“What does an innovation lab do?”
Roxanne St. Martin Senior Policy Advisor Ministry of Natural REsources and Forestry
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Thomas Prehn Executive Director Danish Red Cross Youth | Apolitical Advisor
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An innovation lab can be all kinds of things.

  • Mindlab brought fresh thinking and creativity into the ministries it worked with and brought the “human factor” into policymaking through fieldwork, observation, and other sociological and anthropological methods. It therefore became a cultural R&D focused on behavior, leadership, and organization.
  • The Behavioral Insights Team is foremost interested in bringing behavioral insights into policy and communications.
  • Many labs work with experimentation, prototyping, and other ways to test out policy-making, often inspired by behavior science.

For now, you might need a lab because it is out of the ordinary in terms of approach, way of thinking, and processes. It provides a 'safe haven' where you can test new ways of working. But hopefully innovation units will be part of the ordinary line management, as part of the everyday approach and DNA of the organisation.

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Danu Marin Research and Partnership Officer Moldova Social Innovation Lab (UNDP)

An innovation lab facilitates development and creates public value through small-scale experimentation and solution testing. The way how they do it depends a lot on the lab’s institutional affiliation, relationship with the government and other stakeholders, and not in the least, on the Lab’s team and the skills they have.

As an innovation lab within UNDP, alongside two other labs, MiLab has a distinct identity and methodological toolbox to tackle development issues. We engage with the government and public sector to develop creative solutions to social problems and bring closer citizen and the government through collaboration and co-creation. Moldova Innovation Lab promotes civic engagement and alternative data to inform public policies and democratise policy-making. MiLab is collaborative and experimental space that works similar to a start-up within the Government. As such, different innovative methods are applied – from ethnographic research and collaborative idea generation to storytelling and prototyping. Ultimately, MiLab aspires to change the culture of public servants in order to improve public governance.

Our core activities include:

  1. Issue exploration and research
  2. Ideation and solution scoping
  3. Proof of concept through small-scale testing and experimentation
  4. Impact evaluation to determine whenever the solution is worth scaling up

As a side note, a lab works a lot to improve its own capacities to keep up and lead local development. In order to accomplish that, the Innovation Lab captures and shares knowledge about emerging technologies and trends, hones its design and experimentation tool by applying robust research methodology and engages new stakeholders by building partnerships and co-opting unusual actors to implement innovative solutions.

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Sarah Allen Social Researcher Innovation Lab - Northern Ireland Civil Service

The Northern Ireland public sector Innovation Lab was started in 2014 and sits in the Department of Finance within the Northern Ireland Civil Service. We sit centrally within government and work with other Departments and Arms-Length Bodies in NI.

In the Innovation Lab, we start a project by bringing together stakeholders from across the system as well as external experts to look at a problem together in a ‘Strategic Innovation Lab’. During this Lab, we try to get a better understanding of the problem and to narrow down the challenges into a concrete number of recommendations. We then work with stakeholders to decide our priority area and conduct a literature review to see what has been done or what is currently happening in the area. We are not always in a position to design a new service or product, but we use still use user-centered design methodologies to inform our research, and we have service designers in the lab. We look at user journeys and personas and do a lot of user research (focus groups, interviews, surveys) to understand the problem from the user perspective. We also have a system dynamics modeller in the lab who looks at the system as a whole and tests how, for example, one policy change might affect another – or how there might be unintended consequences elsewhere in the system. If appropriate, we use behavioural science tools such as the COM-B framework (Mitchie et al. 2011), MINDSPACE (Cabinet Office), EAST (Behavioural Insights Team), and others to help us design a behaviour change intervention. We also look for opportunities to trial our interventions using A/B tests (RCTs; experiments) so that we can improve upon the design and try again.

We know there are many other tools and disciplines that can bring innovation thinking. To that end, we often link with the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency to promote data science across the NI civil service and have held several awareness raising events for senior civil servants. We also have developed a Creativity and Innovation course that is offered to the civil service and are working to develop further training.

We value collaboration. We typically collaborate intensively with our project sponsors as well as with PhD students and Universities.

We are still very much learning what to do and how to do it, and we are always trying to figure out what works best and how best to work.

We have found our experience to be a process of constant iteration and change; there is no fixed operating model nor process; in fact this fluid approach has allowed us to develop organically, and often things have happened because of the unplanned confluence of things – wonderful moments of serendipity.  And this is not a comfortable position for traditional civil servants to be in!  On the other hand there is a sense that once we try and systematise what we do; or turn it into a process, the freshness and curiosity that has got us this far will be lost.  And that might result in the end of the Lab.

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