Innovation Labs: Leveraging Openness for Radical Innovation?

Have you heard of innovation labs yet?

Concept of teamwork, strategy, vision or education

A growing range of public, private and civic organisations, from Unicef through Nesta to NHS, now run or support units known as “innovation labs”. The hopeful assumption they share is that labs, by building on openness among other features, can generate promising solutions to grand challenges of complex, systemic nature.

To highlight just a few examples, the eLab is grappling with the key challenges of the electricity sector; London’s Finance Innovation Lab, showing yet more ambition, aims to rework the entire financial system, whereas the Unicef Labs innovate to alleviate the problems faced by children around the world.

Even at an urban scale, the questions posed by the labs remain systemic in nature. For instance, Participatory City in London aims at “City neighbourhoods made by everyone, for everyone”. Similarly, Quartier Stuff lab in Luxembourg, asks “How can we shape our district, innovating new social models, infrastructures, public spaces, services and housing forms, to ensure long-term social cohesion and high quality of life? How can we ensure long-term territorial cohesion and attractiveness of the territory for its stakeholders?”.

Labs are potentially fruitful vehicles for leveraging openness for radical innovation. Indeed, labs seek to span organisational, sectoral and geographical boundaries, welcoming a variety of actors, including representatives of business, NGOs, governments, arts, science and local communities. They claim to embrace radical ideas and out-of-the box thinking.

But what are innovation labs really about? How do they differ from other innovation initiatives and intermediaries? Is the way in which labs embrace openness a key factor that defines them?

In the recent working paper written with my colleagues Ioanna Lykourentzou and Tuukka Toivonen we aim to answer these questions.

We contextualise and analyse the innovation labs phenomenon, focusing on openness aspects that characterise them. We then compare and contrast innovation labs with other innovation-focused organisational forms – innovation hubs, corporate R&D labs, communities of practice, living labs, innovation networks and innovation task-forces, showing that labs cannot be easily subsumed under any preexisting organisational form or category. Finally, we provide a preliminary lab definition and clarify innovation labs’ unique approach to openness.

Have you encountered innovation labs in your work or maybe are running one yourself? We welcome comments and suggestions from both practitioners and academics interested in the innovation lab phenomenon.


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