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The Social Labs Revolution

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Current responses to our most pressing societal challenges—from poverty to ethnic conflict to climate change—are not working. These problems are incredibly dynamic and complex, involving an ever-shifting array of factors, actors, and circumstances. They demand a highly fluid and adaptive approach, yet we address them by devising fixed, long-term plans. Social labs, says Zaid Hassan, are a dramatically more effective response.

Social labs bring together a diverse a group of stakeholders—not to create yet another five-year plan but to develop a portfolio of prototype solutions, test those solutions in the real world, use the data to further refine them, and test them again. Hassan builds on a decade of experience—as well as drawing from cutting-edge research in complexity science, networking theory, and sociology—to explain the core principles and daily functioning of social labs, using examples of pioneering labs from around the world. He offers a new generation of problem solvers an effective, practical, and exciting new vision and guide.

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1 The perfect Storm of complexity

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When you want to know how things really work, study them when they’re coming apart.

—William Gibson, Zero History

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

— H. L. Mencken

Humanity has always suffered plagues, famines, floods, and warfare. In modern times we have faced new horrors, such as nuclear weapons and AIDS. One common stance toward our current challenges is that we will adapt just as we have always adapted. The trouble with this stance is that our current challenges are profoundly different from those of the past. Our familiar modern responses no longer work because they’re based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what we are facing.

Just how different our challenges are crystallized for me in the summer of 2008. It began with a mysterious call from two strangers. I met them in an empty cafe on Cowley Road in Oxford, not far from where I live. Both had been working in Yemen for a number of years. They wanted to know if we could help. I knew very little about Yemen and so asked them to explain the situation to me. The pair, Henry Thompson and Ginny Hill, spoke in hushed voices, occasionally looking around to make sure no one else was listening. I was bemused at their behavior and not quite sure what to make of them.

 

2 The Strategic vacuum

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We are losing the skills of cooperation needed to make a complex society work.

— Richard Sennett, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation

Social labs as a new approach to solving complex social challenges compete with existing business-as-usual (BAU) approaches. The relative efficiency of one strategy over another can be evaluated only by considering the nature and cost of BAU approaches as a response to our challenges.

Randy Shilts, a journalist who documented the spread of AIDS in the United States provides a sobering example of business as usual.1 During the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the blood bank industry in the United States found doctors who questioned the evidence that AIDS resulted from a virus that could be transmitted through blood. These doctors argued in public that screening was not needed. Screening blood would mean the introduction of expensive processes and a crisis of confidence in the entire system of blood banks, which would in turn mean that the blood banks would lose a lot of money.

 

3 The Sustainable Food lab: From Farm to Fork

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How and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of this world—and what is to become of it.

— Michael Pollen, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

One sign of genuine strategic intent is doing things because we personally think it’s a good idea, as opposed to doing something because we are told to. At Generon I found genuine strategic intent in abundance. Behind a relatively conservative front, I found myself part of a tiny group that had taken upon itself a mission to address “ten global problems in ten years.” No one had asked us to undertake this mission and we had no authority from anyone to take it on.1

The means of undertaking this mission was called the change lab. Change labs are first-generation social labs. They’re prototypes because they draw on a relatively narrow base of approaches, whereas next-generation social labs draw on a much wider range. During the life of Generon, several change labs were attempted.

The core idea of the change lab came from Leadership in the Digital Economy, coauthored by Joseph Jaworksi and Otto Scharmer.2 They argued that “doing well in the new economy requires the enhancement of a particular capacity: the ability to sense and actualize emerging realities.” The lab from its very first conception was concerned less with planning and more with emergence.

 

4 The bhavishya lab: The Silent emergency

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The Indian experiment is still in its early stages, and its outcome may well turn out to be the most significant of them all, partly because of its sheer human scale, and partly because of its location, a substantial bridgehead of effervescent liberty on the Asian continent.

— Sunil Khilani

The Indian experiment in democracy is the largest in the world. A billion people and counting means that Indian challenges are staggering in sheer human scale. It is hard to get beyond the numbers. Forty-seven percent of India’s 414 million children under the age of six have some form of malnutrition.

My participation in the Food Lab led me to the next lab we undertook, the Bhavishya Alliance, focused on child malnutrition in India. We described the challenge as follows:

Malnutrition is a complex issue to tackle because it’s a multifactoral phenomenon. Because there is no one single cause, the factors that effect the situation are diverse and difficult to tackle in parallel.… The situation is seemingly intractable, partly due to the increase in the absolute number of children being born, partly due to the complex nature of the change required at multiple levels (from the mother through to governmental institutions) and finally as a consequence of the size and diversity of India’s population and geography.

 

5 The new ecologies of capital

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The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.

— Franklin D. Roosevelt

My experiences with the Food Lab and Bhavishya bracketed my work at Generon. One of the fallouts from Bhavishya was that Adam had started questioning the process. One of my mentors, Myrna Lewis, observed that this was undiscussable within Generon. The process, in other words, was sacrosanct in our culture and could not be doubted.

By late January 2007, it was clear that the two founding partners, Adam and Joseph, had irreconcilable differences on this issue. Joseph’s point, to some extent, was simple but unmoving. He believed that the “interior conditions” were the core of the work and that if a small group of people held an intention strongly enough, it would happen. This “strange attractor” of intention would then attract others until there was a critical mass of people.

 

6 The Rise of the agilistas

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Sometimes at Edwards they used to play the tapes of pilots going into the final dive, the one that killed them, and the man would be … screaming into the microphone, but not for Mother or for God or the nameless spirit of Ahor, but for one last hopeless crumb of information about the loop: “I’ve tried A! I’ve tried B! I’ve tried C! I’ve tried D! Tell me what else I can try!” And then that truly spooky click on the machine. What do I do next?

— Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff

In reflecting on the labs we ran, it became clear that first-generation social labs suffered a serious challenge. We called this the challenge of the right-hand side, which referred to the right-hand side of the U Process, concerned with realizing or cocreating. The right-hand side was all about action and in some ways the most familiar part of the work we did, and hence, most prone to habitus. Moving into action required the skills of crystallizing ideas and then prototyping. Beyond that, however, things got rather murky. While prototyping as an activity made sense, what did a prototype actually look like? Where does one take prototypes? What do you do with a successful prototype?

 

7 Steps Toward a Theory of Systemic action

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There is nothing so practical as a good theory.

—Kurt Lewin

When the first astronauts went through their paces in the high deserts around Edwards Air Force Base, they were reluctant instruments of what Heinrich Heine calls “men of thought.” They were asked by the “white-coats” to do things that made little sense to them. From time to time they protested against being treated like experimental chimpanzees and pushed back. Ultimately, however, they made their grudging peace with the fact that they were subjects in a vast experiment based on theories they did not know.

Much of the BAU behavior is the product of theory, most of it long forgotten or remembered only by specialists. If we are to come up with effective responses to complex actions, we need to align our actions with our best thinking about complex social challenges. Theory must inform our actions. When we think that’s not the case, it’s usually because invisible theory is informing our actions. We therefore need to be aware of these underlying theories. At the moment, much is guided either by theory ill suited to complexity or what are sometimes labeled “theories of change,” which are little more than elaborate hypotheses labeled as theory.

 

8 Starting a Social lab: Seven how-Tos

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Having a strategy suggests an ability to look up from the short term and the trivial to view the long term and the essential, to address causes rather than symptons.

— Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History

A social lab is a strategic approach toward addressing complex social challenges. As a strategy, it isn’t too hard to grasp. It can be stated simply. Bring together a diverse, committed team and take an experimental, prototyping-based approach to addressing challenges systemically, that is, at a root-cause level. Keep going. That’s it.

A key challenge I have seen over the years with responses to complex social challenges comes when strategy is confused with tactics. What’s the difference between strategy and tactics? According to Wikipedia, “In common vernacular, ‘tactical’ decisions are those made to achieve greatest immediate value and ‘strategic’ decisions are those made to achieve the greatest overall value irrespective of immediate return.”1

Strategy is therefore concerned with the whole, while tactics are concerned with a part.

 

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