Lab Legacies #4: Lab business models

For the fourth discussion in our Lab Legacies series, we were joined by Keren Perla, Director of the Alberta CoLab, and Javier Guillot, Co-founder of the EiP Innovation team in Colombia’s Department of Planning.

They shared how they have both shifted their own lab models, and discussed why labs need to constantly evolve to ensure they’re creating as much value as possible. Watch the full conversation above or read the highlights below.


Labs need to do more than workshops

Keren: Facilitating workshops was a great trojan horse to begin with. People were familiar with the format and we could introduce concepts that felt a bit different for government.

But over time you become synonymous with workshops and there’s so much more you can do through a lab model. It actually becomes a constraining thing. They’re great as an opener but there's a gap between doing a workshop and creating actual systemic change in an organisation. We weren't going to workshop our way there. We spent a lot of time trying to bust out of our association with them so we could do other work.

The branding of labs can actually be a barrier to embedding innovation

Javier: The term ‘lab’ is often perceived as just another word in an ever growing list of innovation lingo, so it requires clarification.

When the term is better understood, a lab is still often perceived as a radically disruptive unit that is outside the local organisational culture. It might make sense to build a unit like this from scratch in some cases, but that's rare. Instead of being stipulated right from the start, labs models need be discovered and defined.

"Instead of being stipulated right from the start, labs models need be discovered and defined."

These labs often then build expectations around impact in highly complex policy areas. The exercise of branding captures a lot of attention but then risk being perceived as weak if you cannot deliver strong results. This in turn increases the probability of a lab not becoming sustainable. Choosing the lab branding should be a strategic decision, a consequence of learning rather than something we take for granted with innovation initiatives.

From generalists to subject specialists

Keren: In 2018 we did a hard pivot and became an internal government platform around energy transition in Alberta. We’re a lab now focused on the structural shift away from fossil fuels, and the implications of that for a jurisdiction that is a big exporter of oil and gas.

We’ve moved from a model designed to deliver volume and breadth to one designed to deliver depth. We’ve gone from 30 projects a year across government to three projects focused on the challenge of energy transition. These we identify, design and deliver. We’ve gone from being topic agnostic to setting ourselves up as experts in a strategic, niche area and growing our ability out of that expertise.

We needed a big shift to address the limitations of our original consultancy style model, where we’d get involved with a discrete piece of work and then hand it off to the client. Often these projects had short half-lives. You were never guaranteed a pathway to impact and the handoff was always a bit of a gamble. Now that we’re the project owners, it gives us a more consistent ability to design that pathway to impact.

"We needed a big shift to address the limitations of our original consultancy style model, where we’d get involved with a discrete piece of work and then hand it off to the client."

Getting your lab model right at the beginning is difficult - the focus should be on evolution

Javier: The EIP was set up in 2015 as a collaborative effort to develop a national policy for social innovation in Colombia. But to be honest at the beginning our mandate was fuzzy and we were not sure what our model should be!

From the outset we had to deliver results through pilot projects. But the complexity of the challenges the pilots were trying to tackle made it difficult to achieve results. We had the vision for the transformations that were necessary, but it was very hard to support our partners to translate this into specific implementations or changes.

Since then we have invested a lot of energy in understanding our institutional context to figure out what role we can play in an ecosystem that is consistent with the organisational culture of our department. Our new model is based on the concept of experimentation. Close in spirit to the scientific roots of experimentation, we see it as structured processes in which problems or challenges are carefully diagnosed, ideas are generated in response to them and then they are tested to provide evidence that can guide decision making.

We can support this by fostering collective learning, and we are looking to enable experimentation to happen more and in a better way in the public innovation ecosystem. So we've retired from the role of implementing innovation pilots and instead are becoming the ones that can map, make visible and learn from the many inspiring examples of public innovators in Colombia and beyond. Our aim is to analyse and synthesise this learning and translate it into policy frameworks that can better support innovation in practice.

Finding a strategic niche can help a lab create more value

Keren: There is a lot of good work happening in our organisations already, but there are also strategic gaps that labs are uniquely positioned to fill.

When we decided to focus on energy transition, it was an area that Alberta would have to navigate but no one was really focusing much effort on it. This meant it felt like a nice place for the lab to play.

By this point we had become part of the government lexicon. People knew who we were, about systemic design and foresight methodologies and about our intent and ambition. But for on the ground impact? That was always a bit hit or miss.

"People knew who we were, about systemic design and foresight methodologies and about our intent and ambition. But for on the ground impact? That was always a bit hit or miss."

So on socialising what we were trying to do, we were doing well, but actually delivering concrete, tangible outputs we thought we needed a very different approach for that. And that's how we transitioned to depth.

It takes time to build a shared understanding of innovation

Javier: It was hard to have a clear conversation about social innovation in practice, yet it’s critical. There was a lack of shared language around this concept and even though it’s deep in our hearts - from our corner of government at least - discussions often led to a conceptual fog that prevented the creation of a shared narrative or vision and actually delivering results and impact.

"There was a lack of shared language around the concept (innovation)... discussions often led to a conceptual fog that prevented the creation of a shared narrative or vision and actually delivering results and impact."

We’ve realised that you cannot force a shared language that can translate into actions and outcomes. It needs to emerge from conversations and in practice. And we've realised in many workshops and activities that veering towards the concept of ‘public innovation’ can be a strategic move for building a wider vision of social innovation. We saw that 'public innovation' creates more traction and interest in some open-minded top officials in government and we are currently experimenting with the vocabulary.

By asking bigger questions, we can refocus our skillsets to tackle bigger system challenges

Keren: A lot of the planning in the Department of Energy had been based on forecasts of ongoing growth, but we’re hitting points of disruption in the system that very few people know how to plan for. There's a lot of nervousness around that. And so sparking an awareness that you still need to plan in a space that's unpredictable and dynamic was a great opportunity to leverage a lot of the skills the lab already had into a very concerted space.

It's about helping the department break out beyond economic modeling to include other types of modeling. Valuing other types of research and other perspectives that they'd seldom consider in a very techno economic department. There are many strategies that you can play with for that. One that really works for us is understanding what were the core assumptions baked into how they understand energy systems evolving.

Once we had acknowledged that those assumptions were often fragile, we could be open about saying, well, what are the possibilities and what does the world look like if those assumptions don’t play out? How do we need to position ourselves to be resilient in that situation? What are some of the initiatives we need to start launching right now in small scale to be more adaptive should other scenarios actually evolve?

Balancing the political and bureaucratic

Javier: You need to read strong signals from your immediate environment about when the chances and probability of genuine impact are high. We are in the National Planning Department, which self-identifies as a sort of think tank for the national Colombian Government, but is also a key driver of the political agenda in the country.

We looked for a long term political agenda that we believed in and that justified innovation approaches. This was the Sustainable Development Goals agenda. We realised that the SDGs have the potential for cross-governmental changes and that it's an agenda which Colombia is already deeply immersed in. The agenda also reveals the need for adopting innovative approaches, so we are using it as a platform to explain why there's going to be a demand for public innovation.

"We looked for a long term political agenda that we believed in and that justified innovation approaches."

But we are also taking a step back and saying, let's think first of all about which sort of policy instruments, which sort of language, which sort of skills and organisational cultures we need to have public innovation. Not simply as a nice to have, but as a cross cutting approach in government and the wider public innovation ecosystem.

Understanding the inner workings of the organisation that you're in and hacking them is key. Get an understanding of the means and resources that are out there. It is also possible to be full-on disruptive, but what we've learned is that unless you have very strong political support and a very clear strategic agenda, it's going to be very hard to push this until concrete projects actually achieve impact.

Connecting to political agendas versus flying under the radar

Keren: We ummed and ahhed about this a lot, but then took a calculated risk in saying that we weren’t going to connect directly with the political piece. We try as much as we can to de-politicise Colab and the challenge of energy transition (assuming that this conversation can outlive election cycles). Regardless of the administration, energy transition is going to be a thing that we can deal with now or be hit by in some way if we've not planned for it.

In a lot of ways, this has allowed us to stabilise the work of the lab, but the trade-off is that without that connection to the political level your ability to actually make structural changes can decrease.

"The trade-off is that without that connection to the political level your ability to actually make structural changes can decrease."

For example, right now one of the challenges we're trying to navigate through is that user research is very much still bucketed under ‘consultation’. So in some instances, you have to get cabinet approval to go and talk to people. We want to make sure that user research is part of regular research so you don't have to go through all these gates to get it approved.

But lifting up this issue while being embedded in a single department is more challenging than if you were more centrally connected to the political level. We can do user research on a project level, but the ease and normalisation of it becomes more challenging when you're not connected to the politics of it. So I can deliver my work in energy transition, but to enable government to really bake this in and say “this is what we want to do”, that's a little bit of a different effort.

And finally…

Javier: As innovation teams in government we should stop spending time on rigidly defining our business models. Instead, we need to become permanent learners and stealthy hackers from within the system.

We also want you to contribute to this conversation! Send suggestions to us via Twitter or email us at hello@states-of-change.org.