Labs in Place: Weaving Networks to Achieve Systemic Change

This post was originally published at the Social Innovation Generation Blog on June 6, 2017.

In 2015, Ecotrust Canada and RADIUS SFU partnered to initiate a social innovation lab to design, test, and scale solutions for a more vibrant and inclusive local economy in Vancouver’s inner city.

In the consultation phase, the team analyzed current literature on social innovation labs to develop a presentation of how a lab process might work in the Downtown Eastside (DTES). We then took this presentation to DTES community organizers and change leaders, where we quickly learned that adaptation, flexibility and continual iteration needed to become our mantra. A centralized, process-driven approach was not welcome in this particular community, and had the dangerous potential to entrench problematic dynamics already at play.

This early lesson started the Local Economic Development Lab (LEDlab) on a path of iterating a social innovation lab model with the added characteristic of place. Our hypothesis is: when embedded in a community context, labs need to be respectful of preexisting relationships, networks, and change initiatives – and must adapt their role from process designers to network weavers, working in service of systemic change.


Principles of Place-based Labs

Zaid Hassan (2015) describes social labs as multi-stakeholder change processes that are social, systemic, and experimental.1  The Social Innovation Lab Guide (2015) defines a Social Innovation Lab as a three-step process involving (1) Initiation, (2) Research and Preparation, and (3) the Workshops. While LEDlab embodies many lab-characteristics – such as problem identification, co-creation of solutions, rapid prototyping and continual learning – we felt compelled to re-imagine a lab model without highly structured workshop settings, where the inflow and outflow of participants could be more fluid.

Below we share the principles of what we are now calling LEDlab’s place-based lab approach. These are our lessons learned from reconciling a more expert-driven social innovation lab process with our experience of working on the ground in the DTES community to create systemic change.

Please note: The principles below were gleaned from working in the DTES, which is a very rich and resilient community with a long history of activism and a difficult relationship with the research community. There are many people, places, and systems that may be open to more structured innovation processes, or which may present a different set of conditions, opportunities and constraints. The principles outlined below speak only to our current experience.


We embed ourselves in existing community networks and processes

Many labs seek to pull people out of their work in order to challenge assumptions and co-design new solutions. Our experience in the DTES suggests that in a neighbourhood and community context you can’t/shouldn’t pull people out of their work because it is EXACTLY their work and the ability to prototype within it that holds the substance and opportunity for solution-building. Convening of any kind is inherently exclusive – there are always people that are ‘in’ the group or the process and others who are not. In a community setting, the creation of any ‘exclusive group’, even when the group is convened for the good of the whole, can quickly become political and may cause real harm to relationships that exist between neighbours, friends, and colleagues.

In a place-based lab model, we have learned instead to leave the community where they are and to embed ourselves into existing community networks and processes to identify high-impact ideas. We fundamentally think of innovation happening in and with the community, not about innovation happening in our lab.


We build trust in service of systems change

We consistently ask ourselves: How can we add value? The answer is often surprising. Something as simple as sending a personal invitation to a meeting, calling a colleague to celebrate a win, or transitioning a network’s membership list to a listserv can offer tremendous value to a network. We often don’t place enough emphasis on the small acts of service that can build the trust within a network. The quality of relationships between people matter, and are so foundational to affecting systemic change.


We work at multiple scales, convening the ‘whole system’ in a responsive and emergent way

As ideas surface and gain momentum from various community members and stakeholder groups, the lab is able to responsively convene from across the system around a specific project idea or strategic initiative. In this way, co-design is first grounded in community insights and felt needs. Second, we ask: who isn’t at the table, and bring together people with resources and mutual interest to develop out and test community-driven innovation.

In the LEDlab model, there isn’t just one group of lab participants, but rather the lab is embedded in a multi-hub network, working on multiple solutions, where we play a bridging role across multiple networks, sectors, and scales.


The Tapestry of Systems Change

Taken together, these principles inform a  lab model that sees itself as a platform for systemic change, willing and ready to respond to the emerging needs of the system in which it is embedded.

Recognizing that the DTES community is fertile ground for innovation, LEDlab’s work is two-fold:

  1. To keep our eye on, and give voice to, emerging ideas with the potential to contribute to the overall objective of creating an inclusive and vibrant local economy; and
  2. To responsively convene new human groupings with the dynamic potential to create and implement innovative solutions.

LEDlab is continuously creating and supporting social infrastructures to achieve new results. For this reason, our lab staff might more accurately be described as “systems entrepreneurs” – weaving their way across and through complex systems and networks, stitching together a vision and strategy for collective action. The approach is showing promising results in Vancouver’s inner city.

We welcome feedback from other practitioners, community members and academics. We look forward to adding to these principles and documenting the methodology in more detail as it evolves.


In this photo we see Davin, who is a binner and now a staff member with the Binners Project, speaking to a table of non-profit and government representatives. The work of grassroots organizations like the Binners Project and many others, to ensure that resident voices and ideas are heard, is essential because ultimately residents themselves are in the best position to understand their unique needs, as well as how to address those needs.


2. We Actively Work to Build Trust

My biggest lesson about systems entrepreneurship is that the most meaningful work can sometimes feel menial. When trying to cultivate collective leadership, no task is too small. Ask yourself, How can I optimize the relationships in a system so that we can work better together? Or simply, How can I increase the level of trust?

I have done a lot of work over the last two years with the Vancouver Urban Core Community Workers Association, a network of more than 100 non profits in the DTES. We recently moved our email list, which previously lived on the server of our administrator, to a listserv – which enabled these inner city organizations to more easily share opportunities and celebrate each others work.

Other examples of meaningful/menial tasks include sending personal thank you notes, facilitating introductions, or sending personal invitations to participate in events.

These small acts of service build trust and enhance information flows in a network, in order to lay the foundation for future collaboration.


3. Work at Multiple Scales

The Local Economic Development Lab has been in a very unique position last two years in that we are a community-university partnership, operating in a sort of intermediary space. We’ve been able to take a whole systems view, as well as work on both the community and systems levels.

Working at multiple scales, I believe, we’ve gained a fairly nuanced understanding of the system we are working in. The opportunity in working at multiple scales is finding those moments in which to align grassroots innovation with top down strategic priorities in a way that stays grounded in the realistic constraints of all parties.


The DTES Market, pictured here, is a platform for individuals who participate in the survival vending economy to earn some supplemental income and make ends meet. For individuals on basic income assistance or ‘welfare’, legislation stipulates that you can earn $200 a month on top of your monthly cheque. Everyone in this room knows that $200 doesn’t get you very far in this day and age, in particular in Vancouver, but we believe that it’s just as important to support the innovations that put $200 in someone’s pocket, as it is to work on policy innovation with our government partners.


4. Bridging

Because our work is happening with a large and diverse array of stakeholders, and has feet in multiple sectors, then we are learning that our role is really to bridge. In order to ‘heal the divide’, we must go out of our way to make connections.

That’s what we are all here to do tonight: to share the insights from our work, and hear from others with different perspectives. Bridging asks us to hold our assumptions lightly, until we can ask others what they know and don’t know.

It sometimes requires us to sometimes use different language, to translate – and to see systems change as a process, rather than an outcome.

So, what can you do to add value to the community? 

Well that depends on who are you are what you want your role to be, but if this talk has made you curious at all about how you can contribute to a more vibrant and inclusive local economy in the DTES, please reach out. We would love to hear your perspectives, needs, and limitations. I’m sure that there is a way for us to do more together.