space for transformation.

4. Scaling deep requires working at multiple levels, and engaging in the relationships between people and systems.

Scaling deep requires shifts in both people and systems. Going deep happens at personal and team levels alongside systems-in-place levels. It is structural — teams, organisations, collaboratives, systems, places, policy. It is relational — within self, in community, in place, with land, with environment and beyond. It is temporal — pasts, presents, futures. It is fractal — the repeating patterns from small to large.

Scaling deep often feels like doing double-work, as it requires working simultaneously at these multiple levels at the same time. While the starting point may be supporting a program or project, this becomes the trigger for a deeper engagement with what is holding the status quo in place. We are seeking to challenge and shift those underpinning structures, assumptions and values in order to shift the trajectory of that or subsequent programs or projects into something that is based on a different set of assumptions and values. The practice of scaling deep involves navigating this multi-level work, holding in view the connections across the boundaries of people, planning, policy, implementation, and across histories and time. Scaling deep requires keeping attuned to the connections between these different levels, and not return to the usual silos between them that keeps thinking and action compartmentalized.

5. Scaling deep is something we can cultivate the conditions for in order to create the potential for different pathways and possibilities.

Within the public sector people are always working at pace, with accountability practices that keep us focused on tasks at the surface level. Rather than create a separate learning space outside of, or in addition to, the intensity of PS delivery, we have learnt that a parallel line of reflection and learning weaved through the work can enable teams to create the conditions for scaling deep for themselves and their partners as they go. This means continuing the work at pace and also creating the space within that momentum to grapple with more than the “what” of the work, including (for example): pausing and checking assumptions; creating space for brave and courageous conversations; naming and skillfully hospicing what is no longer serving; and learning, reflecting, and acting on things such as values and relationships as they are shifting through the work. It requires slowing down (whilst still moving), beginning differently, unlearning, re-patterning, and unfreezing. (Quick footnote: There is a range of work emerging around trauma and systems change, for example Haumanu is an approach to restorative systems change from Aotearoa New Zealand. John Kania & Katherine Milligan of the Collective Change Lab have been exploring the role of trauma and healing in collective systems change drawing on the learning of many other practitioners. The links between personal and cultural somatics are being explored by people like Resmaa Menakem and Staci Haines and their collaborators.)

The Relationships Between Types of Scaling

Currently we tend to assume within government, including public sector innovation initiatives, that scaling out (e.g. replicating and growing solutions across a landscape) and scaling up (e.g. embedding solutions into policy and management systems) are the most effective way to achieve impact. Skillful consideration and integration of scaling deep alongside these approaches means that the systemic impacts of the overall innovation effort are likely to be much greater. In other words, scaling up and out will look different, and will realize different impacts, when scaling deep is part of the strategy. This is because scaling up and out do not typically contend with the deeper layers of systems change efforts including mindsets, paradigms, values, power, and relationships that may fundamentally change the direction, value base, or intent of policy or program approaches.

By making time and space for scaling deep alongside scaling up and out, it is much more likely that an innovation effort will be more challenging to the status quo. If scaling up, out, and deep are happening together, the process and outcomes are different, more fundamental, harder, and disruptive. Scaling deep can reconceptualize what scaling up and out might look like, and what scaling approaches — together — aim to achieve. For PSI labs more specifically, prioritising scaling deep approaches means that experiments and prototypes have the possibility of scaling into changing hearts and minds, and into the deep social infrastructures and values of the public sector that then shape governance strategies, commissioning/procurement and investment approaches, approaches to sharing power and collaborations, and operating models for budgets, program delivery, job descriptions, and the like. Innovation work is much more likely to have ongoing ripple effects when scaling deep is an intentional part of the strategy — once mindset, values, hearts, and minds shift, this impacts everything that comes afterwards.

An example of the interplay of these types of scaling is social/ethical/sustainable procurement in the public sector. Scaling up focuses on establishing policies and decision-making processes and protocols for these shifts in procurement. Scaling out expands social procurement across multiple departments, teams, and even organizations. Scaling deep connects to the values and purposes of the work, including the learning-related aspects of this work, where staff are supported to understand why this is important, see how their individual actions can make a difference, and are encouraged to lead and innovate in their own contexts. Without this final aspect of scaling that helps people align to the value of social procurement and why it is important, other scaling efforts may exist in principle but are not fully activated, prioritized, or contextualized.

A strategic integration and focus on scaling deep in public sector innovation work does not come without risks. Some limitations of scaling deep in a PSI lab context are that activities and impacts can be less visible, and they can be much harder to measure and demonstrate value in standard ways (i.e. KPI’s). It can become less clear what the work of the lab is about as it tends to move away from running distinct time- and problem-bound innovation processes and toward intervening in governance processes in the systems and structures of power and decision-making, and in activities like professional development, organizational management/change, project management, procurement, public engagement, and human resource management. Another limitation is that it often pushes at the edges of peoples’ tolerance levels and readiness for transformation, resulting in push back, resistance, and conflict. It is often challenging the dominant ideologies at the heart of the system and therefore personal beliefs and values — which have sat unchallenged for some time.

Scaling deep surfaces what it really takes to work differently, which can expose difficult truths about things that the public sector tends to hide or avoid. Some example of this are: the amount of time it actually takes to make real progress on complex challenges; the kinds of risks that are and are not tolerated; the critical nature of building trust-based relationships and how often this is short-cutted or harmed; how ego shows up in public sector work; and the various ways that civil servants have to game the dominant systems and approaches to work systemically, equitably, and relationally. Scaling deep can be harder for some people but also easier, more aligned, and integrous for many others even though it is rarely centered as a valid and valued way of being and working in the public sector.

Evaluating Impacts of Scaling Deep and Transformative Learning

Working in complex systems change never has neat cause-effect relationships. Deep work takes time to fully take root and grow, with ripple effects that can appear for many years to come. This means that evaluating impacts from innovation work in this context is different from conventional public sector approaches to measurement. As noted above, the effects of scaling deeper are likely to be less immediately visible than those of scaling up or out (policy change or replication of service for example) and therefore require different indicators to ensure progress and impact. It relies more on tracking shifts and looking for signals or tohu (signs) of change. It requires a particular user-oriented evaluative frame that problematizes how the public sector usually thinks about this — to what/whom is an initiative most responsible and accountable, and how does evaluation help us to understand if the work is fulfilling those responsibilities? Our two labs have different processes for evaluating and tracking impacts; however, both draw on developmental evaluation methods of ongoing cycles of action, reflection, learning, and iteration to generate an understanding of the impacts of scaling deep and transformative learning at both personal and organizational/systems levels. A sampling of examples of the patterns of impacts that we noticed in our work are shared here.

Personal level: practitioner capabilities, practices, mindsets

  • The building/growing of new mindsets, and the skillful application of these in future projects and work beyond what happened in the lab. For example: holding complexity and equity lenses and confidently examining not just what teams are doing, but why, how, and for whom.
  • Increased comfort with uncomfortable conversations, and ability to create room for these conversations as being part of the work. For example: interrogating what allyship looks like, and recognising and addressing racism.
  • Adoption of new paradigms, ways of working, practices, and tools that allow other ways of being, knowing, and acting. For example: learning and adoption of Indigenous tools and frameworks in public sector innovation work.
  • Active undoing, unlearning, and hospicing of ways of thinking, being, and doing that no longer serve, and without falling into the subsequent trap of needing to rapidly replace these with something else in order to leave room for emergence. For example: refusal to do public engagement in ways that excludes, controls, or causes harm.
  • Working at the root causes of systemic challenges when designing processes, projects, services, programs, and other interventions. For example: active questioning in the work around default patterns/approaches to how work is framed, scoped, managed, and commissioned.

Organizational and systems levels: policies, resources, infrastructures

  • Shifts in policy and policy language, program and service descriptions, plans, and other organizational artifacts to reflect what is surfacing through the learning and transformative processes. For example: Centering Indigenous history, place, culture, contexts, and ways of knowing and being, and the experiences of systemically excluded communities in plans and policies focused on social and ecological wellbeing.
  • Distributed leadership and relationships in public sector innovation beyond the boundaries of the lab. For example: rich, authentic, and impactful collaborations between the public sector and partners in community in ways that share power, decision-making, and resources.
  • Investment in learning infrastructure, spaces, and opportunities that support and encourage teams and organizations to grapple with the issues, discomforts, the challenging conversations as part of a renewed ‘business as usual’ of government (not separate to it). For example: creation of communities of practice inside the public sector that are focused on learning, practicing, and building shared competencies, capacities, and capabilities for civil servants to work differently on complex, systemic challenges.
  • Active work to connect lived experience and expertise of communities into policy processes, including recognition of place and importance of localisation. For example: evidence of civil servants working directly and reciprocally with people whose experiences a policy or program is trying to improve as it is in development. Changing job descriptions, requirements, and hiring processes to enable people with lived expertises to join the public service.
  • Growing a more critical understanding of how measures and indicators are developed and used, and whose values and ideas of ‘good’ they represent. For example: moving away from external or deficit indicators defined by the government to wellbeing outcomes that are informed by community values.

In Closing

We believe that it is a responsibility of people doing innovation work inside the public sector to develop personal capacities and systems capabilities to hold deep work as a core part of our practice. This demands that we build our own skills and courage to push back when we’re being asked/told to perpetuate surface-level ways of working, and to instead hold spaces for something deeper to happen. The thing about unweaving is that you don’t know what might then be weaved, or what we might need to let go of in the process. Innovation work is not only about speed, novelty, and scaling out solutions to discrete problems. Sometimes it requires going deeply into places that haven’t been recognised or surfaced and exploring what innovation means from there.

This approach opens up different possibilities and outcomes, and requires a relinquishing of (the idea of) control. Enabling different directions, shifting power dynamics, and opening up new possibilities and outcomes is scary, countercultural, and subversive work. Being at/near the edges of our own transformative experiences all the time can be painful and difficult. We also don’t have a choice but to be t/here when innovation work aims to transform systems.

  • We closed our first blog post on this topic with questions that we are holding as we navigate our own experiences in these spaces of scaling deep and transformative learning, and we’ll close this one with a few more in the hopes that there are others out there that are interested in continuing this conversation and practice with us.
  • Do we need a clear vision, purpose, values, directionality of what transformative learning and scaling deep is moving toward in public sector innovation work? Is that implicit in any way?
  • How do people feel that scaling deep and transformative learning is enabled in their own environments?
  • What capabilities and capacities are helpful for/required of practitioners who are holding and learning how to hold these spaces? How do we make them more visible, name-able, practice-able, and viewed as legitimate and vital contributors to public sector innovation?
  • How do we make more visible what the acts and impacts of scaling deep and transformative learning are so that they are legitimized?


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. She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow where she is researching and teaching about transformative innovation toward social and ecological justice and wellbeing in a variety of ways. Prior to this, Lindsay worked with the City of Vancouver for 13 years on a variety of initiatives including the founding and leading the Solutions Lab, leading the Greenest City Action Planning and public engagement as well as plans and projects related to equity, reconciliation, local food, health and wellbeing, and biodiversity.

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.