The potential of lab processes

Photo by Skills Society Action Lab

Photo by Skills Society Action Lab

Interview with Mark Cabaj, Tamarack Institute

And Here to There Consulting

Lab processes are an approach to tackling complex social problems that are growing in popularity in recent years. Such approaches bring diverse groups of stakeholders together to think creatively about problems they are intimately familiar with, in order to generate new conceptualizations, collaborations, and solutions that they try to apply in the real world. Labs like the Danish MindLab or the Government of Alberta Colab are changing the way governments work by introducing systems thinking into the heart of policy making. Solutions Lab at MaRS in Toronto is an example of a lab focused on social system challenges.

A promising Alberta process is Energy Futures Lab ( The aim of the lab is to look at how Alberta can work towards creating an energy system that meets the needs of the future. This aim will be achieved over three phases that will involve building collaborations, designing interventions that will meet shared priorities, and embarking on an ongoing process of experimentation and evaluation. Although it is still in the planning phase, this lab has already begun to create new conversation. Mark Cabaj, a member of this lab team, comments that, “The network building has been phenomenal and there has already been a lot of buzz generated before the first lab is even launched.”  

How are they achieving this kind of impact?

Expert facilitation and process design: Labs need robust facilitation activities, designed to get people thinking collaboratively and critically about the system. The Energy Futures Lab benefits in this instance from having access to The Natural Step’s process called “the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development.” The Natural Step is an established international leader in sustainability and has won numerous awards for its science-based approach to facilitating whole system processes for transition towards sustainability.

High quality participation: One of the most critical elements to an effective lab process is having the right kind of participation. A lab can only succeed if its participants are able to bring a rich and diverse knowledge of the system to bear on the problem, can generate insights and solutions collaboratively, and then have the resources and authority to put ideas into practice. The Energy Futures Lab has recognized this requirement and has put a great deal of effort into a recruitment process that ran for six full months, from Mar—Aug, 2015.

Tailoring labs to different facets of the system: There are many different types of lab process with different kinds of strengths. Mark Cabaj lists at least three main types, each most appropriate for certain contexts and types of goals.

  • Social labs focus on the individual level and the role of people in shaping systems, with intensive personal transformation as the major pathway to change.
  •  Design Labs focus on aligning and adapting systems to better meet the needs of people they were meant to serve. These labs explore systems from the perspective of the different people within them.  By starting small and focusing on ground-level dynamics, these labs often work towards systems change from the bottom up.
  • Social innovation labs focus on assisting participants to better understand and work with the dynamics at play in complex problem domains.  They aim to demystify the process of systems change and facilitate the development of novel, context specific strategies that consider systemic elements like scale and windows of opportunity.

What are the key challenges to this type of work?

Labs are an emerging set of activities and Cabaj emphasizes the importance of developing a field of practice around this kind of innovation process. For example, we need to know more about what can be achieved by using different lab processes and how best to design a lab to solve a particular kind of systems challenge. Lab facilitation is a demanding skill, but we do not yet have an established body of practitioners who can set standards for how to run a lab well. In short, there is a lot of work to be done to build our experience with using and running labs, but it is unclear who will do this work. Who holds the capacity to engage with this kind of detailed practical work? How can we build this field before the momentum is lost?

What does this tell us about system change?

Standing still: To effectively deal with the complexity of systems, to deeply understand them, and to be able to develop a relevant strategy that has potential to change them, takes time and focus. Lab processes create reflective, safe spaces for thinking, making meaning, and accessing our creative energy. To support groups to stand still, effective labs are involved in gathering new data and intelligence from a broad range of sources, acting as research and development platforms; information pathways to stimulate new thinking and idea generation.

The value of diversity: Engagement of diversity of all kinds is key to creating conditions for thinking and action that can stimulate system change. Conversations and collaborations that have system understanding and change as a goal are enhanced through the intentional and sometimes creative engagement of diverse perspectives, experiences, sets of priorities, even values.  Depending on the challenge, multiple regions, cultures, sectors, disciplines, etc. can bring the required diversity of information but also acts to reveal assumptions, challenge mindsets, and catalyze insights that rarely occur when there is too much uniformity and familiarity. Some key others to consider engaging—those whom you believe to be the source of the problem, and those who are most affected by the problem.