I spent a nourishing day recently learning about social labs — an extended process to solve complex challenges by gathering diverse stakeholders in an alternating rhythm of meetings and on-the-ground prototyping. In one example, a lab to accelerate the adoption of renewable energy sources brings together utility companies, alternative energy providers, regulatory bodies and end-users. Representatives of these different groups might meet once a month or once a quarter, trying out different possible solutions in between, in a process that can last for a year or a decade or more.
Unlike strategic planning, in which the most likely solution is identified, implemented and then evaluated, the lab process supports ongoing experimentation in search of many possible solutions, with learning and adaptation along the way. The premise is that this is the only viable approach to complex problems like poverty, healthcare, transforming finance and ethnic conflict.
There’s a lot to find exciting in this approach. What excites me most is how it must inadvertently help people recognize their organization as an integral part of a larger ecosystem. I often talk about how we don’t truly own our organizations — we’re stewarding them on behalf of the community that holds them and to which they contribute. This can be challenging for people to grasp. The lab process can only make it more apparent that an organization doesn’t exist separately from the ecosystem it serves. The process must also invite people to see themselves as stewards of that larger ecosystem. We each have to take care of ourselves and our own space, but we also have a responsibility to consider and care for the commons.
There’s something ancient and traditional in the lab approach — calling together a tribal council to care for the health of the whole. And at the same time, there’s something cutting-edge, as the tribal council is enlivened with the power and energy of prototyping.
My sense is that this will eventually become the norm in every industry and every community. This will be the natural and obvious way to steward our common interests and in that way build a viable world.