We have scientific and technical labs for solving our most difficult scientific and technical challenges. We need social labs to solve our most pressing social challenges.
Lab approaches to complex challenges
Social labs are platforms for addressing complex social challenges. They can be seen as a new ‘social technology’ for solving the highly complex problems that we are faced with today.
Although most social labs are based on long-term, continuing efforts, we can use the underlying principles they are based on also in much shorter events and contexts.
I have developed an approach for working with social labs that can be used even in contexts where we have only a few hours available yet the desire is to get different stakeholders to talk with one other in new ways, and come up with cross-cutting solutions for often intractable problems.
What are social labs?
As said, social labs can be seen as a new ‘social technology’ to address some of our most complex problems.
Challenges are complex because they are fundamentally unpredictable, because there is too little information, and because we are dealing with living systems ~ such as ecosystems, and yes, people! These living systems are dynamic: they change, adapt, and evolve, which makes them inherently unpredictable and only to a limited extent suitable for comprehensive analysis.
Often challenges are also complex because there is perception and emotion in the game: we all see both problem and solution in radically different ways. Think for example about climate change: not only do we not agree on whether the problem actually exists and/or is human-caused, we also can’t agree on how to tackle it and what steps to take.
So this brings with a whole host of new challenges and makes issues much more than just ‘complicated’ ~ something that a group of smart experts can resolve through solid analysis.
This counts for most sustainability-issues as well for most problems in which humans play a central role. That is, we are dealing here with a fundamentally different category of problems. Some therefore call these issues “wicked problems”.
They therefore also require fundamentally different solutions: it is simply not possible to address complex social challenges effectively through expert-analysis and technical or technocratic approaches alone, nor can they be solved ‘top down’.
That is why for addressing complex social challenges, people are increasingly working in ‘social labs.’ In the words of Zaid Hassan, “we have scientific and technical labs for solving our most difficult scientific and technical challenges. We need social labs to solve our most pressing social challenges.“
Social labs have three central characteristics:
1. They are social. Instead of being based on experts ~ who are usually very good at analyzing and solving ‘complicated’ problems ~ 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 these challenges 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 of us to let go of the ‘planning and control’ paradigm, and develop approaches based on experiment, self-organization, and emergence. Although exciting, it can also be challenging to start dealing with our issues in this way!
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’.