Is 2014 Really The Year Of Experimentation?

Giulio Quaggiotto
Feb 10, 2014
According to Christian Bason, of the Copenhagen-based "Mind Lab," 2014 will be the year of experimentation. I certainly hope his forecast is on the money as I am about to join the Pulse Lab in Jakarta.  
His recent blogpost points to 4 inherent dilemmas of the lab model, which makes their long term survival far from a sure bet:
1) The laboratory is highly dependent on its host organisation, but must at the same time challenge its core tasks.
2) The laboratory holds the promise of future value creation, but may find it difficult to document that value creation in the here and now.
3) The laboratory must support and facilitate the work on innovation being done by its host colleagues and must therefore not take the credit when something succeeds, but must often act as lightening conductor when it does not.
4) The laboratory must promote experimentation and uncertainty within a culture that is increasingly biased towards knowledge and predictability.
What is the recipe for long term value creation from labs?  His conclusion is that “Paradoxically, the prerequisite for a successful laboratory is ... that it should take its own medicine and behave as a continual experiment.”
These observations certainly chime with my experience of helping set up two innovation labs and a number of social innovation initiatives in the last couple of years. Too often, because of bureaucratic expediency and the need to show tangible outputs, funders become enamoured with the idea of funding a lab as a physical space (all the better if it comes with curvy furniture and futuristic displays) as opposed to a process needing continuous enquiry and adaptation.
Would-be social innovators all too-happily pander to this inherent bias because it helps their pitch for seed funding, even if it ultimately can create false expectations and jeopardize long term prospects. To get away from this vicious circle, MarRS Solution Lab proposes a periodic table of system change which can help reframe the discussion away from shiny toys and back to the routine of testing hypothesis, seeking evidence, “pivoting”, co-creating, change at scale, etc.
One can also steal a page from World Bank Senior ICT and Education Policy Specialist Mike Trucano’s book and adopt his thought experiment – it reads something like this:
“Let’s assume that the cost of staff, location and equipment for the Lab were zero. If we removed cost considerations from the equation, how would you change the way you currently programme to embed continual experimentation, design thinking, real-time data, etc. as the standard way of doing things? Would you be willing to change course on a regular basis as new challenges emerge?” 
Would a pitch framed this way make it easier or harder to set up a lab?
I have my own theory that for all the talk about embracing complexity, adopting “agile programming” and changing course based on feedback from end users, bureaucratic comfort still seems to take precedence. Likewise, rigid planning is preferred to constant adaptation to emerging needs and challenges -a point that was made quite forcefully in this recent paper by NESTA's Geoff Mulgan.
Could a lab that was originally set up to deal with, let's say, unemployment issues easily morph to embrace health issues? Or could it adopt a whole new approach based on the results from a randomized control trial without jeopardizing its relation with its host organization? To embrace the paradox of the lab as continuous experimentation is not mission creep, but the way to add value in a changing world.
In order to embrace the labs dilemma both hosts and innovators need to walk the talk on responding to change. As Ben Ramalingam - author of the book Aid On the Edge of Chaos - reminded us recently in a biting post on development reform, we have still some way to go in this respect.
Let Proteus - the god capable of assuming many forms - be the god for labs in 2014 and beyond! 
Giulio Quaggiotto (@gquaggiottois the Lab Manager of Pulse Lab Jakarta, and an expert on social innovation and development. He has previously worked for the World Bank and UNDP in Eastern Europe and the CIS. 


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