Jean Lievens: The Social Labs Revolution

Crowd-Sourcing, Design, Innovation, P2P / Panarchy, Resilience
Jean Lievens
Jean Lievens

The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving our Most Complex Challenges

The following is an excerpt from the introduction of the book, “What Are Social Laboratories?”

Zaid Hassan

Stanford Social Innovation Review, 19 May 2014

The Social Labs Revolution reports and builds on a decade of practical experiments in addressing social challenges that are complex in nature. These range from the sustainability of global food systems and child malnutrition to state collapse and climate change. Zaid Hassan, a co-founder of Reos Partners, makes the case that taking a planning-based approach risks almost certain failure. Instead he expounds on an experimental, prototyping based approach, social labs, that have proven more effective in addressing complex challenges.

The following is an excerpt from the book.

Amazon Page
Amazon Page

INTRODUCTION: What Are Social Laboratories?

“The power of solutions lies primarily in the people who believe in and own them.” — V. Srinavas

Current approaches to addressing complex social challenges are not working. There is much to celebrate: the number of people involved in change initiatives, the increasing amounts of money being invested in those initiatives, the steadily declining costs of technology and the attention being given to social innovation. The underlying problems however, from species loss to public debt, continue to grow.

Social fabrics are increasingly strained under loads they were never intended to contain. Inequality is growing. Direct action has either become a strident call for someone else to take action or the frantic alleviation of symptoms that leave underlying causes largely intact. There’s increasing pressure on individuals to change their behavior around environmental issues and to take on the burden of austerity measures or cuts in basic services. The sociologist Ulrich Beck describes this situation as an attempt to find “individual solutions to systemic contradictions.”1

Throw an ashtray in any direction, and you’ll hit a messy, complex challenge. It’s difficult to escape the persistent feeling that while our problems are already big and bad, they’re in fact getting bigger and badder. It’s harder and harder to believe people who tell us that things are actually getting better. The future is changing in our lifetimes from a magical place to a place best avoided, a dark place that’s becoming difficult to contemplate.

Into this situation comes a very simple premise. We have scientific and technical labs for solving our most difficult scientific and technical challenges. We need social labs to solve our most pressing social challenges. Thomas Homer-Dixon explains:

The public not only needs to understand the importance of experimentation within the public service; it needs to engage in experimentation itself. To the extent that the public explores the solution landscape through its own innovations and safe-fail experiments, it will see constant experimentation as a legitimate and even essential part of living in our new world. To the extent that the public understands the importance of— and itself engages in— experimentation, it will be safer for all of you in the public service to encourage experimentation in your organizations.

Social labs have been quietly brewing for almost twenty years. Hundreds of people around the world have been and are developing social labs. Thousands more have participated in them. There are labs focused on eliminating poverty, on water sustainability, on transforming media, on government, on climate, on social innovation, and on many more issues. A growing number of people are focusing their heads, hearts, and hands on addressing complex social challenges.

The people running these labs represent a new breed— they’re not simply scientists or academics, and neither are they activists or entrepreneurs. They’re all of these things and a few things we don’t have good names for yet. They’re making the case for and launching social labs around the world, trying to address some of our most difficult challenges.

Social labs are platforms for addressing complex social challenges that have three core characteristics.

  1. They are social. Social labs start by bringing together diverse participants to work in a team that acts collectively. They are ideally drawn from different sectors of society, such as government, civil society, and the business community. The participation of diverse stakeholders beyond consultation, as opposed to teams of experts or technocrats, represents the social nature of social labs.
  2. They are experimental. Social labs are not one-off experiences. They’re ongoing and sustained efforts. The team doing the work takes an iterative approach to the challenges it wants to address, prototyping interventions and managing a portfolio of promising solutions. This reflects the experimental nature of social labs, as opposed to the project-based nature of many social interventions.
  3. They are systemic. The ideas and initiatives developing in social labs, released as prototypes, aspire to be systemic in nature. This means trying to come up with solutions that go beyond dealing with a part of the whole or symptoms and address the root cause of why things are not working in the first place.

These characteristics are not arbitrary. Nor are they convenient. Getting really diverse groups of people to simply step into a room together is hard, let alone trying to get them to act together. Taking an experimental approach requires not only discipline but also a degree of stability and commitment rare in a project-obsessed world. Addressing the root causes of challenges eschews easy and popular political wins in favor of longer time frames and greater uncertainty.

While none of these characteristics is convenient, each is necessary, deeply so. They represent hard-won conclusions wrestled at great cost from many thousands upon thousands of hours of trial and error. They represent countless workshops where many stakeholders shared their most agonizing and difficult challenges. And perhaps more than anything else, they represent integrity and honesty— they are not what we want solutions to look like, but what we have found they actually look like when effective.

There are, of course, aspiring social labs that do not meet these characteristics any better than programmatic or project-based responses. My contention is that social labs or any intervention aiming to address social challenges that do not have these three characteristics “baked in” will be ineffective or fail.2 The reasons for this are the nature of complex social challenges, explored in Chapters 1 and 2.

The Sustainable Food Lab was the first social lab I was involved in that embodied these three criteria. Its focus was how to make the global food system more sustainable. The global nature of the lab meant that participants came from around the world, as well as from different sectors.

The Food Lab initially brought together approximately thirty participants, drawn from corporate food companies, such as Unilever and General Mills; civil society organizations, such as World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy; and government officials, including representatives from Brazil and the Netherlands.

These participants formed the lab team, who committed to physically working together for approximately twenty days over two years. They were supported by a secretariat, of which I was a part. The role of the secretariat was to design, facilitate, document, and organize the overall lab, building what could be thought of as its container. Over two years, we met together five times: in the Netherlands, Brazil, the United States, Austria, and Costa Rica. Since then, the team has grown and met many times in many other countries.

The lab team started working together by gaining firsthand experience of the system we were trying to change. They traveled as a group to different parts of the food system, such as food distribution centers, big companies, supermarkets, and small and larger farms in several countries. We reflected together on what they had learned. From this reflection came a broad portfolio of initiatives, which were tested and implemented in a process called prototyping. These initiatives ranged from working with small farms in the Global South to trying to shift procurement practices in large corporations, mostly headquartered in the Global North.

What does it mean to be winning?

How successful has the Sustainable Food Lab been?

Director of the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT Peter Senge said, “The Sustainable Food Lab is the largest and most promising systemic change initiative I know of.”3

The first formal meeting of the lab took place in 2004. What has happened since then? Today sustainability is well entrenched on the radar of global food companies. The Sustainable Food Lab has played a key role in making this happen, having grown to become a platform for innovation in the global food system. From an initial group of twenty-two institutions, today it has almost seventy members.

One business leader reflected on its value, “I am convinced that the world is not capable of feeding nine billion people in the second half of this century, in our grandchildren’s world…. We see the system cannot work. What the Sustainable Food Lab is doing has never been done before, this intersection of private and public institutions. This is the greatest hope I have for finding a way through these complex dynamics to a livable world.”4

So has the Sustainable Food Lab solved the original problem it set out to address? One of its missions was to move sustainability practices from niche to mainstream. This shift has clearly been achieved— the global food system is more sustainable today than when the lab was conceived and launched, and it can claim no small credit for this.


1Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Polity, 2000).

2Nina Munk, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty (Doubleday, 2013).

3Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, Revised & Updated ed. (Doubleday, 2006).

4Susan Sweitzer, “Learning History – Chapter 4” (Paper presented at the Sustainable Food Laboratory, 2005).

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