Learning from Social Labs


What does it take to tackle our most profound social, environmental, and economic challenges?

Zaid Hassan, cofounder of Reos Partners – an international enterprise that helps businesses and communities around the world address complex social challenges - has been asking this question for years, and he posed it to the audience in his keynote speech at GovMaker 2015.

What makes Zaid unique is that when he asks this question it isn’t rhetoric. He really wants to know: what would it actually take?

We at the Pond-Deshpande Centre and Social Policy Research Network have been asking ourselves this for a little over a year. Although we haven’t found a formula, we think we may be onto something. It’s New Brunswick’s first social innovation lab, NouLAB, and we publicly unveiled it at GovMaker on November 24.

NouLAB is a partnership between the Pond-Deshpande Centre and Social Policy Research Network, with support from the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation, MaRS Solutions Lab, and the Govlab. It provides a place and process to envision and create the new, or “nouveau”, New Brunswick. By connecting and guiding diverse teams, committed and creative New Brunswickers aim to tackle our most complex social challenges – ones that are messy but deserve serious attention.

In Zaid’s book, The Social Labs Revolution, he explains that our most complex social challenges possess three common characteristics:

1      Emergence;

2      New and continual information flow; and

3      Actors adjusting behaviours.

These challenges are emergent: they develop in unexpected ways as a result of the interactions between a high number of individuals and organizations. Think throwing a rock versus throwing a live pigeon. One’s behaviour and direction is far less predictable than the other.

These interactions produce new information for individuals and organizations to sort through. As this new information is processed, individuals and organizations react and adapt their behaviours, which begins the cycle again.

In short, complex challenges change in unexpected ways over time, so it’s difficult to determine how to act on them most effectively.

New Brunswick isn’t low on its stock of complex challenges, but we can begin writing a new narrative for the province by finding ways to improve the dismal social metrics that currently define us. However, we can only do this together. We need our talented, committed thought leaders and entrepreneurial spirits to collide and collaborate on these challenges in ways that haven’t yet been done.

When we unveiled NouLAB at GovMaker, we showcased the six challenges that we’re going to be working with through our first NouLAB program:

Food Sovereignty;

Rebuilding Rural New Brunswick;

Newcomer Employment;

Adult Literacy;

Social Housing; and

Policy Approaches to Wellness.

To learn more about the challenges and teams, connect with the team leads here.

The challenges brought forward are all messy, but are pressing issues for our region. Fortunately, there are groups that have formed around them who are dissatisfied with the status quo, who believe in working with uncommon partners, and who don’t have all the answers. But they are ready to ask the necessary, and often uncomfortable, questions.

“What does it take to tackle our most profound social, environmental, and economic challenges?” is the question we started with. We’re still asking ourselves this question, but, hopefully, in a few months, we and our six teams will have a pretty good idea.

If you think you, or someone you know, can support any of our lab teams in their work with NouLAB, please get in touch with us at jake.wildman-sisk@unb.ca or with our lab teams directly here

Jake Wildman-SiskComment