This blog is about the personal journey involved in the design, implementation and hosting of Sustainable Living Lab, a social lab whose purpose is to catalyse cross-sectoral collaboration for sustainability innovation. I know it sounds like a mouthful, but we can break it down. What is a social lab? A social lab is an approach to tackling complex social challenges. It relies on three fundamental features:
- Social – bringing together a diversity of stakeholders who are affected, directly or indirectly, by the challenge at hand;
- Experimental – working with methodologies that foster learning-by-doing, trial-and-error, iterative processes
- Systemic – aiming to address the root causes of problems through open-minded attitudes and holistic perspectives, favouring possibilities for structural change rather than band-aid solutions directed only to specific aspects of the problem
One proponent of this approach is Zaid Hassan, a strategist who has worked on complex geopolitical issues such as climate change, child malnutrition, global food supplies and state collapse. Over many years of work, he observed that such global disruptions cannot be tackled in isolation or by working in silos. At the heart of this approach lies the belief that we are collectively creating results nobody wants. Hence, there is clearly a need to develop novel ways of working together not only across sectors, but also across societal levels.
How did I get into social labs ?
My story with social labs started over a year before I was hired to design, implement and run the Sustainable Living Lab. I was taking a class called Internationalisation of Education and Development as part of my Master in Development & Sustainability at IHEID. We had to write a term paper on a topic of our choice and I wanted to explore how methodologies and terminologies used in conventional education curricula were not conducive to creating societies that work for everyone, nor were they fully responsive to the challenges of the 21st century. I was very inspired by Sir Ken Robinson’s, an education reformist who made the case about our education systems being outdated.
In my research, I came across several theories of social change and transformative learning. Transformative learning is when a specific educational experience results in a change in our frames of reference, or the way that we perceive and interpret the world, which in turn has an impact on our everyday actions and interactions. That led me to Otto Sharmer’s Theory U, a methodology for transformative learning, which proposes that the quality of outcomes we produce are a function of the quality of awareness we operate from. The U method is thus a process that allows us to break free from unsustainable patterns of behaviour.
I was so compelled by this idea that I purchased the book, and that’s when Zaid Hassan’s Social Lab Revolution book popped on my screen. The subtitle, “a new approach to solving our most complex challenges”, immediately caught my attention and after checking out the contents I also ordered it along with Sharmer’s. These two works became a foundational part of my analysis and led me to explore deeper in the social innovation universe, and try to equip myself with the tools to start thinking and living in this paradigm.
Fast-track a year later. I was desperately looking for a job but nothing seemed to fit. After several weeks of frustration, I was encouraged to think about it in a different way, to imagine and visualise my dream job. Soon after, a job opportunity arises at Impact Hub: developing a social lab to accelerate sustainable living. It was a match made in heaven. The rest is another story 😉