LabWorks 2015: the subtle art of disruption

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Last week we were fortunate to attend the LabWorks 2015 Global Lab Gathering, an annual event bringing together innovation labs and teams from across the globe. It was our chance to meet other practitioners and to deepen our knowledge of public and social innovation.

The big question on our minds was whether all the knowledge and experiences elsewhere would add value within our little innovation labs in Indonesia.

We found that while the context and cultural landscapes may be different, the journey tends to be the same. Overall it was an amazing opportunity to meet like-minded colleagues and to compare battle scars. Our key takeaways are detailed below.

Experts are not enough

Satsuko VanAntwerp of InWithForward shared that they began their attempt to improve the lives of people with disabilities by admitting that, despite a wealth of existing research, they do not know enough about the people they are trying to help.

In response, the team spent ten weeks living in a social housing complex, sharing dinners and spending weekends with their neighbours. They found that the isolation felt by people with disabilities has more to do with the lack of opportunities to make meaningful contributions to their community than the lack of social connections to a community, which was the team’s original understanding based on existing research.

The point Satsuko makes is that experts have valuable knowledge, but so do citizens. They are experts in their own context and are best placed to define the most important problem and to identify the most meaningful changes that could be made.

This is especially important in marginalized communities, whose voices could be sidelined even further if they are not involved throughout the design process of initiatives that are meant to empower them.

Rethinking risk

‘I don’t understand why there’s a popular belief that governments don’t take risks,’ said Agnes Kwek of the Singaporean Government. ‘Doing something can be a risk, not doing something can also be a risk. Governments take risks all the time.’

Agnes and her fellow panelists at the ‘Culture of Risk’ session pointed out that it is far more useful to introduce innovation as a way to test human reactions before a policy is introduced at scale, as this is often what data and policy debates fail to take into account.

They also argued that asking governments to embrace failure is a much less compelling approach compared to setting a learning agenda at the start of a change process, which shifts the burden from the outcome to gaining insights from the experience of trying out a new approach.

Public sector culture

Professor Stephen Goldsmith suggested that ‘you want disruption, but not mayhem’ when creating innovation labs in the public sector. They have to be able to withstand change in political leadership. As long as the culture of the lab pervades, then it should cut across political change.

Working as an innovator within the public sector is not for everyone but finding a champion/early adopter can help facilitate the process.

A great lesson for Indonesia came from Shatha al-Hashmi, of the MBR Centre for Government Innovation in the United Arab Emirates, who said that the language of public sector innovation is hard to translate into Arabic. In response they are creating a new vocabulary around innovation. This is an issue that many countries are dealing with and our instincts tell us that we need to engage in a similar process here in Indonesia.

Thanks to Nesta for a fantastic event – expect to hear more from us in the blogosphere soon and we look forward to seeing you all again next year.


Maesy Angelina runs the Innovation Portfolio at Mampu – a programme focusing on empowering women for poverty reduction. Derval Usher is the interim Lab Manager at Pulse Lab Jakarta.

Top image: Mariko Takeuchi, the former Founding Director at inCompass in Cambodia, opens the panel on what labs can do for poverty, at LabWorks 2015 [photo credit: Nesta].

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