Four Social-Change Results That Innovation Labs Deliver

Social innovation labs are gaining ground and finding effective solutions to global challenges quickly and inclusively.

The recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa and its speedy path to infections in Texas demonstrates how quickly local problems become global ones and how complicated addressing them can be. In a quest to tackle the world’s biggest challenges with speed and comprehension, there is growing consensus that we need an accelerated process by which different people with different skills, resources, and experiences can come together, surface ideas, and test the best ones.

Fortunately, over the past five years, the social innovation lab, a form of collaborative problem solving, has gained ground. There is also growing evidence that labs can scale and sustain their impact through a unique process that is grounded in a philosophy of experimentation and learning, drawing on diverse stakeholders across and within various sectors and fields.

As part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s strategy to build innovation capacity, it has funded and worked with six lab partners around the globe. It integrates those labs into initiatives that include improving livelihoods of small-scale fisheries in Indonesia and creating jobs for youth in the United States. To demystify lab practice and document how labs are contributing to social change, the Bridgespan Group and the Rockefeller Foundation have surveyed 75 labs and 23 funders, interviewed more than two dozen lab experts and practitioners, and convened leaders from 13 prominent labs to discuss and codify their best practices and results.

Our research identified four common results that labs deliver:

1. They create knowledge from and for the system. Labs gather input from a variety of stakeholders to efficiently and holistically build and disseminate knowledge.

For example, over a 10-month period in 2013 and 2014, the Global Knowledge Initiative (GKI), supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, engaged 220-plus experts in areas such as agribusiness, finance, research, policy, and civil society to address challenges around post-harvest food waste and spoilage. These experts represented six different countries, and the sessions revealed unexpected insights—for example, the need to reframe incentives for and communication with smallholder farmers—that the foundation shared with its community of lab participants.

2. They build capacity for implementation. Labs empower participants with new skills, processes, and momentum to implement solutions.

For example, the Sustainable Food Laboratory brings together global leaders representing the nonprofit, business, and government sectors—ranging from the Brazilian farmers organizations such as Assocene- Associação de Orientação das Cooperativas do Nordeste, Brazil, to Unilever—to pilot and implement projects related to sustainability in the global food systems, and apply lessons from those projects to their own organizations. By implementing a model developed at the lab, PepsiCo reduced the greenhouse gas emissions of all its European operations by 50 percent in five years.

3. They build networks to sustain results. Labs foster networks and relationships to enable the testing, sustainability and scalability of solutions.

MaRS Solutions Lab, for example, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, engaged more than 15 employers and stakeholders in a lab designed to develop insights about youth unemployment and identify prototypes to improve employment opportunities for “opportunity youth.” After participating in the lab, an US uniform supply corporation that participated in the lab decided to spearhead the develop one of the prototypes, [Youth]versity, a national campaign that encourages large corporations to include opportunity youth in their existing diversity policies and programs.

4. They create solutions with a deeper understanding of root causes. Labs push forward solutions by developing an on-the-ground and in-depth understanding of the root causes and dynamics of problems. Their focus on prototyping allows for extensive iteration and testing in real-world situations early in the process.

inCompass, the HCD i-Lab at iDE, is a good example. The lab aimed to identify potential solutions, such as policy interventions or consumer-education campaigns, to eliminate the use of plastic bags in Cambodia. But human-centered design methods such as ethnographic research uncovered insights that forced the lab to think completely differently about who the “user” was and what the “solution” might be. It was market vendors, not customers, who used the most plastic bags, and it turned out that a policy intervention, which was the in-going hypothesis, would have created a black market. inCompass instead designed products—which it worked with vendors to test and iterated on—to meet their most important needs and create a more sustainable solution.

Although an estimated 70 percent of social innovation labs are less than five years old and the field’s total expenditure is only about $150 million per year, there are early signals that labs can offer a promising path to solving big challenges like disease outbreaks, food security, and youth unemployment. They enable rapid learning and prototyping fueled by multi-disciplinary wisdom.

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  • BY Bennett Cohen

    ON November 11, 2014 06:09 AM

    This is valuable and eye-opening work that illustrates best practices for a promising new approach to holistic problem solving in a networked age. Regarding the 4 results, It’s encouraging to see that some of the same philosophies and methods that have been successful for startups in the strictly for-profit sector are also bearing fruit for others in the social innovation space. The focus on prototyping and iteration of solutions is very much in line with the lean startup / minimum-viable product approach that we strongly believe in at Empower Generation.

  • BY Jocelyn Wyatt

    ON November 11, 2014 10:37 AM

    Labs are a great way to encourage innovation in the social sector because they provide the time and space to explore and test new solutions. At, we practice an approach called Human-Centered Design which starts with understanding people and their needs and leads to prototyping solutions at a small scale before ramping them up.

    As we look to launch a social innovation lab in New York City, it’s critical for us to identify the right funding and implementing partners who are able to engage in a collaborative approach to problem solving. This requires selecting partners with implementation capabilities and building the capacity of the organizations we work with to practice human-centered design.

    I’m a great supporter of the work that Rockefeller Foundation and Bridgespan are doing on social innovation labs and look forward to continuing our involvement with them.

  • BY Nidhi Sahni

    ON November 11, 2014 12:28 PM

    Bennett, that is a very appropriate analogy. Much as in start-ups, the prototyping approach essentially tests the concept (or parts of the concept) early and cheaply in the real world to probe feedback loops, system dynamics, and unintended consequences. This is essential to improve or discard idea(s) before investing large sums of money. This extensive iteration and testing also reduces risk. Hopefully, what you end up with is a solution with a higher ROI, where return is the impact you set out to achieve.

    Jocelyn, thank you for your thoughts and perspective on the webinar yesterday. The importance of the right partners in setting up a lab is a great point. In our research, we have seen various roles that partners need to play - funding, implementation and convening. Our conversations also highlighted the need for clear articulation of roles upfront to ensure success of the lab.

  • BY Amanda Rose

    ON November 12, 2014 09:34 AM

    Thank you for highlighting the multi-faceted contributions that Innovation Labs can make in addressing the tough challenges we face as a global community.  At the Global Knowledge Initiative, our work as an Innovation Lab emphasizes the important role that networks play, not only in informing solution design, but in building momentum to test and implement those solutions.  Networks, we believe, are fundamental to moving from great ideas, to solutions with impact.  We’re excited to see where the field of Innovation Labs goes next, given there is still much experimenting, learning, and growing to do.

  • BY Amira Bliss

    ON November 12, 2014 01:19 PM

    Indeed, Amanda, one of three defining features of social innovation labs is to bring in diverse perspectives from the whole system to address complex social problems. Networks of diverse stakeholders, often including people from different sectors and geographies, some unusual suspects, and beneficiaries, are critical ingredients for successfully catalyzing innovation. 

    Our early experience shows that social innovation labs develop an ecosystem of actors committed to collaborating and carrying forward innovative solutions developed through the lab.

    While most social innovation labs were founded in the past five years, we are starting to see examples of older labs mobilizing networks towards shared goals. For example, the Sustainable Food Lab, which started 10 years ago, has changed the procurement practices of large corporations towards sustainability and increased support for small-holder farmers.

    As the lab field evolves and we collect more data, we hope to see more rigorous evaluations of the impact of networks and other key tools used in the lab.

  • BY Sara Farley

    ON November 13, 2014 11:07 AM

    This thread is fantastic and I’m heartened SSIR is giving its valuable platform to this exciting issue of the emergence of Innovation Labs.

    As the co-founder of the Global Knowledge Initiative, we’ve had the privilege of experimenting with a range of models, tools, and processes to kick-start collaborative innovation on problems global and wicked.  Being dubbed an “Innovation Lab” offers us a great way to broaden the tent for like-minded organizations and individuals compelled by the rationale for inclusive, iterative, and integrated innovation to come together and learn, experiment, and share, just as my colleague Amanda notes.

    I’m often asked what makes GKI distinct, and what makes this notion of an Innovation Lab new or different.  My take:  it’s not wholly different.  It’s unique as a recombinant form of social innovation.  Tools like Human Centered Design, as Jocelyn’s have mastered, have been around decades longer than the 5 year lifespan of Innovation Labs as estimated by the authors.  However, part of the novelty and the power of Innovation Labs rests in opening up the box of tools that underpins the innovation design processes.  By empowering the broadest set of users possible with the ability to select the tools for design, wield them on their own terms, and formulate innovations in an utterly collaborative fashion, innovation labs come to solutions that are uniquely co-created. 

    Elsewhere on the SSIR blog, many postings speak to the return on investment to collaboration.  How Innovation Labs can help propel the thinking and measurement on methods to calculate returns to social innovation as a social process will be fascinating. How the very construct of Innovation Labs offers an investment in the social capital and the linkages necessary for systems to innovate merits thought and validation as we move forward.  For Innovation Labs, their users, and their critics, these are exciting time!

  • BY Eduardo Jezierski

    ON November 13, 2014 01:25 PM

    Insightful points Sara - evolution is driven by such recombinations and we usually refer to our iLabs as ‘recombinant spaces’. When writing the book LabCraft ( ) we asked ourselves all the time - what’s different and unique? Each specific practice, approach, or strategy may not be new on its own (thankfully!) but the combination leads to much unexplored potential.

    The return on investment in our perspective of the InSTEDD iLabs (eg is amazing along the three dimensions we particularly care about (social impact, capacity building, financial sustainability). Once the iLabs start influencing the very strategy of social programs, they actively help shape the skills marketplace (in our iLabs that’s tech, design and startups) and reach financial self-sustainability (iLabs find their niche in the market) they keep adding value multiplying manifold the startup capital and effort.

  • BY Aditya Dev Sood

    ON November 13, 2014 05:38 PM

    Helpful to see these examples of the beneficial outcomes of labs, which are not always easy to track, in either quantitative or qualitative terms, even when observers and participants are keenly aware of these benefits. Beyond those outcomes, moreover, there are other somewhat intangible effects of labs on the problem solving ability of teams and organizations, and on their approach to collaboration and evidence seeking. We’re seeking a lot of this in the case of the Bihar Innovation Lab, where our partners have been initially suspicious and later quite pleased with the ways they are able to go from uncertainty to increasing levels of clarity about the problems at hand and possible ways of addressing these. It is ultimately quite helpful for implementation agencies to actually have somewhere to park the on-going challenges they face, which they cannot stop to address given their own timelines and milestones, so that new thinking and insight can actually inform their outcome oriented work.

    Some of our thinking around the need for labs to address outstanding developmental challenges is available here:

  • BY Hal Hamilton

    ON November 14, 2014 12:37 PM

    I wonder if the time might be right to organize a rough typology of labs. They seem to differ in some key ways.

    In 2002 Adam Kahane and I started interviewing people to identify those who would found the Sustainable Food Lab, which over time has evolved into a “backbone organization” for project implementation and management, although of course we continue to support project incubation and design.

    The original “social lab” design assumed that innovative projects would be “new” and relatively self organizing. The projects that actually stuck were those NEEDED by collaborating organizations, whose steps were already consistent with the performance objectives of those who would lead. Those people became champions in their organizations for the projects, and, ironically, those projects frequently also need “external” facilitation and management because they lie in the pre-competitive space between organizations.

    I’d guess that the Food Lab is pretty unique in this lab space because our focus is on market driven initiatives, those that achieve commercial objectives while simultaneously achieving social and environmental objectives.

    Anyway, great to have this blog and opportunity to share thoughts.

  • BY Joseph Schuchter

    ON February 23, 2015 05:44 PM

    Thanks for the lucid summary and great examples. The first three “results” you describe are also levers for the solution. I.e. true solutions require learning, capacity and networks. BTW, all of your audiences can quickly recall the value of these innovation labs using an easy mnemonic:

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