Institute without Boundaries

Markham Meet COLAB: What is a Change Lab?

There is widespread global momentum toward collaborative thinking and doing. Rather than specialize in one medium and create solutions in silos, design has been expanding into the realm of participatory collaboration between client and designer. Contemporary thinking is now suggesting that the practice of engagement is a critical element of a design education. Three entities have emerged as leaders in the integration of design thinking, community engagement or a combination of both practices, to produce exceptional results: IDEO, IBM & MaRS.

In June 2011, Metropolis Magazine described how IDEO had brought design thinking to the US government. This San Francisco-based product design and innovation firm had secured four contracts with different branches of the government between 2009 and 2011. This indicates that governmental interests are shifting to make their administrations more innovative and less bureaucratic. Why the sudden shift? IDEO is distinctly unscientific in their approach, but employs user engagement to extract results. The process of using design thinking to approach problems faced by government agencies often results in an overall rethink of the system at large.

IBM, whose Canadian headquarters are located in Markham, has adopted the use of community engagement.  In the words of IBM Chairman and CEO Samuel Palmisano, “If we want to make quantum leaps in service, we need to make quantum leaps in our thinking.” For the company’s 100th anniversary, it organized a huge Service Jam that engaged both current and former staff members and their families for an eight-hour session to apply their skills and expertise to civic challenges and societal needs. In the publication following the Service Jam, one finding was the importance of an intermediary place or framework for service providers to come together to collaborate, learn and connect. IBM imagined a “Service University” where opensource knowledge could be shared by guest speakers from different professional backgrounds. Rather than requiring its own physical space, Service University would exist both online and at existing academic institutions. The Service Jam report also indicated that “the urgency for effective collaboration across sectors and borders is building behind a weak global economy and scarce resources for businesses, governments and non-profits alike.”  All of this is an indication that the large-scale private sector players understand that change is needed, and sharing resources is how this new collaborative model makes the most sense.

In February 2012, Toronto’s MaRS released a publication called Labs: Designing the Future that acknowledges the limitations of government departments and large corporations to tackle interdisciplinary challenges.  An astute quote by Charles Leadbeater, former advisor to Tony Blair, kicks off the document by stating, “In the name of doing things for people, traditional and hierarchical organizations end up doing things to people.” This is exactly how disconnection
can develop between citizens and their municipal-level decision makers if collaboration between them has no forum to exist. MaRS has explored many global change lab initiatives in their examination of the concept, including the IwB. In a section about process and characteristics, MaRS compares the change lab to the science lab, in the way that a neutral space is used to problem solve in a highly experimental environment.

Business and governments are beginning to understand the financial opportunity that sharing resources represents, and the high level of results that open collaboration and communication between stakeholders can generate. IDEO’s contracts with US governmental offices, IBM’s Service Jam results, and MaRS’ publication on this emerging methodology all reinforce an emerging belief: change is coming from the lab.

This is an article from COLAB, the final project of students from the 2011/2012 academic year. To see all the posts related to the project go here. To see a summary of the project go here.
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About the IWB

The Institute without Boundaries is a Toronto-based studio that works towards collaborative design action and seeks to achieve social, ecological and economic innovation. To learn more click here.

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