Public Sector Innovation Labs: Tending to what we want to grow

Opening

We have been reflecting and writing up the story of the second iteration of the City of Vancouver Solutions Lab (SLab), our shared site of practice between the summer of 2018 and the 2021/22 winter. Through holding a developmental evaluation approach, we have continually acted, reflected, learned, and tried again while working on complex, uncertain, non-linear challenges related to the City’s Greenest City, Healthy City, City of Reconciliation, and Equity policy and practice domains. We are also deep into reflecting on the Transforming Cities from Within learning journey that we co-designed and led with some incredible colleagues, and Lindsay is writing up and sharing some of the insights from her participatory action research with lab practitioners from Canada and Europe. Through all of this, a set of eleven invitations that we’ve called “tending what we want to grow” have emerged that we offer here in the hopes that it will support, validate, encourage and inspire other public sector and social innovation lab practitioners and our various works-in-process.

One way to help us make sense of the work we have been doing is to liken it to the practice of gardening. In our work we have witnessed and tended to various cycles of understanding transformative innovation. We have experimented with what could be grown under different kinds of conditions, playing in the messy and fertile ground of complex challenges in the public sector. We’ve nourished several great challenge spaces that have offered new questions, possibilities, and insights, while also allowing for some parts of the garden to decay, compost and become something else, harvesting many rich learnings along the way.

You may be interested in this article if…

As we’ve written this, we have held the following people in our minds and hearts in the hopes that it will support your own thinking, work, and reflection:

  • Those working on public sector or multi-stakeholder innovation efforts, and in particular those that are working on truly complex issues and holding an ethos of ecosocial justice, who would like more/different ways to think systemically about increasing the impacts of your work.
  • People leading innovation lab efforts, and who are committed to continually learning and iterating what it means to be a “lab”.
  • People who are frustrated and emboldened, in equal measure, by the slow rate of change in stuck, legacy, public sector institutions and are constantly experimenting with ways to challenge and disrupt these patterns.
  • Senior managers and others who may be at the beginning of understanding what it means to be doing transformative innovation and are curious to know more about how to enable this important work in their organizations

Encouragement and love to our fellow gardeners in the form of eleven invitations

Take time to strongly theorize the purpose of a PSI lab, and connect this to activities, methods/techniques, evaluation, and learning approaches. It is always the right time to do this, whether a new lab is being conceptualized or a lab is well-established. Build, test, revise, and reframe a theory of change as a regular strategic activity. This will ensure active and ongoing learning from what the lab is doing over time and enable dialogue, generative debate, contestation, and coherence amongst PSI lab actors. It will also ensure a regular renewal of the lab as it learns from its interventions, the landscape of actors evolves, and priority issues, opportunities, and contexts change over time.

Be clear, specific and honest about what ‘innovation’ means in the lab, and use appropriate language to describe this. If the lab is about making existing services more efficient, or if it is focused on improving customer/user experiences with various services, then describe it as such. If it is about working on complex challenges, seeking transformation, or cultivating emergence then describe innovation this way. This will help the lab team to be coherent and to choose activities, techniques, and evaluation approaches wisely. It will help with setting and communicating expectations to the larger ecosystems of actors that the lab is a part of, including the hierarchy that it likely exists within. It may help with limiting the innovation hype and emulation traps that many labs fall into. It will also help PSI labs to learn from one another in the most helpful ways, as labs taking similar approaches to one another will be much easier to identify and find one another. We need more of all types of innovation — proliferation and diversity is important to the larger field — but this must come with clarity, transparency, appropriateness, and honesty.

Work skillfully, strategically, compassionately and with full awareness of how the forces that relentlessly pull and push practitioners into working within and maintaining the dominant systems, structures, and paradigms of governance and power are influencing and shaping your thinking and work. An equally relentless lab response is needed to see, name, and describe these forces in relationship to what a PSI lab is trying to do. Lab purpose, goals, activities, and evaluation that imagine and enact alternatives to these dominant forces is important work to do. Making intellectual, social, creative, and emotional spaces that literally make room for these alternative responses — for yourself and for others — is fundamental work for a lab to do as a continuous reflective activity. There is a need for both accountability and compassion when you find yourself stuck in or reinforcing some of these dominant patterns, and for ensuring that you are resourced in all the ways you need to be in order to continue, such as surrounding yourself with your familiars who get it, prioritizing rest, listening to your body, and so forth.

Do your very best with the opportunities that you have. Most of us working in innovation labs are extraordinarily lucky — in some way we’ve been given permission to work differently than the rest of our organizations. Even though we just said that we need more of all types of innovation in the public sector, it is also important to be courageous and to stretch as far as we can with the gifts that we’ve been given. Very few people that work in the public sector are given this kind of permissive space. Even though lab work often feels difficult, constrained, risky, and challenging, it is a responsibility of PSI lab practitioners to be as courageous and ambitious as possible with this opportunity to help to expand these permissive spaces for others now and into the future. This is not the time or place to take the easy and well-trodden path.

Build relationships of reciprocity and allyship with others working toward transformation. Lab work is hard, and often marginal and poorly resourced. There are very likely others in your organization and/or community that have related ambitions in different domains, and also have similar struggles. A colleague of ours described this as being in different canoes but heading in the same general direction — in our case it was the social and transformative innovation ambition of our lab pulling alongside colleagues working toward reconciliation, decolonization, and equity. Explore what you have in common, how you can be in allyship with one another, and lift each other up.

Make sure that your lab does not become an exclusive club for special people, but is instead an energetic hub and catalyst for building innovation infrastructure in the form of people and relationships. The exclusive club model of a lab is inherently limited when thinking about organizational and systems transformation, no matter how close to power it resides. Take inspiration from parallel movements that are about openness, transparency, civic engagement, co-creation, collective impact, communities of practice, and sharing and build this ethos into the design of the lab. Take an outward, capacity-building, and open approach to building innovation infrastructure in the form of a diverse, engaged, multi-skilled, and engaged movement of people working toward innovation together. This will likely mean much more durability and impact of the work of the lab over time.

Consider designing multiple accountabilities into the lab’s strategy and decision-making structure. PSI labs that are wholly within and accountable to the organization that they are trying to influence are likely to find it difficult to create their own enabling conditions for more transformative work. Some ways to do this might include: having external funders; bringing a diversity of users directly into decision-making roles; and building a leadership/governance structure that has other people and organizations on it.

Understand and fully exercise your agency regardless of your formal or positional authority. Everyone has agency, even though most public sector organizations (PSO) reinforce top-down, hierarchical, patriarchal, and colonial forms of what power and leadership look like and where it resides. If a lab team has access to this formal and positional authority that’s great, and at the same time there are many other forms of leadership to cultivate. Agency takes many shapes: who you are in relationship with both in- and outside the PSO; foundations in lived and cultural experiences and identities; unique knowledge and expertise; access to resources; time and space to work differently; or holding particular privileges based on the body you were born into. The public sector has a tendency to point elsewhere when asked about who is responsible for innovation — what happens if you point to yourself and your lab team and stretch your agency as far as possible?

Do not leave evaluation until later. Most PSI labs are not paying enough time and attention to evaluation, and/or are attempting to evaluate the work of their lab using measures and methods that may not be appropriate for their theory of change. This means that active, intentional, reflective, and strategic triple loop learning is likely not happening as fully as it could be. Think strategically about what the lab needs to measure to satisfy those that enable it, and to be legible to the organization and decision-makers that it is accountable to. Also think strategically about what the lab needs to evaluate in order to really understand if it is having an impact on what it is attempting to influence, change, or transform. This will most likely mean that evaluation will involve principles, practices, and skill-sets outside of what the public sector typically uses in its dominant performance management and quantitative approaches to understanding outcomes and impact.

Know when it’s time to leave, rest, or close up shop. Sometimes the enabling conditions for the work are simply too difficult. Maybe they weren’t great from the beginning but it was worth a try, or maybe conditions shifted along the way. There is no shame in calling it a day, and thoughtfully and lovingly closing a lab down. Perhaps this is the systemic intervention that is needed to create some compost and seeds for another iteration in the future. This can be personal too — maybe the lab is fine but your time working in it needs to come to a close. Perhaps you’re tired or burnt out and need to take some time to go fallow and rest. Perhaps you’ve reached the limits of your skills, experience, talents, hustle, patience. Perhaps it’s time to make room for a different leader/ship. Perhaps there is an opportunity somewhere else that has emerged and is better suited for you at this time. It’s important to continually tune yourself as an instrument of transformation; this is a long game, and sometimes leaving, ending, or resting is the next wise move.

Enable and engage in network-, field-, and movement-building work. There is an important role for network-serving organizations in PSI lab work, particularly as the field is in rapid development. This work might include codifying practice, mobilizing knowledge, building connections, creating stronger enabling conditions for collective PSI lab work and unlocking resources in the forms of funding, adding legitimacy and credibility, and creating learning opportunities. Network-serving organizations that have historically supported the public sector (e.g. professional associations, government-to-government networks) can take an active and important role in enabling PSI alongside networks emerging for this specific purpose.

We hope that these invitations will (re)invigorate your own thinking and practices. We hope that it stirs questions and invites reflections about how you show up in this work. Working in the realm of innovation is a true privilege and gift. We have the opportunity to try new things, take some risks, learn by doing, and make a significant impact. So let’s do just that, and continue cultivating prolific and beautiful gardens together.

Acknowledgements

This work is inspired by the land + sea + kin that we are privileged to live with as uninvited settlers 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.

Authors

Dr. Lindsay Cole

Lindsay (she/her) 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 UBC, where she researches and teaches about transformative innovation for social and ecological justice.

Lily Raphael

Lily (she/her) has a background in community planning, design, education and storytelling. For 10 years she has worked at the intersection of culture, ecology and community development, with an emphasis on co-creating with communities to address eco-social challenges. She currently works as a planner and facilitator of the Circular Food Innovation Lab at the City of Vancouver Solutions Lab. Lily is also a designer and facilitator for an action research project called Transforming Cities from Within at UBC. In both roles, she supports transformative innovation in the public sector, drawing on participatory, equity-centered and systems thinking approaches to design spaces of collaborative learning and experimentation. Lily is of mixed ancestry. She is Black/Louisiana-Creole on her father’s side, and German and Irish on her mother’s.

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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.

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Lindsay Cole (she/her)

Lindsay Cole (she/her)

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.

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