Lauren Sears' NouLAB Experience

Economic Immigration is an issue in New Brunswick. Many newcomers will come for work, stay for about two years, and then move on, out of the province. NouLAB hopes to address this complex issue through its social labs, which work to build “shared understanding among affected stakeholders” to develop real-world, testable prototypes.

Lauren Sears became involved as an experimental addition to the first cohort of social lab participants, seeing as she came to the program from outside of New Brunswick. She would join participants ranging from first voice contributors – Immigrants or “New-New Brunswickers” – to those in the private, non-profit, and public sectors. From the very beginning, “it was a practice of speaking with people from the ground up,” she said. “It’s important to try and capture all of those voices.” Lauren was an outside consultant and contributed on matters of social enterprise as it came up in lab discussions, while sharing her personal experience where valuable.

From September to December 2017, Lauren would meet for 2-3 days every month in Moncton, St. John or Fredericton with her cohort and move through the different stages of prototyping development.

NouLAB organized the social labs according to a design thinking oriented flow, facilitated with murals by the Halifax-based graphic company Brave Space. The first lab brought Lauren to the “Headwaters,” where she became familiar with her small team, who together framed the problems they planned to tackle.

In this initial stage, they clarified the big questions using open-ended “how-might-we” statements: “How might we better help immigrants navigate government services that are provided to help them settle?” for example. Lauren seemed pretty clear on which parts of the system may not be currently working. “A newcomer could have an easier time fulfilling their permanent residency if they could more easily find the government programs!” she said.

Nonetheless, through the process of running the “Rapids” of the second lab, the team decided to focus on developing prototypes that might address the difficulty of more invisible barriers, rather than those of systems navigation. These invisible barriers concern the living culture in the province--the fact that, for many “New-New Brunswickers,” it can be quite difficult to integrate into the already diverse, culture-rich New Brunswick social landscape. The NouLAB process provided Lauren and her team a chance to sit with these deeply complex issues, and move past the kind of initial solutions that jump to mind and tend to get baked in, influencing the entire course of action.

The end-goal was that each team would have some kind of workable prototype, some plan that they could feasibly put into action, or at least test out to help address economic immigration issues. By the third lab session, Lauren and her team were diving deeply into pitching prototypes encouraging organic connection between people with different backgrounds, but nothing seemed specific enough to address any one aspect of the problem, particularly when discussing scalability.

“Considering a solution that seems to come down to facilitating conversations,” Lauren added, “how might we scale them up and out? How to set up something that we hope will start to happen on its own?” To allow a wider group of stakeholders to weigh in on this, the team held a World Cafe event using the funding and resources available through the NouLAB program.

The responses from that event, as well as from interviews with people in the time between lab sessions (the group’s homework) led Lauren and team into the fourth lab with a provisional prototype. It has a simple guiding question at its core: How might we get people to connect and have genuine relationships with one another? The team guesses that if this starts happening, newcomers might want to stay.

The World Cafe conversation and series of interviews brought out the general sentiment from such newcomers that, “As long as my kids are happy, and I have some friends, and a job, then I’m happy. I’ll stay.” Kids are where a lot of integration successes seem to happen – they’re the ones who go to school, and are thus immersed in English sooner. Often, they’ll bring education and activities home with them.

Lauren and her team talked to teachers to see what part they may play. Some teachers expressed that the level of diversity in their classrooms is often already a lot to handle, given the French/English education system and students’ different abilities and needs. In the current system, many teachers feel like the added pressure of diversity due to immigration is something that they may not have readily available resources for.

This is where Lauren and her teammates have landed: how to address this gap in resources to allow teachers to have something to fall back on. There’s nothing final as of yet, but the team has pitched the idea for a micro-grant fund that would allow teachers and their class to access funds to allow for creative projects that will encourage a deeper understanding of culture, diversity, and belonging in NB.

“The lab was truly a unique experience. So rarely do you have the opportunity to sit around a table for more than a few hours digging into an important issue, especially with stakeholders from various backgrounds. And then we were able to meet more than once! When you pair that with mind-opening processes and conversation, the resulting environment let your mind run wild with possibility. I think my most valuable take-away was learning that when we look at problems, we need to ensure we don’t bake a pre-decided solution into the statement. We truly need to continue to explore and dig up the root cause.”

Though their lab sessions have finished, the ideas generated through their time together will go towards influencing positive actions that may be taken up by others, soon enough.

 

 

 

Amanda Hachey