An Innovative Approach to Collaboration: Social Innovation Labs

What are social labs?

Social labs are an innovative response to the complex social challenges facing the world today. Similar to scientific research labs, which bring together a wide range of experts to explore and answer integrated scientific and technical problems, social labs are comprised of diverse members who work together to address complex social problems. Social labs differ from traditional strategic planning and technocratic approaches to problem-solving in three major ways[1]:

  • The members of the lab engage in multi-disciplinary collaboration. Members of the labs can come from very different sectors of society, from academia to government to business to civil society to community members, but work together collectively, rather than simply in a consultative capacity.
  • The work of social labs is largely experimental in nature. Instead of traditional project-driven and one-time approaches to addressing problems, social labs embrace innovation in prototyping solutions on an ongoing basis. Social labs are constantly seeking breakthroughs and new ways of tackling the problem at hand, with the understanding that their work is often undertaken in a high-risk, high-reward situation.
  • The solutions proposed by social labs are often systemic in scope. The ideas and initiatives developed by the labs, often referred to as ‘prototypes’, aim to address the root cause(s) of the complex social problem they are tasked to address, rather than specific parts or symptoms of the problem.

How is a social lab established?

 Because of the complex and diverse nature of problems that social labs are meant to address, each lab can differ a lot from the other. That being said, however, there are seven general steps to starting social labs:

  • Clarify the intention and purpose of establishing the social lab
  • Broadcast an Invitation that is genuine and communicates the intention of the social lab
  • Work your networks to spread the invitation in an effective way
  • Recruit willing people to join the social lab
  • Set direction that is strategic and allows the alignment of multiple actions
  • Design in stacks of aligned actions, such as innovation, learning, capacity-building, and governance
  • Find a cadence for the social lab that is sustainable and manageable

How can social labs be applied to Hamilton?

As noted in Geraldine Cahill’s study of Hamilton, Hamilton is at an inflection point because while there is evidence that the city is positioned for positive growth and that the sentiment towards the city is generally improving, there are still major gaps in education, income, and societal achievement that need to be addressed[2]. Though many of these gaps are highly complex and are rooted in systemic challenges, there is a wealth of expertise and experience within Hamilton’s communities, local organizations, and institutions that can and are already tackling some of these issues.

Hamilton has a successful history of collaborative approaches to community building upon which a Community Campus CoLaboratory could be built. Examples include the work of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction and the Neighbourhood Action Strategy.

These examples point to the fact that Hamilton is well-positioned and would benefit from the creation of other social labs to take on its unique set of social, economic, and environmental challenges. The Community Campus CoLaboratory could serve as a body that brings together different partners to the table to initiate discussion but ultimately, change and innovation should be driven by members of the labs.

Additional Resources on Social Labs

  • Hassan, Zaid. The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving Our Most Complex Challenges. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2014. Print.
  •  Hassan, Zaid. The Social Labs Fieldbook: A Practical Guide to Next-Generation Social Labs. January 2015.
  • Cahill, Geraldine. Seeing Hamilton: Where Best is Possible. 2013.
  • - New Brunswick’s public and social innovation lab which brings together the public and innovators to address pressing social, environmental, and economic challenges
  • - A platform for collaboration that allows individuals and organizations in the engineering profession to take action that addresses systemic challenges and obstacles to help shape a better future for the profession.
  • - A social innovation partnership founded by the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation, the University of Waterloo, the MaRS Discovery District and the PLAN Institute to address Canada’s social and ecological challenges.
  • - A social enterprise that seeks to catalyze social innovation in Toronto and around the world by partnering with thousands of people and organizations.


[1] Hassan, Zaid. 1014. The Social Labs Revolution. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. page 3.

[2] Cahill, Geraldine. Seeing Hamilton: Where Best is Possible. 2013. Page 4.