Applying “Change Lab” Methods to Canadian Challenges

If you had to pick just four areas of social/environmental challenge in your country for which to build prototype innovation solutions, what would you choose? It sounds exciting, but when forced to narrow your choices to a small number of priority topics of workable scope and definition, the process could take some time.
The MaRS Solutions Lab in Toronto is in the enviable, and challenging, position of having the opportunity to do just that. In applying the change lab concept to “intractable” systemic Canadian issues, the Lab—part of the larger MaRS Discovery District—has selected their topics for the upcoming period.
Lab Director Joeri van den Steenhoven spoke at MaRS recently, situating the work of the lab both in relation to his previous experiences in the Netherlands and within the current global context. Van den Steenhoven was appointed the first Director of the new lab at its launch in April 2013, bringing a decade of experience as the CEO of Knowledgeland, a leading European change lab.
What is the context for MaRS Solutions Lab’s work? Not surprisingly van den Steenhoven focused on the rise of the knowledge economy, decreased capacity of government to solve problems, tensions between young and old, urban hotspots vs. disconnection among other characteristics. At the same time the tools and motivation of people to solve problems has increased and “there is more private capital for public good.”
Here the four Canadian topics the lab has decided to work on in partnership with government, business, NGOs, academia and others:
• Future of Health – Treating chronic diseases is “blowing up” our publically funded health care system. It was depressing to learn that Canada is number 35 out of 40 in healthy eating in the OECD. The Solutions Lab has chosen the number one factor in chronic disease – unhealthy eating – and will be working with five communities (to be selected) to develop an innovative healthy eating intervention.

• Future of Food – With Canada ranking behind a number of other countries on value of exports and sustainability in food production, the lab will work on an intervention in one value chain.
• Future of Work & Learning – Canada has a highly educated population, but youth unemployment levels are high, also. The lab has selected employment of young people with disabilities as another focused innovation area.
• Future of Government – Targeting innovators in government, the lab has already held one Govmaker Day event to bring together civil servants who want to open and transform public service.
The large audience that turned out to hear van den Steenhoven was also very engaged, with a number of questions. How do you scope an issue to ensure you take the right slice to incite action? How will social diversity be respected, and how will the lab reach out from what might appear to be an “elitist” environment? It was also interesting to see the initial topics staying mostly on the social side.
According to van den Steenhoven, innovation lab work is a “constant search for traction”. There has to be stakeholder involvement from the ground up, and the ability of these prototype projects to be scalable is critical. Definitely an interesting space to watch.
Social Innovation Labs – Strengths and Pitfalls
• Systems perspective
• Understanding the user
• Ideation and prototyping
• In it for the long term
• Not scaling
• Lack of learning
• Just brainstorming
• Just a process
van den Steenhoven, J. (2104). Systems Change: Facing Canada's toughest challenges - MaRS Global Leadership [Powerpoint slide].