About Social Innovation Labs

A new approach to solve complex societal problems.

Innoweave Introduction to Social Innovation Labs from J.W. McConnell Family Foundation on Vimeo.

Download the slides from the Introduction to Social Innovation Labs webinar here.

A social innovation lab, also known as a “social laboratory”, “change lab” or simply “social lab”, supports diverse stakeholders to solve complex social problems like unemployment, climate change, food insecurity, chronic disease, and many more.

As these kinds of challenges are complex, we know current efforts do not work, the definition of the problem remains unclear, and multiple stakeholders need to collaborate to solve them. The problem is typically systemic in nature. Identifying the real problem as well as its root causes, and understanding which combination of solutions will work, only becomes possible when people and organizations experiment and learn over a sustained period of time. After gathering evidence on what works, solutions can be scaled in various ways, which often requires change in policies and/or building of capacity.

A social innovation lab is a promising new approach that is increasingly applied around the world. Labs come in many shapes and sizes depending on the nature and context of the challenge. Some labs are issue-based and focused on solving a single challenge, where others support different stakeholders on multiple challenges. Their methods and tools may vary, but all of them provide a structure and expertise to help diverse stakeholders innovate together.

All social innovation labs have three main characteristics [1]. Social labs are:

  • Social: they bring together diverse participants from a range of backgrounds, not as consultants but as experts, forming a team who act collectively towards defining the problem and achieving their shared societal goals.
  • Experimental: Social innovation labs test and try out different things on an ongoing basis, in order to bring about change.
  • Systemic: Labs focus on addressing the root causes of a systemic challenges at hand, rather than focusing on the symptoms of a problem.

A social innovation lab is made up of a number of key components:

  • A team or unit that runs and coordinates the lab, from conducting research, convening and facilitating stakeholders to supporting them to take action. They are the most critical component of the lab.
  • The partners and participants of the lab, who form an essential part of it, seeking to achieve collective impact through the lab.
  • The process, methods and tools that support stakeholders to address a challenge are also key components of labs (including the work to understand the problem and to find an actionable solution). Most labs apply a combination of design and systems thinking, but they can also include other schools of thought like behavioural economics, complexity science and/or change management.

A lab requires space. This is not just a physical space to meet or work, which can be on any and even multiple locations. It also is an intellectual, creative and sometimes eve legal space, often in-between stakeholders or organizations. Above all, labs provide a neutral and safe space for participants to rethink the problem, have open and honest conversations, and take risks to experiment with new solutions.

A social innovation lab typically starts with understanding the problem from different perspectives and convening diverse stakeholders. The lab helps to redefine the challenge, identify opportunities, and then ideate, test and experiment in an ongoing way to create interventions that can move the system in a positive direction. There is much flexibility, as labs can undertake any activity that helps to create the desired change, but always with a strong philosophy of collaboration and constant learning as well as a strong desire to find and scale what works.

Social innovation labs are informed by various schools of thought, including design thinking, systems thinking, social innovation and complexity science. Below is a brief explanation of the theoretical background of social innovation labs.

Research by WISIR, 2015, Social Innovation Lab Guide (republished with permission)

There are two different types of innovation labs. Public innovation labs are often located inside government and focus on the redesign of public policy and service delivery. Social innovation labs are mostly based outside government, and focus on complex system challenges by convening diverse stakeholders to develop, test and scale new solutions. Some labs even combine these two types.

Who should consider a social innovation lab?

Here are a few elements to consider:

  1. Type of challenge: social innovation labs are effective for solving challenges that are complex and societal in nature, and that require new solutions and experimentation.
  2. Organizational mindset: social innovation labs require organizations that will challenge assumptions and embrace experimentation. They also require comfort with bringing in partners with diverse perspectives.
  3. Resources: social innovation labs are a resource intensive undertaking that are much more than running a workshop or series of workshops. They require substantial human and financial resources and are often in existence for multiple years before they make meaningful progress on solving a complex challenge.

The Innoweave Social Innovation Labs module will help you learn about and evaluate whether a social innovation lab approach is promising way to solve the challenge given your context. Along with future training and support opportunities, the resources below and the self-assessment tool will help you to explore and assess whether a social innovation lab might be an effective option for solving the challenge. 

Further reading

Some single issue-focused lab examples in Canada:

Some permanent labs in Canada and around the world:

  • The GovLab (New York City, US) – public innovation lab
  • InWithForward (Vancouver/Toronto/Rotterdam, Canada/The Netherlands) – public and social innovation lab
  • Kennisland (Amsterdam, The Netherlands) – social innovation lab
  • MaRS Solutions Lab (Toronto, Canada) – public and social innovation lab
  • MindLab (Copenhagen, Denmark) – public innovation lab
  • NESTA Innovation Lab (London, UK) – public and social innovation lab


This Innoweave module was developed in partnership with MaRS Solutions Lab.

[1] Hassan, Zaid (2014). The Social Labs Revolution: A new approach to solving our most complex challenges. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.