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Innovation labs through the looking glass: Experiences across the globe

Date: 18 December, 2023

Writer :
Source : Bruno Monteiro and Benjamin Kumpf

Reading Time: 18 Minutes

18 December, 2023
Writer :
· · Reading Time: 18 Minutes

Innovation labs through the looking glass: Experiences across the globe

Innovation labs through the looking glass: Experiences across the globe

Governments are constantly searching for enablers to help them to keep up with changing times, move beyond the constraints of traditional approaches, and leverage innovation to improve public policies and services. Public innovation labs belong to this stream of change. They aim to boost the ability of governments to navigate emergent threats and opportunities and provide sustained, inclusive and proactive responses to people’s needs and expectations. The last 20 years have seen a surge on the emergence, spread and occasionally death of public innovation labs across the globe. While the lab hype cycle might be behind us, government labs continue being incubated across high, middle, and low-income countries.

So, what can we learn from these experiences? To inform the design of new and the evolution of existing labs, we lay out the primary uses of innovation labs and aggregated lessons from public innovation labs across the globe. Our analysis is founded on the initial review and the insights gathered from a public innovation lab directory covering 137 cases from 37 countries and four international organisations. This analysis was complemented with an extensive literature review of research on public innovation lab experiences across the globe.

Not starting from scratch, we build on our own experience and research to share our initial contributions to this topic. At the same time, we want to use this occasion to kick-start an open-ended crowdsourcing exercise to gather first-hand experiences in engaging, managing, and leading public innovation labs and keep building on our knowledge base.

This first blog presents then our initial systematisation of the purposes and learnings of public innovation labs. In a second post, we will put forward factors that may have led labs to fall short of expectations.

Unpacking the purposes of public innovation labs
A pivotal characteristic of public innovation labs is the multiple formats, approaches and labels they take. Laboratory, itself, can interchangeably refer to the concrete space, interdisciplinary teams, portfolios of methods and practices, or temporal slots that structure and materialise its activities. Public innovation labs can be embedded in diverse sectors of government, placed at the center of government, or operate across administrative boundaries. However, common to all, is their feature as purpose-driven enabler of change: public innovation labs exist to generate, scale and/or spread public sector innovation and associated reform initiatives through tangible and practical initiatives. While there are many potential purposes for a lab, recent research suggests that it is important to clearly spell out the purposes for design, study and evaluation reasons. In addition, the purpose needs to align with overarching government priorities and be communicated clearly to decision makers, stakeholders, beneficiaries, and citizens at large.

From the initial review, a set of purposes stands out as especially relevant to define the mission, format, and activities of public innovation labs:

Question business as usual in governments: public innovation labs are created out of dissatisfaction with existing solutions, entrenched processes, or pre-set answers. For the renewal of prevalent practices, labs bring alternative approaches to the fore. These labs open outwards-in processes, which don’t assume government have all the answers to all the challenges (“governments knows best”) and, instead, reframe its initiatives from the standpoint of citizens (or users at large) to design, assess and implement innovative initiatives. Among others, public innovation labs also heavily rely on rapid and agile interventions for their initiatives, breaking the cascading procedures of traditional policymaking thanks to their relative autonomous status, small size, multidisciplinary skill sets, and/or flexible and agile ways of working. Public innovation labs help also to recognise approaches and activities that may need to be “discontinued” in government (and in the lab itself, of course).

Foster problem-oriented, context-sensitive approaches: Context matters. Innovations cannot be transplanted and replicated across countries, regions and/or organisations in a dogmatic way – they often need to be re-framed and/or re-contextualised. Public innovation labs engage with public sector challenges and problems as they emerge, orienting themselves to cope with existing gaps and bottlenecks as well as to bring knowledge, circulate information, and improve capacity to steward changes. For those reasons, labs heavily rely on context-sensitive approaches, adapting processes and solutions to be understandable and usable in those circumstances.

Open safe spaces for experimentation inside government: Public innovation labs enable governments to explore and experiment (usually at small-scale, limited costs and controlled regulation) with alternative and creative approaches, counteracting risk aversion and resistance to change. Using prototypes, pilots and testbeds, among many others, labs can test solutions before implementing a new policy or service – and do that acting “quick and dirty”. They can also boost capabilities to gather, synthesise and use evidence for decision making. This often entails rigorous experimental ways of working as well as sourcing data, including insights from citizens and those directly affected by the challenge at hand.

Facilitate co-creation, inclusiveness, and participation: Labs facilitate approaches that build on networking, stakeholder engagement and participation, and co-creation. Against the centralised vision that insulates governments from their surroundings, these labs are prone to establish networked approaches, both with “internal” and “external stakeholders”, such as civil society organisations, the private sector, universities and research centers. At the same time, against the command-and-order approaches to decision making, public innovation labs help to include diverse voices, bridge gaps between (knowledge) communities, and correct power asymmetries in the ideation, design and development of innovative approaches. Public innovation labs see inclusive processes as key, while acknowledging that they are a necessary but not sufficient condition for better outcomes.

Promote cultural change and capacity-building in public administration: Public innovation labs nurture practical engagement, (self-)confidence and often empathy among public servants and managers in the exploration and use innovative approaches, methods and tools. As such, labs can contribute to promote cultural changes that transform both skills and attitudes, appearing as learning terrains that complement existing pedagogical strategies.

Demonstrate value: Public innovation labs can provide tangible evidence of the value of new ways of working, regardless of whether these are rooted in technology. Public innovation labs often first work on making the case for a new way of working, before expanding a government’s toolbox and bringing what was once at the edge to the core of how business is done. There is an intent to empower everyone in the public sector to leverage an approach that has proven its value, thus facilitating the transition of innovative methods from the confines of the laboratory into extensive application.
12 lessons learned about public innovation labs

While there is no universal recipe for success, our research identified 12 elements that are especially relevant to steer and strengthen the action of public innovation labs:

Top-level sponsorship and sustained support: Protection and sponsorship of high-level decision-makers is key, together with the existence of strong mandates (legal and institutional) to pursue their mission and the access to sustainable and continued sources of resources. In order for public innovation labs to endure, they need to be cautious of relying on only one sponsor or champion and be mindful of shifting political agendas. The Lieu de la transformation publique (France), the innovation lab of the Inter-Ministerial Division of Public Transformation (DITP), given its transversal and cross-sectoral nature, is especially suited to federate and steward the innovation labs that are disperse across different ministries, public organisations, regions and municipalities, providing support and visibility to their initiatives.

Target citizens’ needs and expectations: Public innovation labs are oriented to solve concrete policy challenges and build on citizens needs and expectations. Labs target these needs and expectations not just as part of their narratives, but use them to set their strategic objectives and prove their significance and justify their existence. Participation of users in the ideation, design, development and test of potential solutions ensures that public innovation labs stay “close to reality”. The Bangladesh Government Innovation Lab has inscribed citizen-centric at the core of its definition of success: one of the initial principal drivers of change was the reduction of the “TCV”, i.e. the time (T), the costs (C) and the number of visits (V) that citizens need to access public services. The lab has achieved considerable impact on this metric and has since expanded its work as the ‘Aspire to Innovate’, a multinational digital transformation organization.

Organisational embeddedness and autonomy: The integration of public innovation labs into public sector organisations ensures that their team is not isolated, but rather involved with the organic life of the public administration. Yet the format of the institutionalisation of public innovation labs can ensure its relative “independence”. While labs have to keep their autonomy protected in order to explore and experiment with innovative approaches, this embeddedness also brings access to pools of resources, support services (e.g. administrative or communication), and the ability to interact directly with government sectors and organisations. NIDO, the innovation lab of Belgium’s public administration, has built itself as a “safe environment” that allows public servants and managers to identify and analyze the challenges of their organisations as well as to reflect in an open way about innovative approaches. The lab even plays on words to present its mission: the lab wants to be the nest, “nid” in French, to “strong ideas and innovative solutions”.

Skills and attitudes in core team: Public innovation lab teams rely on the right balance of skills, attitudes and mindsets to answer the challenges at hand and to preserve an environment favorable to innovative activities and initiatives. Labs with sustained activities seem to have a combination of diverse profiles and a multidisciplinary portfolio. GNova, the innovation lab from the National School of Public Administration (Brazil), has developed the “CoLab”, a capacity-building and mentorship programme to support lab teams across the country to access leadership, management and technical skills. After an open call for applications, the programme supported 10 units in its first edition (2022).

Redistribution and capillarity: Labs that actively engage stakeholders and build up their initiatives through exchanges and partnerships across government and with the innovation ecosystem raise their visibility, circulate information and expertise more easily, and increase the mobilsation of resources. Networks and communities of practice are among the most recognisable initiatives of labs – including to connect labs with each other. In Peru, the “national network of innovation labs” connects 118 labs, incubators and accelerators to ensure the transference and circulation of experiences as well as to build shared agendas in a decentralised way.

Free port policy: Gatekeepers and potential “veto players” have to be integrated early into the discussion of the initiative. Successful labs work proactively on identifying important players that might block their work and longevity. They define strategies to engage them and secure their support from an early stage. For ensuring a constant and direct connection with its beneficiaries and relevant stakeholders, GovLabAustria has established a “sounding board”. The board members’ meet to provide the lab with their knowledge and networking abilities, besides acting as “sparring partners” for the lab projects.
Methodologically, not expertise, based: While there are labs that circumscribe their areas of intervention, diverse and adaptable portfolios and kits are assets that accelerate the capacity of labs to react and adapt to changing priorities and urgencies. Ultimately, the selection of methods and tools depend on the purposes of the lab. Often labs have developed and subscribed to process-based approaches to the resolution of problems, often through actionable, experimental and iterative logics. The innovation lab of the city of Bogotá (Colombia), iBO has adopted a methodology that rests on the “maker culture”, emphasizing guiding principles – such as citizen-centric design or systemic thinking – and combining multiple domains of knowledge.

Experimentation, iteration and simulation: The adoption of robust research, design-driven and experimental methodologies in public innovation labs – that often appear as “islands of experimentation” – help to justify decision-making processes, improve the quality of delivery, and provide strong legitimacy. Portugal’s LabX has been adopting an extensive portfolio of experimental approaches in its projects, including the organisation of living labs in public services, the adoption of do-it-yourself approaches to design tools, or the use of gamification to solve public challenges.
Transfer and dissemination of experiences and learnings: Public innovation labs are often invested in learning, from design to implementation. They seek out lessons from other contexts, either to prevent repeating errors or to profit from consolidated methods and solutions (“what works”). Sharing practices, products and methods also helps to strengthen the innovation culture in the public sector at large and builds a favorable environment for labs to thrive. The Japan+D is a team of volunteers in the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry that wants to spread design approaches and methods as a way to support the transformation of Government. The team gathers and shares knowledge, searches to implement cross-sectional initiatives, and connects with relevant experts and units at the national and international level.

Time to thrive: Public innovation labs are able to provide fast actions and early results, while nonetheless giving enough time to build the necessary durable relationships and close-knit communities for impact to blossom. The Laboratorio de Gobierno (Chile) is its way to complete its 10th anniversary in 2025. Since 2015, the lab has known changes in its team, its work priorities and streams, and even its institutional position (right now, it is located in the Ministry of Finance). This long journey was at the same time crucial to enable its initiatives and programmes to demonstrate their value and to be constantly improved, as happened with the successive iterations of the Innovation Index.

Measurement and evaluation: Tracking, monitoring, and measuring the value-creation and impact of lab projects, outputs and practices is critical to sustain its mission. It is also part of their commitment to deliver societal value and conduct transparent, accountable, useful, and responsible activities. The existence of (self-)evaluation loops is also important to receive feedback, consolidate learnings, and fine-tune current activities to the ongoing changes. The iLab, the Northern Ireland Innovation Lab (United Kingdom), has commissioned an evaluation of its activities and governance (leadership, operating model, methods, capacity), including impact case studies (to provide tangible evidence on investments), to gather good practices and identify pitfalls.

Storytelling: Public innovation labs that engage with their own communities, the government at large, and the public sphere need to tailor their messages to specific audiences, create or explore the most suitable channels, and find compelling formats and styles to convey their narrative. The Solutions Lab, in the city of Vancouver, Canada, has been communicating its mission, history and ambitions using a strongly visual journey – and emphasizing publicly that its existence is a vocation that answers a call “to respond to the root causes of these systemic challenges, not just apply incremental quick fixes”.
Tell us about your own experience!

We want to expand our perspective by including new and diverse examples and experiences of public innovation labs. In doing so, we will be able to present a more comprehensive and fine-grained account of the status, capacities, strategies and visions of labs. Share your contributions in this short questionnaire here. While the questionnaire is open-ended, we plan a first feedback review phase by late March 2024.

This is the first in a series of blogs on public innovation labs. The second blog will be about why many labs fall short of expectations, followed by a blog that highlights the OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation’s experience in designing and piloting an innovation lab in the Government of Romania, the Laboratorul de Inovare. In a final blog, we will raise questions about the possibilities to re-invest public innovation labs in the face of the emerging and complex challenges faced by governments.

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