• Opinion
  • February 25, 2019
  • 8 minutes
  • 1

How to ensure your innovation lab survives: lessons from Latin America

Opinion: Innovation is still a brand new thing in the public sector in this part of the world

Laboratorio de Gobierno

This piece was written by Roman Yosif Capdeville, Executive Director, Laboratorio de Gobierno, Gobierno de Chile. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.


During 2018, Laboratorio de Gobierno — Chile’s government innovation lab — was successfully able to demonstrate the value that this type of agency can produce, accelerating the transition of government and coming out stronger along the way.

Launched in 2015 as the first government innovation lab of its kind in Latin America, we quickly understood that despite all the learnings that we can build on from other countries’ experiences, the challenges that a government innovation lab faces in this region are very different from an innovation lab in Europe, Asia or the US.

Not only do we have different problems as countries or cities, but our governments have different priorities and far more urgent matters to face. Experimenting is a privilege.

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Innovation is not seen as a priority for many governments in Latin America, but rather as a luxury. So, unfortunately, we have seen many good initiatives in the region that didn’t survive for long. We empathise with them and worry about the efforts once made, the teams that didn’t get to see results in the long term, and the truncated promises of a better way to think about and solve public challenges.

Innovation is still a brand new thing in the public sector in this part of the world

Innovation is still a brand new thing in the public sector in this part of the world. A few of us have managed to introduce it to public servants and institutions — but for how long? Are we really on our way to innovation becoming a stated policy? Are we really planting the seeds of innovation capabilities in our states? Are we really going to change the role of the government in this new society? Are we able to generate concrete improvements in people’s quality of life?

For us here in Chile, it’s been a journey of four years, with a change of government in between. When we first started, not many people knew what public innovation meant. It has been a long road, and we are still not sure that today many people really know, but we are working on it with the same enthusiasm.

What has allowed our team to survive, despite the current challenges in Latin America and through a change of government? We have made efforts inside and out the public sector, and we believe that there have been four key ingredients to our success:

1. We systematised our learnings from our initial launch phase and took our innovation model to the next level. We carefully assessed everything we did in the first period of our operation to identify key ways to improve. Using that base of knowledge, and following a new and bold State Modernisation Agenda, we developed a new model: more agile, always thinking about implementation of the projects we embark on, and always going one step beyond in terms of the co-creation of solutions. From the classic innovation laboratory, created from scratch by a few talented people, we have now transitioned to more of a consultancy model, with a demand-driven strategy.

2. We have a versatile and flexible team. The team understood the new era of the Lab and was hands on quickly. The change of model meant that the team needed to be flexible to face the new challenge of agility, as well as to think of new profiles that would allow us to expand the range of action of Laboratorio. Today, we can say that we have a more multidisciplinary team; we have added other disciplines to those initially thought necessary and changed everybody’s role from executors of programs to consultants and partners for public agencies.

3. We have many people who can and will speak in our favour. We have been lucky to count many influential people as strong believers in our work. From heads of services, innovation actors, entrepreneurs, civil servants, academics, citizens and those who have worked with us and helped create the Lab, many key actors are quick to speak on our behalf. This has always been of great value for us.

4. We received strong support from the Presidency. It’s easy to work when someone has your back. We got a new home — the Ministry of the Presidency — that allowed us to migrate towards the centre of the government and its priorities, resulting in a new strategic relevance for our skills. We transited from chasing our first “clients” and working hard to make them believe in us, to a different logic where public institutions apply to work with us. We now have the privilege of working with high priority issues for Chile, and that gives us big responsibility and the chance to make a real impact.

What’s the future like?

We can see that older public innovation Labs are currently in their second or third version/generation and are already changing their paradigm from innovation solutions to innovation governance, as Christian Bason has written. They are becoming more focused on the future of governance and on holistic transformation than on short-term solutions inside the public sector.

The difference resides in more government-oriented priorities, but also in a stronger connection to our “clients”; we listen, we work together, co-creating as always, but getting out of the physical space that is our Lab in order to install the mindset that innovation can occur anywhere.

We have trained civil servants for years, but now we feel that this new approach and tools for doing public policy are part of a bold agenda to transform the public sector into a more modern, agile and friendly ally for citizens that are asking for better services to increase their quality of life. — Roman Yosif Capdeville

(Picture credit: Laboratorio de Gobierno)

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