What are social labs?
As said, social labs can be seen as a new ‘social technology’ to address our most pressing, contemporary challenges. These challenges are not merely ‘complicated’ (i.e., something that smart experts can resolve through analysis and planning), they are complex, meaning they are fundamentally and inherently unpredictable.
And they’re unpredictable, because we’re dealing with living, dynamic systems ~ such as ecosystems and people ~ that change, adapt, evolve, and mutate. This makes them only to a limited extent suitable for comprehensive analysis.
Complex challenges therefore require fundamentally different solutions ~ as it is simply not possible to address them effectively through expert-analysis and technical or technocratic approaches alone.
This is why people are increasingly working in ‘social labs.’ Social labs have three central characteristics:
1. They are social. Instead of being based on experts, social labs are organized in such a way that a very diverse field of stakeholders is involved. In this way, social labs attempt to represent the complexity of social reality in the most full and rich way. Only by working with all those different perspectives, ideas, and viewpoints can we come up with truly effective and innovative approaches.
2. They are experimental. Because complex problems are fundamentally unpredictable, we need to work from an open approach that assumes ‘we do not know’. This demands a change of mindset: a different approach to leadership, knowledge, and analysis. It demands us to let go of the ‘planning and control’ mode, and develop approaches based on experiment, self-organization, and emergence.
3. They are systemic. Instead of focussing on isolated issues and sectoral approaches, social labs attempt to address challenges with an eye on the larger system they are part of. That is, social labs acknowledge that complex issues are often interconnected with many other issues, and embedded in larger systems. They therefore invite a larger, systemic perspective that aims for unearthing the deeper causes rather than focussing on simplistic solutions or addressing superficial ‘symptoms’.