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April 22, 2024
Addressing Complex Problems With Social Innovation Labs

We live in a time of wicked problems. 

A wicked problem is a societal challenge that is difficult to address due to its evolving nature and intertwined influencing factors. This characterizes many of the social and environmental challenges we face today, including poverty, climate change, and social inequality and requires a collaborative, adaptive and innovative approach to address. 

At their core, wicked problems are marked by their complexity. Complicated and complex are two different concepts that are often used interchangeably but have distinct differences. Complicated refers to a problem that can be broken down into smaller parts and solved independently, often through a linear and predictable process. The solution is based on cause-and-effect relationships and can be replicated in similar situations. Complex, on the other hand, refers to a problem that is dynamic, interconnected, and constantly changing. The cause-and-effect relationships are unclear, and the solution requires an adaptive, non-linear approach that considers the context and multiple perspectives. The solution may not be repeatable in similar situations due to the unique nature of the problem’s context. Often, complicated problems can be solved with a step-by-step process, while complex problems require a more adaptive and holistic approach.

Enter social innovation labs.

A social innovation lab is a process that brings systemic, social and experimental thinking as well as transformational learning to tackle wicked problems. These labs are designed to address the complexity that is part of wicked problems. While each lab is different, they have common elements, including:

Social innovation labs offer a refreshing contrast to the conventional approaches often seen in problem-solving and project development. Here's how they differ from the status quo:

They’re Systemic: Unlike traditional methods that might address problems in isolation, social innovation labs embrace a holistic viewpoint. They connect the dots across various domains and levels, ensuring that solutions are not just effective in a narrow context but bring about widespread, systemic change. This contrasts with the status quo, where solutions often target symptoms rather than underlying systems, potentially overlooking broader implications and interconnections.

Wicked problems require an understanding of multiple intersecting systems that impact the challenge at hand. This example from the Veteran's Village Lab highlights the varied issues that all contribute to effective housing solutions.

They’re Social: Social innovation labs break down the walls that usually limit participation in solution development. By valuing diverse perspectives and prioritizing the inclusion of those with lived experience, these labs ensure that solutions are grounded in a deep understanding of the issues at hand. This is a significant shift from traditional settings, where decision-making might be confined to a select group of experts or interest holders, sometimes detaching the solutions from the realities of those most affected.

Empathy is a key component of innovation labs. This timeline was created as part of the 2SLGBTQIA+ Seniors Housing Lab, exploring the context of change that today's seniors have lived through. This contextualizes the experiences and changes they have lived through, which can inform housing solutions from the point of better understanding.

They’re Experimental: The experimental nature of social innovation labs is a departure from the often rigid, linear approaches of conventional methods. By embracing a cycle of trial, feedback, learning, and iteration, these labs foster a culture where failure is seen as a valuable step towards innovation. This dynamic approach allows for more agile and responsive solution development compared to the status quo, which may resist deviation from established plans or methods even when they're not yielding the desired results.

They’re Transformational: Social innovation labs are committed to driving profound, lasting change, not just quick fixes or temporary alleviations. They aim to transform the landscape of the problems they tackle, pushing beyond the usual boundaries to explore what might be possible. In contrast, traditional approaches may often settle for incremental improvements or changes that don't challenge the existing frameworks or paradigms, potentially missing opportunities for significant advancement.

Innovation labs can vary in size and scope depending on the challenge a group or organization is addressing. Some groups establish physical spaces for their innovation labs, while others operate virtually. No matter the medium, the ultimate goal of an innovation lab is to drive change through innovative thinking and respond to the rapidly evolving social landscape. To get started, all a group or organization needs is to embrace the potential for change and dedicate the human resources necessary to contribute to the innovation process.

Our Labs at Intelligent Futures

Social innovation labs align closely with the core values of Intelligent Futures, demonstrating these ideals through their focus on collaboration and impact. Here's how they connect with our values:

  • Extraordinary Collaboration: These labs exemplify collaboration, uniting clients, collaborators, and communities to co-create solutions, reinforcing our belief in the power of teamwork.
  • Always Strive for Positive Impact: Focused on generating meaningful change, the labs align with our intention of delivering lasting, positive impacts on society.
  • Stay Curious: Encouraging exploration and continuous learning, the labs reflect our commitment to curiosity and innovation.
  • Take Courageous Action: By promoting bold approaches to complex challenges, the labs mirror our' ethos of courageous action and trailblazing solutions.

Intelligent Futures is one of 16 firms in Canada that are identified as qualified innovation consultants with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Over the past few years, our team has been leading innovation labs to address wicked housing problems in Canada. These labs reflect a diversity of issues, but all align with our purpose of leading change for more equitable, sustainable and prosperous communities. 

The Better Housing Lab focused on integrating environmental performance into the economic model of affordable housing projects to enhance the long-term livability and viability of projects.

The Halal Housing Lab focused on finding culturally appropriate housing design and financing approaches for multigenerational Muslim families.

The Saskatoon Housing Lab focused on finding new ways for the Saskatoon housing sector to work together by addressing the needs of community members facing an intersection of challenges.

The 2SLGBTQIA+ Seniors Housing Lab focused on developing innovative housing that supports the unique needs of LGBTQ2S seniors while proactively integrating these folks into the broader community.

The Veterans Village Lab focused on the housing needs of veterans through unique housing models and innovative modular design.

If you want to learn more about our approach and how we can help you tackle a wicked problem you are facing, we would be happy to chat with you. Feel free to contact us to discuss your ideas and explore potential solutions. We believe that by working together, we can create a more just, sustainable, and equitable future for everyone.