A history and future of policy innovation

A rapid story from around the world and across the field: Alex Ryan of Alberta CoLab. This text was originally published on Alex's medium blog on Feb 22, 2017. Views are author's own.

Chapter 1. Of Pioneers, Rebels and Outlaws

These were the days of the Wild West of Social Innovation.

In the Netherlands, a small band of highwaymen formed a gang called Kennisland (Est. 1999) which set out to raid the Information Superhighway, using their plunder to build the Dutch knowledge economy. While their getaway vehicle was difficult to identify, these days we would recognize it as a Lab.

Meanwhile in Denmark, MindLab (Est. 2002) was busy throwing hand grenades at Danish bureaucracy and turning taxation into interpretive art installations.

Down under, TACSI (Est. 2009) set up shop as a radical start-up that would transform policy Family by Family. Their start-up formed outside the Australian government bureaucracy, launching their humble beginning in Brenton Caffin’s mum’s garage.

This motley collection of Lone Rangers might have gone down in folklore as isolated deviations from the dominant policy development paradigm of technical rationality, if not for the efforts of SIX (Est. 2008) plus Nesta (Est. 1998)to corral together the Magnificent Seven.

Chapter 2. A Hundred Labs Bloom

When historians look back, they will identify the date that lies somewhere between 2014 Rockefeller / Bridgespan lab survey and the 2015 Nesta global map of labs when the 100th #psilab was born.

By this mysterious date, governments across all scales had created: i-teams, nudge units, delivery units, design labs, change labs, living labs, agile policy labs, data labs, fab labs and innovation hubs! The landscape was reminiscent of China’s Zhangye Danxia Mountains. The terrain was colourful, variegated, and uneven, with spectacular peaks and treacherous valleys.

In 2014, the global public and social innovation lab landscape resembles the Zhangye Danxia Mountains.

In 2014, the global public and social innovation lab landscape resembles the Zhangye Danxia Mountains.

This photo from CoLab’s most recent training course is one of those peaks. In it are the lead instructor, Brent Wellsch, and student, Nazar Poritskiy. Nazar is an energy policy analyst in the Government of Alberta. At the end of the 5 day course, Brent asked the students to summarize their experience in less than 3 words. Nazar was speechless, so instead he performed a handstand and walked across the room. I believe that sums up the best of the impact we can have when we empower our fellow public servants to unleash their social intrapraneur.

Nazar Poritskiy expresses the experience of CoLab’s systemic design training course.

Nazar Poritskiy expresses the experience of CoLab’s systemic design training course.

Chapter 3: On Broadway

It’s 2017. You may have noticed some not-so-weak signals that our world is getting worse. Collectively, we are becoming more polarized, more inequitable, and more unsustainable. Once seemingly inexorable forces of progress — modern science, technological advancement, free press, free trade, free markets, religious tolerance, and cultural tolerance — are being called into question. Trust in the institutions that have advanced these agendas has eroded to an all-time low. People no longer trust government, the media, the banks, corporations, or their church. Experts are seen as elite and out of touch. Resistance movements have catalyzed revolutions, ranging from the Arab Spring to Brexit and from Pirate Parties to the Alt Right. Driving these events is an underlying dynamic of polarization, radicalization, and fragmentation of society into like-minded tribes with self-sealing belief systems. We are at risk of losing the ability to talk to each other and work together.

The social innovation movement offers an alternative path forward. We seek to activate the radical middle and convene unusual suspects. We attempt to break through silos and bubbles to focus people on working together differently to address our thorniest challenges. We challenge each other to redesign our institutions to be more human and more inclusive and more responsible and more responsive to our 21st century reality.

We need to keep doing this. But we need to think much bigger. We need more vision, more legitimacy, and more capacity if we are to turn the tide. In the words of Barry Mann, “I won’t quit till I’m a star On Broadway.”

Chapter 4: The Unusual Becomes Business as Usual

In 2027, there are no more policy innovation labs. This is not because the movement died, but because it succeeded. Governments don’t just talk of placing citizens at the centre, they do it habitually. Social innovation has migrated from water cooler talk to being in the water supply. Governments not only engage in policy innovation, but they also create comprehensive innovation policy. This extends beyond service redesign to include the full range of policy levers: government funding, procurement, assets, networking, convening, legislation, research, technology, citizen engagement, and measurement and evaluation. In this world, every public servant is a social innovator, and citizens are empowered and engaged to shape the policies that affect them and their families’ futures.

Kelsey SpitzAlex Ryan