How We Built 9 Social Innovation Labs in 3 days


By Aditya Dev Sood and Pranav Sarin

This is an account of an extraordinary three days of work outside Jakarta, which resulted in the creation of 9 Social Innovation Labs, now working across Indonesia. It was not always our intention to bring these Labs into existence, but they emerged spontaneously over the course of our three days of problem solving, dialogue and collaboration. This account could be useful to those seeking to bring an innovation approach to development challenges, and to those with the specific intent of building new innovation labs.

We were there thanks to the good offices of Giulio Quaggiotto, who runs the Pulse Lab Jakarta, a new kind of innovation organization set up as a collaboration between UNDP and the Indonesian government. Giulio and Aditya got to know one another on Twitter, and they met at a table in Toronto at a convening of global social and public innovation labs hosted by the MaRS Solutions Lab run by Joeri van den Steenhoven. None of the rest of us had ever met one another before.

Giulio had put us in touch with Beth Elson, who leads the MAMPU program, a bilateral program by the Australian and Indonesian government to reduce poverty and improve poor women’s access to livelihood and public services. MAMPU is a joint initiative of the Australian Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the Indonesian State Ministry for National Development Planning (BAPPENAS), implemented by Cowater. They had already selected 9 organizations out of an applicant pool of 81 to receive grants from their Innovation Fund. It is on account of the existence of this Innovation Fund, and its innovation mandate that we were able to work in this way with the local organizations it funded.

The 9 successful applications to the Innovation Fund were sent in by very different development actors in Indonesia, including Global Concern in consortium with KOPEL, Kopernik, TUK Indonesia, YSKK, OnTrackMedia Indonesia, Institute for Education Development, Social, Religious, and Cultural Studies(INFEST), Perkumpulan Telepak, Walang Perempuan, and the Centre for Women and Gender Studies at the University of Indonesia. These organizations all had strong credentials and established track records in working for women’s empowerment. These organizations had no ambition to become innovation labs, they didn’t know or understand precisely what that might mean, and certainly they had no research, design, or experimental agenda before we started. As teams didn’t have the design skillsets that some activities would require, we had arranged for 9 design students from different disciplines from the LaSalle College of Art, Jakarta, to join us in Karawang, one for each of the participating team. By the end of the evening of the first night, all of us were already checked into a resort hotel outside Jakarta, getting to know one another over karaoke and dancing.

In the days leading up to the workshop the two of us had developed a rather ambitious agenda for the three days introducing a variety of ways of thinking and working. We’d based our total concept for the workshop on the routine operations of the Bihar Innovation Lab, but each practice or discipline or technique introduced and modeled for a very short time, so that participants would get a taste of the whole. But there was no way for us to imagine how teams would respond to these activities. As things played out, we were continuously reworking our agenda, bringing things forward and introducing new topics in dynamic response to how our sessions were received. All the sessions were led by one of the two of us, the co-authors of this blogpost. 

Our Shaky Start

In the days leading up to our workshop, both of us had grave apprehensions for how successful this workshop could really be. Neither of us had done consulting work in Indonesia before, even though we’d worked in other regions of South East Asia. We didn’t speak Bahasa, and we would be working with grassroots development sector specialists that were more comfortable in Bahasa than in English. We’d been told by MAMPU that there would be simultaneous live translation using ear-pieces for all participants, but that didn’t fill us with confidence. That kind of set up is great for the UN where nothing happens, but what about a live interactive innovation workshop, where people are always standing up, moving around drawing and saying things on top of one another in breakouts and table teams? From time to time both of us got the chills and the shakes thinking about it. Would we still be funny in Bahasa? Would we be able to connect with individuals and teams in a meaningful way?

Aditya bProblem solvingegan the day by asking the group to say something about their approach to problem solving. This seemed the most general way of talking about design or systems innovation for non-specialists. We heard some 60 ways of solving problems, from the group, which addressed interpersonal problems, life stage challenges, team dynamics, organizational strategies, social inequities, service delivery challenges, and systemic failures. People often said that they talked things out with other people, that they tried to see the world through the eyes of the other person, that they tried to understand as a means of problem solving. This was a very good beginning.

In a subsequent session, Aditya asked the group if they were involved in solving problems in systems. After some discussion, a consensus emerged that in a sense that’s what all development sector professionals did — address challenges and problems existing in different systems of society. Great, what is a system, he then asked? There were some very sophisticated responses, ranging from ‘an interactions of a set of elements,’ to ‘processes that link input and output conditions,’ which drew from Cybernetics. As we tweeted this session we got a response from someone following along in Australia, asking if our approach made use of Actor-Network theory. As well as Game Theory and Gestalt, Aditya responded. At a certain point Aditya drew out a very simple diagram on an A2 sheet, reminding people that social and human systems are always interactions of Rules, Tools and Players. We’d come back to this later on. 

On our return from lunch, Aditya spoke to the group about the Vaccine Delivery Kit (VDK), a new product concept from the Bihar Innovation Lab. The idea was to give the group a mental picture for our field research and a structured approach to problems definition might result in changes to an existing system. This kit, for instance, not only enabled the front-line health worker(FLHW) to administer vaccines more effectively, in terms of ergonomics and work process, but also served to give her a new sense of identity, professionalism and motivation, and elevated her status in the eyes of the beneficiary community, indirectly raising the acceptability of vaccine services.

Pranav then offered a brief introduction to ethnographic field research tools. This presentation covered the various basic tools of inquiry and the nuances of conducting such research to prepare the group for fieldwork the following morning. There was some push-back from the teams around this activity because they were not clear on how this was salient. For now we have Aditya and Pranav with us, one team said, and that time is not very long. Is it really helpful for us to go and talk to people in villages? We do that all the time anyway. In retrospect it seems we didn’t really stitch together how important social data is for any innovation agenda. But despite the pushback, we did get the team out to the field the following morning, all with a defined research agenda linked to their regular program work.


Team OnTrackMedia Indonesia Conducting Interviews at Pekka’s Learning Center

From Fieldwork to Problems Identification 

One of MAMPU’s program partners, Pekka, that worked in the local area had organized these field visits. Teams set off with packed lunches in hand, and split up to visit a market, a learning center, meet with village administration and a local women’s group. That morning’s fieldwork came with continued confusion and pushback from groups that questioned how these field interactions were going to fit into their larger proposal of work. Pranav had a tough time fielding so many questions about how this fieldwork would reconcile with the very different areas in which teams normally worked.

Once we got back to the workshop venue, had finished lunch, and had reorganized teams in session, we had a chance to ask teams what they’d learned in the morning. One insight only, from each team. By this point teams were excited to share what they’d learned, and we went around the room to some excellent insights. One of the participants told us, ‘the problem we were solving was ours, not theirs.’ This was an encouraging opening.

We then asked groups to each use post-its of the same color and to write down everything they had observed in the field. While groups seemed to have been involved in collaborative concepting work before, we sought to raise their game a bit with some very detailed and finely-parsed instructions on how to create their posts-its (one idea per post-it, full sentences, use felt-tipped pen, ensure it is legible at 10 feet) and then on how to use them for collaborative brainstorming (connect connectable ideas first, tag them with a differently colored post-it second, ensure everyone is involved.)

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Teams Populating, Organizing and Meta-Tagging Post-its Enlisting Problems Observed on Field

Aditya then asked them to translate the information on the post-it clusters into a detailed list of problems observed in the field. How many problems? At least 25, he replied gamely: Lots and lots of problems. Nest them under one another if you can.

Next, Aditya asked the teams to draw a diagram of how the problems fit into one another, related to one another. This would also be a diagram of the system, he said, showing the problems in the system that needed to be addressed. Like a mind-map? Maybe… this diagram could be anything you want it to be, so long as it proves useful for you as a visual aid as you try to explain the system’s failings that you want to address.

Teams presented their diagrams to one another with evident pride. They seemed rather attached to their diagrams and to the problems mapped by those diagrams. The very process of drawing seemed to have brought out some hidden reserve of creative energy and collective commitment to problem-solving. It was at this spontaneous and unscriptable moment, that Aditya suddenly said to them: You are each now a Lab, so think and work like a Lab. We seemed to have spontaneously created Indonesia’s first network of Social Innovation Labs. The idea that they were a Lab was quite well appreciated by the groups. More importantly, it actually began shaping and shifting the behavior of the 9 teams. To build on and reinforce this subtle shift in behavior, Aditya asked them to organize their space in relation to their diagrams and research findings laid out on different walls and easels so as to prepare for further Lab work the next day.



The Beginnings of Lab Life

At the top of theIMG_1094 following day, Aditya reminded the group that they were now part of the MAMPU Network of Labs, at which everyone cheered. Not so fast! He asked them what a Lab was and what it did. How would one know that one is in a Lab? Many responses were shouted out, including ‘White Coats!’ ‘A sign saying “Lab!”’ ‘Visualizations and Diagrams’ ‘Risk!’ ‘Accidents’ and many others, both serious and bantering. Aditya finally offered, A Lab is a place where people have a problem to which they do not know the answer, or they are seeking to prove or confirm an answer they suspect, or where they are trying to figure something out using some means. If this is not happening, you are not in a Lab. One more thing that’s necessary, moreover, is some degree of self-awareness about how you are going to go about solving your problems, as well as some alignment about your methods within the collaborative environment of the Lab. As we saw on the first day, the 60 people participating had all very different approaches to solve problems, but now these brand new labs had to acquire ways of working that were both describable and comprehensible, to those within as well as those without. This what we now turned to working on, first by narrowing the scope of the work that labs would take up, and by acquiring an iterative way of developing concepts and testing them in the field.

Look back at thIMG_1095e system you’re each trying to change, Aditya said. See how complicated it is. See that you have only one year of funding to work. Note that you need to focus somewhere if you are to make progress of any kind. Begin thinking about where you want to focus and what you want to let go of. Block out the portions of your diagram where you will be not be focusing your efforts. Using that now partially blocked-out diagram, Aditya asked the teams to  restate their problems in clearer terms, limited themselves only to what they could address in a given year. Teams presented these to one another this revised expression of their mission. At this point it was possible to look back to our conversation of the very first day, on what systems were and how they operated. No matter how complex a human-technology system, it could be grasped by looking at it carefully and representing it schematically, as in a diagram. Then one might consider one or more changes to the rules, tools or players operating within the system.

Aditya then asked them to think about one quantitative metric that they hoped their efforts would address. Perhaps that number wouldn’t move in the given year, but it would be something large and orienting that their efforts would address over the longer term. This quantitative goal would serve as their pole star, orienting all their efforts. 

This posed a great challenge to teams, for they immediately objected that they couldn’t possibly be held responsible for a measure related to Indonesian society as a whole. We had a great conversation about the difference between responsibility and accountability. Of course we are all already responsible for making our society better, he teased them. But no, MAMPU will not hold you accountable for this metric, or the fact that it hasn’t changed over the course of your one year’s effort. Members of several teams spoke up saying this was very different from any other donor or funder they worked with, and were we dead sure about this? Beth Elson and Stewart Norup both spoke up to confirm that this Innovations Fund would work differently from other conventional grants.

In the closing hours of the afternoon, Aditya told the participants we would finally be solutioneering. Very quietly, without breaking eye-contact with me, he said, begin writing down your ideas on post-its. Just as yesterday, put down your thoughts in single sentences using markers, one after another after another, without talking or sharing.


Teams Write-Out Solutions on Post-its in Silence

For several minutes there was no other sound in the hall, but some forty markers scratching hard upon those post-its. It seemed that a new kind of relationship was being born, between us and these fledgeling labs, and MAMPU, and among us all, one to the other.

Using their clustered post-its, we now asked teams to visualize a new concept or intervention. The design students came to the fore again, as they sought to visualize their team’s concept using an A3 template we had give them. Aditya asked three of the teams to present their concept, and then we had a bit of a chat about this overall methodology. How many such concepts would we have to make, asked one team. Well, Aditya began, in the case of the Bihar Innovation Lab work shared with you on the first day, we made about 360 concepts in about a month, with maybe five people working together. You guys should also hit at least three digits.

There was a gasp. How will you make so many concepts, he continued? You’ll need to have a very detailed list of problems. And how will you have a detailed problems list? Only by doing lots of work with communities and discovering their problems. This was the moment when the whole approach to user-centered systems design began falling into place for the teams. So when you and Pranav visit us in a few weeks we should show you the 100 concepts we have created? How could it be otherwise, Aditya smiled back.

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In the closing minutes of the day, Aditya reminded them that they needed to preserve all the content they had created and take it back with them to their own offices and places of work, where they must re-install it. If you don’t look after your own post-its, he warned them, no one will ever care for your ideas or create post-its for you with any care or attention. This is the beginnings of your lab. We will want to come and see what you have done with it when we visit you next month.


Thinking Forward from This Experience

Perhaps the greatest achievement of these three days was that we made visible, legible and experienceable a way of working for non-specialists. These were development sector professionals, not designers or social scientists or innovation experts. And we were able to do this without using any very complex terms of art, jargon, or high-falutin’ theory. Indeed, that is precisely why were successful in pulling this off. In many ways this was an over-the-top experiment that shouldn’t have worked. We introduced ethnography, design, creative collaboration and co-creation, systems thinking, and even failure case analysis in a single three day session which included a field research component. The fact that it all worked out says something, we believe, about the latent abilities and talents of social development professionals, who already possess much more knowledge and practical ability than perhaps we give them credit for, and which incipient ability needs only to be brought to some awareness and consciousness for great new things to become possible. Perhaps more damningly, our conversations about outcome metrics and donor constraints also told us a great deal about the kind of innovation capacity already available — though not yet tapped — in developing country contexts. To tap the creativity and knowledge and existing capacity of grassroots organizations, therefore, it seems that new kinds of innovation challenges need to be envisioned and funded, with new kinds of standards and metrics associated with them.

This experience has consequences for a wider social labs revolution that we have yet to imagine or seek to implement. We seem to have stumbled upon some of the key ingredients for forging such a network of labs in regions of the world that do not have them. This is something we should be considering in places like India, Africa, China, Latin America, and at increasingly local levels, rather than in national capitals.

In retrospect, no one could have known that there would be this kind of enthusiasm for the processes that we had planned, or that in fact its main benefits would have to do with removing many of the barriers to imagination and effective action that come from the usual structures of development sector functioning.

We’re still talking to MAMPU about what more these new labs will require to be effective over the course of the year. We’ve offered to host MAMPU staff in India at our labs network to see how we’re working. We’re exploring new partnerships with Jakarta universities including the UPH and LaSalle, whose students might like to visit these new labs, intern there or contribute in other more structured ways. We’re looking for young professionals to work with the labs around training and upskilling
teams in areas like visualization, concepting and prototyping. We’re looking for local partners who can provide technology and media capabilities to these teams as and when they have more sophisticated ideas for what they want to implement or build.

As these new labs begin to thematize more clearly the nature of the challenge they aim to address, they will also move from a sociocultural or socioeconomic description of the problem to a more sociotechnical one. The technical dimension of these challenge may involve, for example, public health, medical or bio-technologies, it might use big, open, peer-generated data, it may involve mobile apps or platforms, solar energy and home automation solutions. Depending on the nature of the technical dimension of the challenge, it will be incumbent upon us to find the right partners and expertise to enable and empower labs to address them. That forward path will lead them greater effectiveness, sustainability and impact.


1. Workshop Agenda

2. Vaccine Delivery Kit: User Centered Systems Innovation

3. Using Ethnography to Undertsand the Players in a System

4. Big Data and the Value of Diverse Approaches to Problem Solving, Giulio Quaggiotto, Pulse Lab Jakarta

5. #InnovMAMPU: A Tweet by Tweet Account of the 3 Days

6. Newsletters from day 1, day 2 and day 3


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