The Social Labs Revolution: another way of dealing with complex social problems

I’ve read The Social Labs Revolutions by Zaid Hassan over the weekend, and while I still need to fully assimilate the many interesting arguments and examples in the book, I already wanted to offer a book review on what I consider to be an extremely timely issue, with the Climate Summit in Paris going on at the moment (aka COP21) and the recent adoption of the ambitious 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by the international community.

I loved the book for several reasons:

  • the author is very critical of current practices in the developmental and humanitarian spheres, so it’s interesting to listen to his arguments on how we can get better there;
  • the book mixes theory and practice and ends on a step-by-step guide of how to launch your own social lab; and
  • it’s full of references and interesting concepts to explore further. 

You can download my 7-page summary of the book or read the critical review below, which mimics the structure of the book.

You can also check out this short video about social labs for a more dynamic presentation: 

Addressing social complexity beyond planning-based approaches

Hassan has worked for the past two decades on launching and running social innovation labs which he defines as platforms for addressing complex social problems. Labs are different because their approach is social, experimental and systemic.

Social labs are particularly good in his view at addressing complex social issues because go against business-as-usual and are

a practical attempt to act in the face of increasingly complex sotiations in a way that increases the odds of addressing situations systemically at their roots. (p. 14)

The challenge with social problems is that they are:

  • emergent,
  • involve the handling of a constant flow of information, and
  • involve actors constantly adapting their behaviour. 

Technical and scientific problems can be addressed with traditional planning-based or results-based approaches, because their boundaries can be defined precisely and the solutions to solve the problem thought of in advance. In other words, you can anticipate results. 

Challenges that used to be technical in nature, however, such as in the development or humanitarian world, are now more and more complex. This is mainly due to the increasing inter-connectivity of social issues. Hassan points to the failures of most solutions proposed today to address the challenges of climate change, deforestation or poverty reduction, as they do not take this complexity and inter-connectivity properly into account. He also points to the limitations of market-based approaches since they have not been able to figure out what to do with the environmental consequences of economic growth until now.

He is very critical of technological solutions to complex social problems, for a reason that has been brillantly demonstrated to me at a workshop I attended at South by South West (or SxSW – the largest digital conference in the world) in 2013: complex social problems grow exponentially while our ability to optimise existing ways of working is ‘only’ growing in linearly.

There are only two ways out of this recipe for failure:

  • either our ability to innovate within the same societal paradigm evolves, which is unlikely considering that this would still require a radical shift in the way we educate, we do business and we govern ourselves,
  • or we shift paradigm towards a more systemic and holistic approach to addressing social problems. Whether technologies would then still be required to address these problems is more a matter of relevance to the specific context than of ability. 

A strategic vacuum in development and humanitarian aid

Hassan defines the current situation as ‘business as usual’ in four spheres: developmental, humanitarian, security and battle. The boundaries between these spheres tend to blur, as the cases of Yemen (his example) or Somalia (my example) demonstrate.

He points to the ‘neo-Soviet’ character of the management of these spheres, which in the cause of the developmental sphere is reinforced by a results-based agenda which increases gaming of the system, ie when data is fabricated to be able to show the expected results. His main argument here is that in an emergent context, it is highly unlikely that you can precisely predict the results of development aid, especially when

decisions are made centrally and then programs are delivered on the ground via five-year plans. (p. 34)

Interestingly, he also points to the growing politicisation of aid, especially on the humanitarian front, where it has always been a taboo until now. This resonates with the findings from Development aid confronts politics, a book published by the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in 2013 for which I also wrote a book review.

He then goes out to talk about two social labs he worked on, the Sustainable Food Lab and the Bhavishya Lab in India. Though the chapters on the work in a lab help to put some flash around the bones of the social lab concept, I find that the real value of the book lies is the analysis Hassan makes of the current situation and of the potential of social labs for addressing some of the world’s most ‘wicked’ problems, as they are sometimes qualified.

The new ‘ecologies of capital’ and the rise of practical wisdom

“Is progress really Wi-Fi on every street corner? No. It’s when no 13-year-old girl on the planet gets sold for sex. But as long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we’ve got a perpetual poverty machine”
– Peter Buffett

Social labs co-create three sets of results: initiatives, relationships and capacities. These can be translated into different forms of capital: prototypes/initiatives are physical capital, relationships are social capital, capacities are human capital, and the result of the whole process is intellectual capital.

Hassan believes, with other authors such as J. Greer in How civilisations fail: A Theory of Catabolitic Collapse, that production of these diverse capitals contribute to preventing the collapse of societies. Hassan mentions Bourdieu several times in his book, and he also refers to Foucault.

It’s great to stumble upon French philosophers in a book written by a Pakistani writer with exposure to UK, American, Indian and Saudian cultures! One of the most powerful quotes from the book is when Hassan explains why development aid works the exact opposite way as venture capitalism, which would explain its failure in addressing complex social problems:

<blockquote>…in the development sector, the notion of spread betting is unheard of. Instead, the rule of thumb is to avoid failure, as failure in complex systems is unavoidable. Innovation is not an efficient process – it’s messy. (p. 87)</blockquote>

He advocates for a new form of practical knowledge, building on

This approach is unique and completely different to traditional planning-based approaches for 3 reasons, all of which naturally appeal to me as an innovator and perpetual learner:

  • It forces you to investigate what is possible, not what is desirable.
  • It requires you to look at how you actually perceive the challenge in order to grasp and understand it.
  • It recognises that social innovation outcomes cannot be predicted or planned, hence one cannot know what the solutions to problems are before they are created or invented. 

He talks of innovation as a ‘black swan’ and the need to see the underlying belief systems and power dynamics at play in addressing social issues.

How to start a social lab?

Hassan offers a checklist to help with the set-up of a social lab. I can’t emphasise enough that the below list is not sufficient to start off, and that it will require more research on your side on theories and concepts mentioned above as ‘practical knowledge’. But it’s a good start, and shows that it’s all a matter of positive ENERGY!

  1. Clarify your intention (aim neither too high or too low)
  2. Broadcast an open invitation to get the right people, and <strong>work your networks.
  3. Recruit willing people (motivation is key) and establish a diverse team ( X-teams and T-shaped people – my addition – for those of you familiar with these concepts)
  4. Set strategic direction and create a systemic space for the lab: it’s about unfolding actions in a strategic directions rather than a grand strategy
  5. Design an iterative process that will help the group self-determine wihere it wants to go and support them with facilitation
  6. Design the lab in stacks or layers, including innovation or problem-solving, information and learning, capacity building and governance.
  7. Find a sustainable pace.

The idea of a social lab is extremely appealing, even to those working in traditional ‘technnocratic’ development work, because it aims to find and address the root causes of social problems, and offers solutions  to situations requiring stabilisation, mitigation or adaptation. But one must be open to and ready for this enquiry work, which has to always come before advocacy, even if it means that the results will challenge our own world views and beliefs.

I’m particularly excited about the potential of social labs to break silos in traditional top-down organisational structures, where the lack of knowledge sharing and pragmatism at finding solutions is limiting the impact of social endeavours.

Do you agree with Hassan’s criticism of the planning-based and market-based development and humantarian paradigms? Have you experienced social labs first hand and can share your experience? 

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