MindLab is the world’s oldest government innovation lab and has spawned imitations all over the globe. It stands at the forefront, both in theory and practice, of efforts to make government cleverer, faster and more inventive. Here, its director Thomas Prehn shares his experiences and ideas in a regular update.
Innovation is not a room (6.March.2018)
Every week delegations from all over the world visit MindLab, curious to learn about our projects, our approach, or the organizational challenges that derive from being an innovation unit embedded in the public sector.
Always, they are interested in our physical space. The Lab itself.
And you can feel the initial disappointment when they realize that ‘the Mind’ – our meeting room-sized, 90s-futuristic brainstorm space in the shape of an egg – is no longer there. For more than a decade this whiteboard egg you could go inside served as the symbol of MindLab’s purpose: to bring innovation to ministries as a kind of creative sport.
However, two years ago we refurbished MindLab on the principle that innovation should be able to occur across the entire public sector, in every meeting room, at every desk. That it needn’t be prompted by physical installations, infinite whiteboards or blocks of Post-Its; rather it should be able to unfold as culture, disseminated as daily behaviour by every public servant and supported by audacious, purpose-driven leadership.
Innovation is tied not to space, but to mindset
These days, MindLab is just an office. Yes, you’ll find people having meetings on our couch, chatting over coffee and candlelight, but you won’t find designated rooms for brainstorming or design sprints. Actually, we prefer to work in the offices of our ministerial colleagues, solely to support the idea that innovation is tied not to space, but to mindset.
It seems that building physical labs appeals to the predominant dynamics of the public sector: the desire to create output. Whether it’s putting together a task force or announcing a regulation, the public sector prefers anything tangible that can serve a political narrative of decisiveness.
While you can’t cut a ribbon to inaugurate the conditions that allow innovation culture to thrive in an organization, you certainly can build a lab, and that’s what is preferred when it comes to implementing public sector innovation.
But innovation is not a room – please consider whether it should be confined to a lab.