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Towards An Innovation Lab for Leeds?

June 22, 2010

The Vision for an Innovation Lab in Leeds – What If….?


The city is facing real challenges.  Increasing demands on services and reduced budgets for their delivery.  Making the transition to a low carbon, sustainable economy.  Creating meaningful work in a modern economy.  Delivering the possibility of healthy and fulfilling lives for all.  Facilitating communities where people choose to stay and develop.

Such profound challenges bring the possibility of a step change in service design and delivery.

Better integration between service providers, increased use of volunteers, social enterprise and more efficient use of the private sector.  Increased flexibility to respond to the emerging needs, aspirations and goals of individuals and communities.  To shift the agenda from the amelioration of symptoms to the facilitation of hope and opportunity.  Leveraging the potential of new technologies and emerging ideas of the Big Society.  Encouraging more people to engage in ‘good work’ and be active citizens rather than passive consumers of public services.

Having initially floated the idea of an innovation lab and got some very warm interest I was asked to put some more flesh on the bones of the idea.  Please help in this process by adding your thoughts and ideas.

And if you might be interested in sponsoring such a process then please get in touch.

But How Do We Get There?

It is clear that service reviews in traditional departmental and sectoral silos are unlikely to deliver more efficient and integrated services.  Nor is a mindset that encourages us to ‘hold what we have’ – to advocate for our narrow self interest and the maintenance of the status quo.  Public, private and third sector need to collaborate on service design and delivery rather than to advocate for their own self interest.

We need to create a space for thinking and imagining where the realists and pragmatists can take a back seat while the idealists and the imagineers can develop ideas about how things might be.  To build a consensus and commitment to move towards a very different but eminently possible future.

Such a space can be created through an Innovation Lab.

What is an Innovation Lab?

An innovation lab is a process – not a place.  It usually culminates in an intense workshop to allow key thinkers, influencers, technologists and service users to come together to work intensely and constructively on developing a vision for how things could be;  To ‘fish for ideas’ that might lead us forward to radically lower cost but higher value service delivery; To shape the agenda to enable quick wins but also to provide a vision to inform longer term development.

In an Innovation Lab nothing is sacrosanct, everything is possible.  It is a chance to get beyond ‘the paltry limits of conventional wisdom’ to explore the art and science of the possible.  And to develop a pathway for getting there.

Innovation Labs are led by skilled and experienced facilitators – who are able to recognise and challenge pragmatism and defensiveness while encouraging idealism and imagination.  They usually include keynotes and other interventions to encourage forward thinking and the art of the possible as well as whole and small group work to develop and hone important ideas.  Innovation Labs shape and are shaped by those who take part and their ideas.

Innovation Labs can take a multitude of formats.  There maybe several events and processes throughout the Lab all of which are designed to develop:

  • A mindset that seeks radical innovation by drawing in diverse pools of talent and knowhow
  • Skills in the processes of innovation, scenario development, vision building, collaboration and joint venturing
  • Understanding and awareness of the challenges and opportunities facing the city and the talent and resources available to tackle them
  • Relationships across traditional boundaries to allow new partnerships and programmes to emerge
  • Commitment to practical action – developing a big vision that can be pursued through little steps

Who Would Be Involved?

Participation in the Innovation Lab would need to be a carefully considered.  It would need to include individuals with the influence and power to lead real change.  But also people with practical hands-on experience of service delivery.

It would need to include:

  • Technologists and service design experts
  • Private, public and third sectors stakeholders
  • Housing, health, education, policing, welfare, politicians, investors, philanthropists, community development practitioners, architects and planners, transformational project managers, futurists, environmentalists and cultural stakeholders and, of course, residents.

What Could Be Achieved?

  • A new shared understanding of the challenges of service design and delivery and the need for cross sectoral collaboration
  • The identification of ‘big ideas’ and opportunities that hold the key to radically more effective and efficient services
  • The identification of work streams that seem to hold the greatest potential for progress and the commitment to contribute to them.
  • Potential structural and systemic changes that might support progress.
  • Shifts in mindsets from defensive to innovative
  • The development of scenarios that transcend departmental and budgetary silos
  • Priorities and Tasks for action.

Here You can find out much more about the Leeds Innovation Lab.

Mike Chitty – Realise Development – June 2010


  1. Radical Efficiency

    There are four parts to radical efficiency:
    New Insights – where new ideas come from.
    New Customers – re-conceptualising customers.
    New Suppliers – looking again at who is doing the work, and reconsidering the role of the customer.
    New Resources – tapping into latent resources locked up in the people, assets and organisations that are often taken for granted.

  2. Mike, Interesting … and exciting – post. A couple of questions:
    1) Does the Innovation lab have a fixed life or address a specific issue for a fixed time – so that it doesn’t ‘wither on the vine’?
    2) Is the lab ‘open’ ( crowdsourcing?) or does it have a fixed community?

    • Good questions John. I think it should be time bound, at least initially to focus minds on producing something. That having been said I can also see the need for a ‘standing’ Innovation Lab that helps bring new partners up to speed and keeps the innovation community fresh.

      My current thinking is that there would be a strand that is essentially by invitation only (but accountable and transparent to the citizens of Leeds) while other strands would be much more inclusive and potentially driven by crowd-sourcing ideals.

      More detailed design work will be the next stage should we find sufficient support for the idea…

  3. I’m thinking along similar lines…

    Let’s talk it out 🙂

    BTW, thanks for the book lend last night – sorry I didn’t get a chance to talk more.

  4. We’ve already demonstrated that just by talking and then gathering physically or virtually things happen. Having a structure however loose will help bring together the disparate efforts which if brought together will make things happen.

    I’m always up for efforts like this count me in to what ever comes.

  5. If you build it, they will come.

    I’m leading the innovation effort in my company & we found we need three things.

    1) Define where we are today (detailed product audit)
    2) Define where we want to go tomorrow (strategic review)
    3) Make a plan to get there. (Define owners + working groups)

    All of this information is publicly available on an internal wiki. Any employee has access to it. Think “Ionnivationipeida”. The “Innocentive” website focusses on the worlds massive challenges and alienates people. By contrast I saw on the news last night a teaching assistant from Wakefield developed a program to help ADHD and behaviour challenged children.

    Innovation doesn’t come from us talking among ourselves. We need to make the information simple at a high level, accessible, open and translated into English from Government / Business speak.


    1) What work / reports are available from various sources, that define the problem
    2) What are the big problems we want to solve? / How do we organise?
    3) What does a crowd-sourcing tool look like?

    Some examples

  6. I’d certainly be interested in getting involved in some way. I’m an open source and social twiddler and there doesn’t seem much outlet for that sort of thing in Leeds at the moment.

  7. nick morgan permalink

    i’d certainly be interested. we need a space to throw around ideas that take advantage of the vacuum that will be created by the reduction of public services. if we don’t act the space will be filled with something that may not be sustainable.

  8. I think this sounds very exciting and if I am invited would be honoured. My only challenge would be the commitment required at a time with a new baby on the way…however don’t wish to miss out on the opportunity! I could always cheerlead if the intensity is too much for me!

  9. Louise Ebrey permalink

    Thanks Mike

    I am definately interested in becoming involved either as part of the ideas generation or as a faciliatator.

    What sort of people are you interested in promoting this to, so I can sound out my network?


  10. Katie Brown (@dysconnection) permalink

    I’d certainly like to be involved. At IMH we’ve been dealing with the beginning of the economic situation and its impact on Health & Social Care for Leeds for about a year and a half now.
    I’ve been wondering where to put my strategic head that would be of must use and efficacy at the moment. Somewhere where stuff gets done would be a good start..

  11. Claire Jones permalink

    I think this is a great idea! We have to ensure that as public service criteria are tightened in response to reduced budgets, we can generate our own local solutions to ensure the people of Leeds continue to support each other.
    I can promise my virtual support, and I’ll follow the progress with keen interest.

  12. Hey Mike,

    Count us in. The benefits of a successful Leeds Innovation Lab would bring enormous benefits to the city. Bringing together ideas and fresh thinking from a variety of sectors and experiences could lead to some exciting new methods of service delivery. And if anyone can facilitate it, I’m certain you can.


    • You little flatterer you…

      Working with some good people on this and hope to make some progress before the summer intervenes….

  13. Ruth Steinberg permalink

    I’m hungry for something like this. We have terrific minds and that’s what we have. To be able to have a space to think creativly, learn and share and find out what are the real questions we need to be asking. Count me in.

  14. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for letting me know about this post.

    I echo all of the above in that I think the concept is excellent. The big challenge, of course, is now in converting this into reality.

    A few thoughts..

    1. Are there existing successful innovation labs out there from which you can take some learnings from?

    2. John Heap mentions the issue of whether this would be a focussed bit of time or ongoing. I think there is something about concentrating your efforts into a “campaign” where the process has a defined start & finish time otherwise it’s easy for something to start dragging on ad infinitum. One thing I thing I think that has helped make the Difference Engine pilot a success is exactly that there was a specific concentrated effort around a defined period of time.

    3. The idea around focussing time speaks to my next point which is addressing the human elements of this concept. Ultimately how do you attract, retain & sustain people’s attention and energy on this process. Time concentration is one way but are there others? How would you apply service design principles to ensure that the process was as clear, simple, easy & engaging as it can be?

    I think where you need to go from here is to convert this concept into a more specific pitch with enough detail that you can attract a headline/foundational sponsor.

    Hope that’s helpful? Happy to stay involved in whatever way that makes sense.


  15. Hi Mike,

    Exactly what’s needed.

    As someone who’s witnessed the ‘old guard’ delivering mainstream business support with all missed opportunities of SRB, ERDF, LEGI & incubation, I would really enjoy helping to shape a completely fresh approach.

    Nothing ruled in, nothing ruled out…… I’m in.

  16. Hi Mike,

    We need to catch up on this, but if i can help and be of assistance count me in. And lets not wait for LEPs and the CSR and all of the policy pain that will be heading our way but start establishing frameworks that work for Leeds.



  17. Gerry Andrews permalink

    I’m intrigued by the idea of the Innovation Lab and would like to be part of its development into reality and application.

    Just a few observations (from somone who’s been on the inside, on the outside and on the edge):

    i) Mike – I think you hit the nail on the head when you highlight the problem being the traditional silo mentality, when it comes to service reviews and efficiency savings, and the self-interest driven competitiveness that cuts across all sectors.
    Sadly, we see all of this in evidence around us – and may be guilty of it ourselves! – when it comes down to the reality of survival.

    ii) A real challenge is how to engage those “hard to reach” groups – those with vested interests, who wield the power (of decision-taking and funding), the ‘realists’ and ‘pragmatists’ and those who only know how to do it their way. We may need to look beyond those facilitation processes (like World Cafe, Hosting, Appreciative Inquiry, etc) that depend on like-minded, or at least, open-minded people coming together to agree ways forward. We may need to look at conflict resolution approaches to facilitate ‘difficult dialogues’ – provided the hard to reach groups are engaged!

    iii) One other way may be to just do it! If more of us are able to challenge the thinking and action wherever ‘we’ are, make the connections and links with others we know, then this ‘viral’ approach will pick up speed and ‘infect’ others. If we can SHOW by DOING, even in a small way, then more people may be convinced by example. We actually learn by DOING, rather than by reflecting and deciding on THE future we want (although this is also important!!). We may need lots of different, little steps towards pluralistic visions of the future held together by some common principles or values, rather than waiting till we agree on one common vision before we act.

    Hope these thoughts may help?

    Look forward to the ‘next steps’.

    Gerry Andrews

  18. LCR published strategy for innovation. Does it play any cognisance of innovation lab process? Unlikely because the nature of LCR remains invitation only innovation, not open collaboration, thus shutting off chunks of potential opportunity.
    Mike please let me know where you are in this process, I would hope to get involved.

    • Mike
      The LCR strategy on innovation pays little or no attention to social innovation. It seems to be all about jobs and the economy, and as we know there is more to life. It also seems to think that innovation is a fairly elite sport, best conducted in clusters. And is it about spikes – finding a small number of things (even one thing) that we as a region can be renowned for.

      And that in order to foster it you need dedicated buildings – preferably called science parks – or similar. I would rather have a few million people all looking to find better ways to live, collaborate and create. Grassroots innovation. The academics and the venture capitalists can fund their own futures…

      Our approach to innovation at Innovation Lab Leeds is that it is a mass participation sport, that frequently happens in the spaces between unlikely bed fellows. It is about conversations not ERDF bids.

      Keep watching this space. I hope to put together a more structured series of Innovation Labs next year.

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