• March 6, 2018
  • 4 minutes
  • 1

Thomas Prehn’s innovation diary: Innovation is not a room

The head of MindLab on why innovation can—and should—happen anywhere

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.

Apolitical has previously interviewed Thomas here. He can be contacted on the Apolitical network here. The views expressed here are Thomas’s own and not representative of any public body. This piece appears in our feed on government innovation.

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.

(Picture credit: Mindlab)

Thomas Prehn

Read other instalments of this series:
Thomas Prehn’s innovation diary
Design sinking
How to scale up public policy
A backlog of curiosity
Bring me problems, not solutions
Innovation labs measure success to justify themselves—but it can’t be done
How to build a team of innovators


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