The Future Of (Public) Innovation Labs
This article was co-written with Indy Johar, co-founder and Chief Strategic Designer of Radicle.
Can Dubai, the city that keeps redefining the limits of citizenship and smart cities, lead the global movement for the reinvention of the public innovation lab (and innovation labs in general)? Move the world from a (global) situ of agency-held (read “guarded”) innovation to systems-driven change? Where one entity or two (attempt to) monopolize the intellectual white space for new models of civic development and smart governance to a place where one is no longer influenced (or incentivized) by the need for recognition, winning awards and brownie points for lip-service innovation? Where what really matters is real systemic change and positive sustainable impact, driven by human engagement, technological enablement, and regulatory change. With the entrepreneurship and innovation movements inextricably intertwined in Dubai, the stakes couldn’t be any higher. And the lessons are equally applicable for public or corporate innovation- though we will focus on the public one in this piece.
The context for public innovation is changing rapidly– whereas the mainstream discourse over the last five years was focused on service and experience redesign in a digital age, we are now increasingly recognizing the need for a more foundational shift in the creation and nature of public good itself, and thereby a necessary shift also in the nature of the public institutional infrastructure itself. This shift covers the following factors:
1. Increasing recognition that transforming public outcomes –say educational attainment– is not a product of any single magic bullet, but the collective impact of a complex group of institutions, products, services, and conditions
In this future, the state is increasingly a strategic and legitimate convener as opposed to the sole driver of change. In this future, what is the nature of the lab? Is it about creating the conditions -political, financial, and civic– for massive collaborative innovation? What tools, practices and instruments are critical to facilitating this collaborative system wide innovation? That’s why the vision and boldness of a city state like Dubai is an inspiration and model for the “developed nations” to follow.
Initiatives such as the new Service 1 center that consolidate 14 government services to customers with the help of a single employee using artificial intelligence technology developed by IBM Watson and Cognit Mubadala, are an attempt to bridge system divides and be a single point convener of multiple actors, who typically wouldn’t have come together due to individual priorities and interests.
2. Increasingly recognizing the power of the oblique
Be it a barber in North London helping young men with their mental health challenges, or the bakaala, the corner grocery store in Dubai’s old town Bur Dubai district, helping families become more mindful of their food consumption and waste production: in this world, where oblique activity can significantly impact public service outcomes, how do you seed, build, induce, or enhance a service ecosystem for mental health or food waste?
3. System futures are demanding the redesign of core functions of public institutions
What does policy making look like in a complex world? How do we build strategy in a movement of actors- how do we do commissioning for outcomes to support the evolution of actors, and interventions, whilst building supply capacity? How do we create financing systems? How do we reimagine accountability from being centralized to peer-to-peer and mutual? How do we build not just data-driven organizations but data-driven ecosystems of institutions working together? How do we reimagine incentive structures to support cross departmental innovation along with cross institutional innovation? We could go on but we are increasingly recognizing the need to drive core structural innovation to address this new reality.
4. Increasing recognition of the disparity between the scale of need and the resource allocated for “innovation labs”
For any innovation lab to be meaningful in terms of its impact, it has to be envisioned as an organization’s developmental infrastructure – building the capacity for the whole of the organization to innovate and become responsive to a changing world. This includes building not just the skills and capability, but also the modeling and seeding of behaviors of change, along with embedding new tools, practices, and instruments to facilitate their continuous innovation.
This requires labs to be positioned less as photo opportunity environments for one-off projects, but in a structural system change capacity, providing a combination of a public passion for change, political capital, financial and human capital, and iterative processes and networks for accelerating the change. (No equation can do this justice– but these are at least the main ingredients).
5. Politics of change
The system and multi-stakeholder reality of outcomes is increasingly demanding public innovation labs to be patronized not just by a single proxy organization or leader, but the “system” and many of its leaders (and directly linked to the core functionality/KPIs of the CEO’s offices). They need a politics of change to be hardwired into their design near to their beginning– it’s rare to be able to retrofit this capacity.
Innovation is both risky, and it disturbs the status quo– without political patronage, it is near to impossible. And equally the need thus to look at operating not just beyond the 3–8 year horizon, but across inter-generational liabilities, risks and mitigation models of a 25–50 year horizon. This is indeed a framework that’s well served by longterm plays such as Area 2071 in the UAE and NEOM in Saudi Arabia.
Together, these factors are requiring us to reimagine the nature and design of public innovation labs as key instruments in the transformation of the organization and the wider system as whole, as opposed to mere services and products. This has implications for many aspects of the design and development of labs- from its physical design, location, openness, storytelling capacities, tools and techniques, leaderships styles, scale, KPIs, capital backing, political patronage, inquiry models, etc. In fact, it could be argued these are less labs- in the ivory tower sense of inquiry- but more field laboratories, innovating in and with context as it changes.
The big question then is which nation state will take the mantle and model the above shifts to get things rolling first. Does anyone have the clear space, opportunity, and perhaps even a responsibility to grow a global network of such “labs” where big change– large scale societal transformation- is the critical and required outcome, where disruptive bureaucratic innovation is central to transformation, where innovation has to bridge borders to address systemic challenges? That’s one for the nations in the region to ponder upon.