Nesta’s Innovative Lab Global Map: is this a map of a new breed of think tanks?

3 December 2015
In the run-up to the LabWorks 2015, Adam Price, form Nesta, has developed an online searchable global map to showcase over 80 public innovation labs working within government. What are public innovation labs and how do they related to think tanks?

In the run-up to the LabWorks 2015Adam Price, form Nesta, a London based think tank, has developed an online searchable global mapto showcase over 80 public innovation labs working within government.

A quick look at the map shows you that most government based public innovation labs are located within Europe or in the US, as expected. There are, however, labs in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

In the map, labs are coded by their scope (blue for local, green for regional, red national and yellow international). One can see most of the US labs have a local scope, while European labs split between national and regional scope.

[Editor’s note: On a side note, we couldn’t find the legend to the colours in the map. Not sure if Google Earth allows it, but it would be very useful to have them there.]

Price presents the map as to show how public innovation labs are in the wake of becoming a global movement:

Public innovation labs can claim to be a global movement not just in sheer numbers of teams and labs worldwide but also because of the momentum behind the creation of new ones, at a current rate of least one a month.

What are public innovation labs?

Innovation labs are purpose-oriented agencies, networks, spaces or protocols set up for stakeholders from different backgrounds to analyse creatively and innovatively a problem and work together for a solution. This sounds very much like what a think tank is supposed to do. They can be found in government, private sector, non-profit or academic institutions. Again, it rings a bell.

Think thrice offers a description of that an innovation lab is:

  • It provides a structured process to approach messy and complex challenges
  • It provides a safe and creative environment to experiment and prototype radical innovations
  • It enables deep collaboration among multi-disciplinary teams and diverse stakeholders
  • It takes a user centered approach and an outcome focus

Teresa Bellefontaine, from Policy Horizons Canada, defines them as:

…collaborative places where stakeholders with diverse perspectives engage in a workshop process to understand complex problems and design new approaches and solutions.

We can conclude from this that a public innovation lab’s main goal is to arrive at a common solution to a specific problem or situation and, for that purpose it provides a space (physical or not) that promotes creative thinking and collaboration. As Bellefontaine goes on to say:

[Innovation labs] provide the opportunity to develop prototypes designed and tested by participants from diverse perspectives before large investments are made.

Innovation labs provide a space in which different research methods can be used. These are not the domains of hard-nosed economists alone. In fact, those involved are actively encouraged in the use of new technologies as well as non-quantitative research methods, such as ethnography.

According to Nesta, there is a growing momentum in the emergence of public innovation labs across the world.

A few examples of Innovation Labs listed on the map:

  • UNICEF Innovation Labs: A network of innovation labs conducted by UNICEF, present in all five continents, mostly in Africa.
  • Innovative Solutions (US): Part of the World Bank Institute, it seeks to develop tools, methods, and online platforms to facilitate an open and collaborative development process between governments, citizens, and other stakeholders.
  • The Behavioural Insights Team (UK): Formerly part of the UK Government, it is now as a social purpose company that works in partnership with the Cabinet Office in the application of behavioural sciences.
  • LEF (Netherlands): An innovation lab under the executive command of Netherland’s Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment. It prides in creating a work environment that incentives innovative ways of thinking, based on client’s defined demands.

And think tanks?

It raises at least a couple of questions about think tanks. Firstly, aren’t these a new breed of think tanks? After all, they fulfil the same functions. This may be particularly relevant for government think tanks or for governments interested in setting up new think tanks. On Think Tanks has offered alternative organisational arrangements for think tanks: think tank hubs that could inspire these developments.

Secondly, are ‘more traditional’ think tanks involved with these and, more importantly, with their methods and approaches? The definition suggested about opens the field to agencies, networks, spaces or protocols which could be interpreted as code for “anything, including, but not excluding, a formal and established organisation”.