You’d think that a planning-based approach might be best for solving some of the world’s most difficult social issues. From global warming to child malnutrition, surely an approach that works through concepts, meticulously planning the approach before putting it into action would be the best for solving complex challenges? But Zaid Hassan thinks differently. Zaid Hassan is the author of “The Social Labs Revolution”. The idea behind his vision for social change is that rather than planning which he argues brings high chances of failure, a better strategy is experimental social labs where trial and error and prototyping are utilised to tackle complicated problems in the world today.
Explaining the concept of social laboratories for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Zaid Hassan (2014) points out that current approaches are failing to come up with solutions to difficult social problems. While there have been a lot of initiatives, and a lot more people are willing to invest in them than in the past, the major problems such as health, access to finance, education and dire poverty remain. While we are constantly told that things are getting better, Zaid Hussan argues that:
“It’s difficult to escape the persistent feeling that while our problems are already big and bad, they’re in fact getting bigger and badder.”
He opines that it is difficult to believe the rhetoric that things are getting better, and that the world seems like a dark place.
The answer to this, opines Hassan, are social labs. The author also runs a website with interesting resources and information about social labs. Social labs have been developing for the last two decades, and many have been involved in working on projects ranging from removing the world of poverty, looking at ways to make water sustainable and trying to solve difficult climate issues. Social labs are run by scientists, academics, activists and entrepreneurs, but they are also of a mould that we do not necessarily understand completely yet. These people are stepping up and creating social labs globally.
Hassan describes social labs as having three primary characteristics. The first is that they are social. They are born of “diverse participants” who work in a team to create change. Indeed, Hassan opines that it is the diverse nature of these stakeholders that makes the labs social. The second characteristic is that the labs are ongoing and experimental. They are continually trying to solve the social problems of the world through working on different iterations of their solutions and creating prototypes. They work through trial and error rather than through a planned and structured project based approach. They learn from the errors that they make and further adapt the solution. The third characteristic is that they are systemic. As Hassan points out, what this means is that they look at trying to tackle the root cause of the problem rather than addressing the symptoms or just addressing one part of the problem.None of this is easy. Just the part about getting a bunch of diverse people in a room to talk is hard, and it becomes even harder when you try to get them to start working together.
Additionally, an experimental approach can be difficult. It requires focus and long term commitment to continuing to iterate. There is no project that the person moves on from once the work is done. Rather the experimenting continues. As well, focusing on root causes is much harder than working to come up with solutions to mask symptoms.
In illustrating his points, Zaid Hassan writes about the Sustainable Food Lab, a social lab that he argues fulfilled all three criteria. Its goal was a valiant one: to make the global food system more sustainable. With such a broad remit the lab required participants from different sectors from all over the world. There are participants from the World Wildlife Fund, Unilever and the Nature Conservancy. The following video explains how the Sustainable Food Lab works:
There are even government operatives from the Netherlands and Brazil, two countries that are very different. The participants traveled to different parts of the world to review current food systems and different aspects of the food industry. It then reflected on this and devised initiatives for prototyping. The lab has achieved considerable success, not least that as Hassan explains, “sustainability is well entrenched on the radar of global food companies”. Food sustainability has been promoted from a niche concern to a well understood widespread concern of many. Now that is some considerable progress, so maybe Hassan just might have a valid point.
Paula Newton is a business writer, editor and management consultant with extensive experience writing and consulting for both start-ups and long established companies. She has ten years management and leadership experience gained at BSkyB in London and Viva Travel Guides in Quito, Ecuador, giving her a depth of insight into innovation in international business. With an MBA from the University of Hull and many years of experience running her own business consultancy, Paula’s background allows her to connect with a diverse range of clients, including cutting edge technology and web-based start-ups but also multinationals in need of assistance. Paula has played a defining role in shaping organizational strategy for a wide range of different organizations, including for-profit, NGOs and charities. Paula has also served on the Board of Directors for the South American Explorers Club in Quito, Ecuador.