20+ inspiring social innovation lab examples worldwide

3/30/2016 | Christian Kreutz
Social Innovation Lab at PopTech @ Flickr
PopTech (CC) https://www.flickr.com/photos/poptech/4827890426

Social innovation labs are increasingly popping up and evolving all over the world. They mostly focus on startups and business development around topics such as energy, environment, civic participation or the cities as a laboratories. For an introduction to social innovation read my blog post.

Most buzz is often about innovation labs focusing on startups (incubators and accelerators) often sponsored by venture capitalists or companies with a clear for-profit focus. But a lot is happening outside this scope focusing on people, society, challenges and how new technologies and new form of cooperation can result in change and impact. If you think that this is still at its beginning, you are most probably right, but the innovation lab landscape is changing quickly – just look at the Fablab movement or Google's recent venture, Sidewalk Lab.

Some thoughts I took out of this research:

  • These social innovation labs are hosted and organized through very different actors such as civil society or businesses although most are run by governments. These innovation labs show that the traditional organizational and sectoral boundaries have become blurry--an important development towards systemic social innovation as they would not work in a traditional silo thinking.
  • The same "tearing down boundaries" applies to the outcome of these labs: the projects, organizations and businesses. There are many experiments with different business models ranging from non- to for-profit or combining the two. Particularly for social enterprise a lot of creativity is needed to find sustainable business models.
  • Another observation is that these innovation labs take very different types of participation focusing on small groups, whole neighbourhoods or specific segments with different methodologies. There are interesting learnings taking place to reach more impact through such labs, but it also raises many question on how these projects can be scaled in other locations. These and other questions are probably on the agenda of the upcoming innovation labs conference.

Lahore, Pakistan: Civic Innovation Lab

A civic innovation lab conformed mostly of volunteers who work in collaboration with government, non-profits and media. They work with technology, data, policy and design projects to strengthen their communities. Some of their projects are: Fuel Locator, an app to help people find fuel available in times of shortage; Social Story Telling App, an app to empower citizens to be heard--people can share their stories with the world and even find solutions together. Behind the initiative is the Codeforall network.

Jakarta, Indonesia: UN Global Pulse

They are a civic innovation lab driven by the United Nations focusing on projects using social media and other sources of data to address social development challenges, e.g. food and fuel prices, employment and urban poverty. The Pulse Lab work in cooperation with government, UN agencies, academia, private sector, and other international organizations to kick-start projects such as, "Translator Gator, a new language game to support research." The United Nationals Global Pulse has another lab in Kampala, Uganda.

South America: Socialab

Socialab is a whole Southern Latin American network around social innovation. They are an NGO whose aim is to tackle social challenges, such as poverty and inequality, and generate positive social impact through a socio-economic development model. Their main task is to support, fund and co-work with entrepreneurs who have ideas to solve social problems and have a social impact vision. Through their social innovation workshops and consulting, they put to good use work methodologies, lessons-learnt, and know-hows to actually achieve results.

Mexico City: Lab for the city

The Lab for the City is a hybrid (governmental and civic) innovation lab which facilitates collaboration and dialogue between citizens and government. They promote creativity and innovation in and out of government and are constantly prototyping and testing practices and ideas to adapt them to the needs of the city. Spanish website.

Chile: Laboratorio de Gobierno

Part of the Government of Chile, the Laboratorio de Gobierno is a civic innovation lab, which serves to build new relations between the government and citizens. They develop, facilitate and promote innovation processes in public services with an emphasis in citizens.

Innovation Lab Kosovo

As a civic innovation lab, it works on projects related to children and youth. With the use of information and technologies they "can analyze and understand the dynamics of need and service provision in ways never previously possible: we can uncover pockets of vulnerability, understand need in real time, and radically increase transparency and accountability."

Nairobi, Kenya Garage

An innovation lab in Kenya that hosts various fascinating initiatives such as Code for Africa working on open data and open government projects. One such project is Star Health: "Keeping the health sector accountable to citizens."

Barcelona, Spain: BCNLAB

Barcelona Laboratori is a place and platform for creativity from the Future Institute Barcelona. Their main objective is to encourage innovation through public and private collaboration between the arts, science and technology. The lab's origin lies on the culture domain, but they experiment a lot with technology (e.g. hackathons) and citizen science.

London, UK: Participatory City

This lab focuses on a specific district in London to test a new participatory system. So far they have designed and tested 20 new practical projects to see how such a new form of neighbourhood collaboration can work for an every-day benefit.

Germany: Social Impact Lab

These Social Impact Labs are located in half a dozens cities (e.g. Berlin, Frankfurt) in Germany and focus on social enterprise development. People with project ideas can apply and recive a six-month mentorship and training programme. Projects are diverse starting from cooking with kids, over online driving training for elderly, to microfinance.

France: La 27e région

La 27e Région calls itsel a “public transformation lab.” The goal behind the lab is to e-examine public policy by engaging citizens and civil servants. "It mobilizes the capabilities of multi-disciplinary teams composed of designers, idea generators, and social scientists from many fields (ethnography, sociology, participant observation) and engages in ground-level actions (do-it-yourself projects, adult education actions, etc.)."

Denmark: The MindLab

The MindLab is a cross-governmental or civic innovation lab whose projects are based on finding solutions to social problems. They cover broad policy areas such as entrepreneurship, digital self-service, education and employment. Be sure to check their cases and their blog with helpful introductions to various methodologies.

Austria, Graz: The City Lab

The City Lab is civic and social innovation lab created to tackle issues relating to urban quality of life. At their core lies the vision of a sustainable city or "Smart City," considering its "diverse technical, planning, economic and social challenges" to increase the quality of life in neighborhoods, city districts and city regions together with the people concerned. They create spaces for ideas and engage with stakeholders from business, public administration, science and research as well as citizens and civil society.

Vancouver, Canada: The Local Economic Development Lab

The Local Economic Development Lab is a 'social innovation lab' with an economical focus. Their aim is to promote or achieve "inclusive and sustainable economic development in disadvantaged urban communities" through social projects and with the support of stakeholders. LEDlab has worked on social innovation projects together with Vancouver's local residents, university graduates, organizations and networks to generate job opportunites, hence increase personal income.

Alberta, Canada: Energy Future Labs

One of the few labs that has a thematic focus. "The Energy Futures Lab is convening innovators and influencers to collectively address current and future energy challenges." The government running the lab in an oil-rich Pronvince in Canada seems to look at new pathways to transform the Alberta energy system.

New York City, USA: The Gov Lab

A civic innovation lab that aims to engage individuals and civil society as well as governmental institutions to find solutions to common problems. To achieve collaboration, they build platforms, networks, and asses whether existing governance innovations do actually have an impact on people's lives. They have a range of interesting projects with a heavy technology and data focus

Oakland, USA: OpenOakland

OpenOakland is a nonprofit civic innovation lab or organization that works together with coders, designers, data geeks, journalists, volunteers and government officials to improve the lives of oklanders. Their main focus is on community technology and open government projects. They host public events such as hackatons. And some of their projects are CityCamp, the Open Government Pledge, OaklandWiki, submit FOIA requests, among others.

Baltimore, USA: Social Innovation Lab

The Baltimore Social Innovation Lab supports companies and organizations developing innovative solutions to local and global problems with funding, mentorship, and resources. They believe "that social entrepreneurship can serve as a transformative and empowering force capable of creating jobs, improving public welfare, and revitalizing communities."

Los Angeles, USA: Civic Innovation Lab

A civil innovation lab located in LA where citizens and government work collectively to develop urban solutions, e.g. housing, education, small businesses, neighborhood stabilization, and transportation. How they work? They create "a multi-stakeholder process designed to prototype and test viable solutions for civic and social challenges - driven by citizens, informed by open data, and supported by local government."

Ausckland, New Zealand: Co-Design Lab

The Lab has been established to provide a neutral space to explore the case for change using collective impact, co-design and other innovative approaches to complex social issues. The Lab is funded by Treasury, and is co-located with its other key sponsor — Auckland Council's Southern Initiative team in Manukau.

Impact Hub Network

One of the pioneers of social innovation labs are impact hubs with 80 locations world wide. First time I stayed in an impact hub in London 10 years ago and I was impressed how at that time they were already working on a more holistic innovation model that goes beyond just startup incubation. The results are projects that go in various directions for for and non-profit. Since its beginnings, the Impact Hub has focused on the global south and has an impressive worldwide representation.

Did I miss any social innovation labs? Just add them in the comment section.

Last updated 18.04.2016