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 we’re 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. 

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.

Zaid Hassan, “The Social Labs Revolution. A New Approach to Solving our Most Complex Challenges.”

A Social Lab approach was used with great succes at the ‘Learning to Live Together conference‘ (tSeptember 28th 2018, Heerhugowaard).

Thank you for the great collaboration in the preparation and implementation of the social labs! I think your approach to social labs contributed to making our conference a great success. All participants I spoke to experienced it as helpful for creating the safety needed to dare to think openly and to enter into deeper conversation with each other. Especially the fact that people felt that their contribution was valuable, was experienced as special.

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’. 

Explore possibilities for using Social Labs