Over the past decade it seems like countless innovation labs have sprung up inside of government. But do they really work? Sometimes innovation and government can seem like a contradiction in terms. This week, Ryan co-hosts with Think Digital Associate, Nick Scott, to dig deep into not only the ways that governments themselves can become more innovative, but why government might actually be necessary for innovation to flourish.
Joining Ryan and Nick to explore this topic is Alex Ryan, Co-founder and CEO of Synthetikos. Alex has a tremendous breadth of experience having previously ran innovation labs in the United States, Alberta, and most recently, serving as Vice President of the Solutions Lab at MaRS in Toronto. He talks about what he has learned during his years of experience helping government and the social sector harness innovation, his belief that government can in fact be innovative, and how government is the ultimate opportunity to do innovation at scale.
If you ever have wanted to learn about what these things called innovation labs really are, what they are good for (and what they aren’t), this is the episode for you!
- What I learned from 5 years on MaRS – Blog post by Alex Ryan
- Observatory of Public Sector Innovation – OECD website
- Registration link for GovMaker Conference – June 14, 2023, Fredericton, NB
- Registration link for Alex Ryan and Nick Scott workshop: Mission Possible: Mission-Oriented Innovation for 21st Century Challenges – June 15, 2023, Fredericton, NB
- The GovMaker Podcast
Watch the Episode on YouTube
I'm Ryan Androsoff, welcome to Lets Think Digital. Innovation is one of the big topics that we talk a lot about on this podcast. You know, it's really, in some ways, what this show is all about: how we drive an innovative culture in government to bring the public sector into the modern digital age. And today's episode is going to be diving deep into one of the drivers of innovation in government, which is this thing known as the innovation lab. And I am really happy to be having joining me as co host for today's episode, Nick Scott, who's an associate with us here at Think Digital. Hey, Nick, welcome to the podcast.
Nick S 0:48
Hi, Ryan. Thanks for having me.
So Nick, you've had some professional experience in your career working in and around innovation labs, which I thought was kind of perfect reason for you to come on. And and help run this episode with me. Tell me a bit about you know, a little bit about your background and your experience in New Brunswick and beyond working around innovation in government?
Nick S 1:12
Sure, yeah. Well, I got my start, my career really started off in social innovation in the social sector, which introduced me to all these concepts of innovation and service design. And actually, data use was kind of the first thing I got into that sort of led me into government, actually, because I worked so closely with government in trying to provide services to the community and to the public. That, you know, I recognized a lot of these, these sort of challenges and very similar challenges. And that that, sort of following those cookie crumbs into government brought me to the New Brunswick Social Policy Research Network. And we were, we were trying to connect folks across academia, and the public sector and the social sector in order to solve some of our most intractable problems. And we quickly realized that we needed to do more than just connect people, we needed to create space, we need to create facilitated practice for them to work together and think together in ways that they don't normally do. And so we came across this concept of innovation labs back in, this would've been 2012, when we started doing this work. And we were coming up, you know, trying to think of ideas for a name for the our, our new lab program. And we did started doing searches for CoLab, actually, which led me to CoLab Alberta, and we discovered that that was already a thing, and made that connection with with with Alex Ryan. So we started a Social Innovation Lab back then. And then I went into government and started a lab inside of government.
Yeah, so that's so interesting, you know, the connections, the small world sometimes when it comes to these things, and so as you mentioned, Alberta set up an innovation lab called CoLab back well over a decade ago, and gentleman by the name of Alex Ryan was the founder of that, and he's going to be our guest on today's show, sharing a little bit about his experience there. And elsewhere, including MaRS, which I think Nick, you're familiar with MaRS?
Nick S 3:34
Yeah, absolutely. Again, when we were trying to figure out how to continue to advance our mission at the Research Network, we reached out to MaRS just ahead of them launching the solutions lab. They later created the GOV maker conference. And again, we ended up taking that on as well here in New Brunswick. So yeah, had a pretty, pretty close connection to MaRS for a while.
Wow, yeah, I didn't realize that. So lots of deep connections. As as we kind of set the stage for today's episode where we're going to be diving deep into this question of what are innovation labs? How are they useful? And how do we really kind of spark innovation in government? So really, you know, I think we're lucky to have joining us for today, as our guest, Alex Ryan. And as Nick mentioned, you know, Alex helped to co found the CoLab Innovation Lab in Alberta. Was leading solution lab initiatives out of MaRS and Toronto for the last number of years. He's the co founder and CEO of a company called Synthetikos. And he just, you know, recently published a really interesting blog post on Medium that really kind of encapsulate a lot of his learnings coming from his five years at MaRS, which is, you know, one of the largest most established and I think most respected innovation hubs in North America based out of downtown Toronto, so I'm excited to dive into the conversation with him. I suspect you are too, Nick.
Nick S 5:05
Alex, great having you joining us here on the podcast. I want to start off with what's probably a pretty simple question, but might actually be a complex one in the end, which is, what is an innovation lab? You know, we hear about innovation labs, in government and private sector. I think in the last few years, they kind of particularly became in vogue in the public sector. And curious, you know, as somebody who's got deep experience working in this space, how would you define what an innovation lab is?
Alex R 5:38
Hi, Ryan, thanks for having me. So, yeah, it's a simple question. But as you say, it's it's one that we've really struggled to answer in the field. What is a, what's an innovation lab? What's a public and social innovation lab? So I'm working on our lab right now called the future of hockey lab. Its goal is to reimagine hockey. And we actually would just put out our cohort recruitment. And we wanted to recruit from communities that may not be part of the innovation community, and may not even be part of the hockey ecosystem. So I actually asked ChatGPT, this question, I said, explained to me like I'm an eight year old, what is a social innovation lab. And so ChatGPT said, a Social Innovation Lab is a dedicated space where diverse people work together to come up with new and creative ways to solve problems that affect our communities and the world. Just like how scientists work in a lab to come up with new inventions and medicines, people in the Social Innovation Lab use their ideas and creativity to make things better for everyone. So that's not a bad answer, I thought it was pretty good. And I do often hear social innovation labs and public innovation labs compared to scientific labs. The one, the one limitation with that analogy, I spent the first decade of my career as a kind of a scientist in a research lab. And I was very much an adherent of Karl Popper. Kind of the falsification this logic of science is that science comes up with theories, and then tries its hardest to disprove them. That's how you make progress. But when you're in a social lab, or a public innovation lab, and you're trying to make a systems change, it's the easiest thing in the world to disprove it, because like you're trying to do something that hasn't been solved before. So it's actually kind of flipped on a head. And like, you have to take the dream of a different future and make that real. So that's how ChatGPT explains it. My definition of an innovation lab is a lab is a container for diverse people to focus on a complex challenge together. It provides a safe space to have difficult conversations, dream about radically better futures, experiment with solutions, and start to scale those solutions through sparking social movements, growing markets and changing regulations. And so there's two things I just want to call out in that kind of definition. One is that labs are intended for complex challenges. If you've got if your car breaks down, you don't need an innovation lab, take it to the mechanic. Like, if you've got a wildfire like they do out in Alberta right now, don't form a lab, it's gonna be too slow. This is when there's a really intractable problem, and you need to get to the roots of the problem. And the second thing, the use of the word container I really like because a container protects, like creates a space for a safe conversation. But a container also generates pressure and creative tension. And so it's that, that, that kind of combination between incubating and allowing new ideas to take root, but also putting a bit of urgency and tension into it. And then the finally, the thing I'll say is that anyone who sets up a lab, the goal is to shift a system that's holding this wicked problem in place. And if you look at the literature, that's something that takes 10 to 40 years to do. So. It's definitely not a quick fix. You're in it for the long game.
Yeah, I think that's a really interesting starting point. And I like this notion of the container. I think there's that's an interesting kind of characteristic around it. Nick, I'm just curious to bring you in on this. I mean, you're you know, as we talked about, you're somebody who's been involved in the innovation space, you know, yourself in government, been involved, you know, with with leading innovation labs, how does Alex's kind of definition sit with you? Does that work for you? And, you know, when you're sitting around the Thanksgiving table in Fredericton, and people are asking you what you do for a living? How do you explain to them, you know, what innovation is?
Nick S 9:46
I think I'm gonna have to lean on ChatGPT at some point to explain to my family what I do, because it's still, I'm still not cracking that nut just yet. But I mean, first of all, I like ChatGPT's definition of an innovation lab as well as Alex's, we often use that term terminology container, as well. And it's a separate container from the sort of regular day to day operations of the organization that is in or the sector that it's in, where you have an opportunity to work in ways that you don't normally get to work, right. And I think maybe it brings a question out for me, I have a couple of questions actually, following Alex's definition. I mean, one, we often talk about how these labs are not just spaces with cool furniture, but there's there's an actual practice that needs to take place, a facilitated practice. You know, because you can throw people into a room. And, you know, and the room can be as different as you want it to be, but they may still operate in similar ways as they used to. What kind of things have you seen work in the past when you bring folks together in this way? To help them kind of unlearn some of those old behaviors? Or, yeah, like, tell me a bit about the the behavioral side or the the social side of bringing people together in this way?Alex R:
Yeah, great question. There's definitely some unlearning because we are like, you're not going to get to innovation from a comfortable space. And if if the current norms and patterns of behavior and ways of meeting and problem solving are part of the problem, then yeah, there's absolutely unlearning that has to happen. And then you're bringing together people from diverse backgrounds, sometimes from the C suite down to people who have lived experience of homelessness. So like, how do you mediate and bridge those very different kind of dynamics between the stakeholders in the room and the power dynamics that come along with that? There's this quote that, like architecture is the body language of organizations. And I like that, when thinking about, like, imagine you're hosting people to a party. And that's a bit what our lab is, and what's their first impression? How are they greeted when they arrive? How do you make them feel comfortable and welcome? How do you build, start to build trust between participants? How do you create, you know, a level setting of the power dynamics. So like, one thing that's really great is circle practice, something we get from indigenous practices, and to sitting in a circle and telling stories. There is no head of the table in a circle. And so that's one thing. Another thing is paired walks, getting people to go on walks together and chat, and just get to know each other, try and pair up the two most diverse people in the room with each other. Everyone find someone who's most different from themselves, go for a walk, talk about your motivation for being part of the lab, find some connections, build some trust. So that's how you're gonna start to unlearn. And, you know, and now you're out in nature, and you're, like, you're not even in an office space. And so the other thing is, like, ask people to make some reflective notes before they start talking, gives- there's this one-two-four-all technique that you just like, make your note, pair up with someone, square up, and then talk as a group. And then it allows the introverts to kind of get their ideas out. And everyone gets a chance to think through the problem. So like the other kind of methods that I found useful. And then finally, visualization, I'm a huge fan of rich design space of turning the lab into kind of a, an art gallery of, of images and quotes and words and infographics and data that explained like that describes the problem. And when when people sit across the table from each other, they tend to deep in the trenches and debate. But when people get up on the wall and start drawing together, then all of a sudden, you're building on each other's ideas, and that can totally change that dynamic.Ryan:
Yeah, I think this is an interesting kind of dynamic around this notion on the one hand, you know, you want people to be comfortable, you want to build those bonds, and that social glue, but then a little bit to what you were getting at Nick, this idea that you also need discomfort as part of the process right? And Alex, as you were saying, you know, this innovation lab process is really about getting people to shed some of their own beliefs. So it's an interesting tension around that. And I think that notion of kind of comfort and discomfort being kind of, you know, symbiotic as part of that processes is interesting insight. And this is, I mean, this is obviously, you know, a bit of a different approach to solving problems, if I can put it that way than I think a lot of public sector institutions are used to, right? And, you know, so in the last decade, at least, certainly, from my vantage point, there has been kind of this explosion of, you know, innovation labs of different flavors that have popped up in governments here in Canada and around the world. Alex, you were involved in setting up one of the first provincial level ones that I'm aware of in Canada, the CoLab. wondering if you could share a little bit about, you know, the impetus and kind of the mission behind the CoLab that was set up for the Alberta government. And also, you know, this was, I think back in 2017, you know, looking at it, you know, from five, six years later, you know how well did it work? What's the impact of it been?Alex R:
Yeah, thanks. Good question. Yeah, I started, you know, in 2014. In Alberta, and yeah, at the time, you're right, there's maybe three labs in Canada, and then it grew to over 50. And then interesting, like, like, a lot of these labs have died off, which I'm happy to talk to as well. But, yeah, at the time, very few labs around and it was actually a previous chapter of my career, I was down in the US working for the US military, bringing the kind of CoLab methods that Nick talked about, from systems thinking, design thinking into the strategic planning process of the US Army. And I was teaching at the School of Advanced Military Studies, they, they call this the place for, for Jedi Knights to kind of go and study as they become, they shift from tactical to operational level in war. And so we used to joke that if they're, if the students are Jedi Knights that made us the Jedi Masters. But the it was a it was a very interesting environment to be in. And one of my students that I supervised his master's thesis at that school, James Allen, he retired from the Canadian military, joined the Government of Alberta first as Executive Director and then as an assistant deputy minister. And he called me up one day and said, that kind of thinking you're giving to the US Army, we need that in the Government of Alberta. And that was the impetus was that he had seen the power of this approach in the military context. And he's like, Alberta needs this too. And there were quite a few retired military officers. The deputy minister at the time, Jim Ellis, Daniel wood- Woodworth, one of the ADMs, so it was, yeah, that was kind of like, where this idea came in from that was the origin. And so we set up this this lab to try and- I had been quite convinced that the methods I applied in defense were not unique to the defense industry, I thought they had much broader applicability. And I really wanted to test that out. And so when I was offered to, like, build a studio space inside the government to build a team of seven people, and to come up and move to sunny Edmonton, that was an offer I couldn't refuse. And so, so yeah, we I was there for four years, the lab itself ran for a total of seven years. And, yeah, we learned a ton, we worked on 150 different projects across every ministry of government, we were within the Department of Energy, but we had a mandate to work cross ministry and work on all the big policy files. And the kind of thinking that we applied, got adopted in a lot of different places, like all of a sudden, Strathcona County, a little County Municipal, is advertising for systemic designers. So it's like, okay, this is a thing. The University of Alberta and Nate and the local colleges are starting to offer this as a subject in political science and in their curriculum. The UNDP came and saw what we're doing, and they took it, they launched this program where they had, they had this incredibly bold initiative to, to launch 91 accelerator labs in 115 countries globally. And some of the CoLab team kind of went and helped them to set that up. And then just even last year, the British Design Council, they're kind of they have the most famous picture of the design method, the double diamond that probably your listeners might be familiar with. Well, last year, they put out their first revision to that. And they've called it systemic design framework, which expands the Double Diamond now to be able to work on complex challenges. So so the kind of method that we're proving out in Alberta got real traction in a lot, a lot of different levels and a lot of different places. And even though the lab itself closed down, there's this thing that we set up, we knew that building community practice was going to be really important. So we ca- we built something called the systemic design exchange. And in a couple of weeks, they're going to run the 39th kind of iteration of that. And it's sponsored by the city of Edmonton by the skill society. It's a true multi level of government, cross sector, civil society, consultants and lots of different people gather together just to explore the techniques. So So yeah, it was very interesting, this crazy little experiment. We tried setting up a lab inside the government back in 2014. And, and it continues to kind of continues to kind of ripple out into the world in different ways.Ryan:
And I'm just, you know, I'm curious on this. So you had this thesis, you know, coming into it essentially your hypothesis that the approaches you were taking with the Defense Department in the US would apply to kind of a broader public sector context. I'm curious if that was true, in the end, did you have to is the same way that you kind of approached innovation in a military context? Did those same techniques kind of copy and paste into kind of a broader public sector context? Or I guess the deeper question I want to get at is, do you think kind of the innovation practice is very context specific? Or are they're kind of generally applicable approaches that can work for any organization?Alex R:
Yeah, it's a super interesting question. And something I've thought a lot about, because I have worked, you know, five years as a management consultant in the in the corporate sector, started my own business. So I've had that experience. I've spent about half my career inside government in Australia and Canada. I've also spent five years at MaRS, which is a charity being an Executive leader there. So thinking about the tri sector context. And yeah, it was very interesting to me, like going from military culture, trying to transform a million person organization that is the US Army in the middle of fighting two wars, to going into Alberta. And then, like trying to trying to figure out energy transition in an economy that was so deeply connected with the oil sands, so. So yeah, the one thing I noticed, like one thing, I have tremendous respect for the military and the US military in particular, is their planning ability and their implementation ability. And one of the things that struck me the most in the transition between military and, and public sector, is that there's much more of an action bias and implementation and a planning capacity in the military. And in in government, I thought, these conversations never land, they just keep going around in circles. Yeah, so that was kind of like a striking. And, like, I just realized that people in the military, like these students, I was teaching at Sam's, they had two or three master's degrees already. If you're in the army, you spend about 20% of your entire career training. So they are incredibly good leaders, incredibly good planners, great executors, and they've just had all this investment into their competency. And in the public sector, you know, obviously, they're not funded to the same extent, not trained to the same extent, you don't know what what background someone's had, whether they're a policy or what background and so there's a lot less predictability in how someone can can take an idea and execute and implement. But, but I would say that, like my, my reflection across all the sectors is that the tool sets like the actual methods and techniques are very, very similar. But the cultures are very, very different. And the incentives are very different. And so if you take like, if you take a team of people from the corporate sector, and you throw them into government and give them the design tools and say go and do an innovation lab, they will fail spectacularly. And I would have failed spectacularly coming to the Government of Alberta, if if we hadn't very deliberately built the CoLab as 50% outsiders 50% insiders, working with someone like Keren Perla, who had been a decade in the government had been in the the Executive Council knew all of the actors knew how to get things done. The inside outside combat combination was invaluable. And so yeah, that's my experience is that the domain matters that you're working in, like the sector, and the private, public, nonprofit, a military matters from a cultural lens, the tools will be quite similar, but how you can rally around the stakeholders, how you convince people, how you sell a method, where's the hook? You always have to find something to hook it into. In the military, we hooked innovation into the future planning process, what they call the J five shop. In the Government of Alberta we hooked strategic foresight and design into the strategic planning process and enterprise risk management process. You need to find that hook you need to find the thing that integrates it, or else you're building an isolated, like silo for cool kids to hang out. And you don't actually drive any impact.Ryan:
Yeah, I mean, that notion of hook and impact, I think is a really important consideration on this. Nick, I'm just curious how this kind of squares with your own experience because you've also done innovation work in a few different contexts, would you kind of share the same view that, you know, the toolkit can be the same but kind of how you deploy the toolkit is very context specific.Nick S:
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, as Alex is talking, I'm just like having a bunch of aha moment and it kind of reliving a lot of the work that we were doing in GNB. I mean, one thing in particular, about the different contexts between the military and government, I think one thing, you know, like you were saying, Alex, 20% of the time is on training. And it's not just book training, like, it's actually working together on something, it's actually running drills it's actually happening in a three dimensional way. Whereas in government, we don't do that kind of training very often, or if at all, I noticed anyways, it's a lot of very much, you know, more paper, more two dimensional types of training and not the kind of team based three dimensional work. And so that's a really interesting thing that I think we brought into government with the lab space, right, is that you start to then invite people from around the enterprise into this space to actually start working together in ways that they don't get to in a three dimensional kind of way, you know, whether it's through prototyping, visualization, etc. The other thing, that ring that rings really true for me, and I think aligns really well with social movement principles is bringing in some outsiders, how critical that is. And I think we were very, we were able to do that, as well, when we hired like a ton of innovation interns. But yeah, these are, these are all things that are really ringing true for me, I'm really curious about how do you then, you know, give executives what they need to remain committed and continue to support the work, I think that was a big challenge for us is that you don't want to continue, you don't want to create the space where you're replicating what's already happening. But just with cool furniture, but that you are, but you have to also create things that are somewhat familiar and are still somewhat getting that lower level job done for the executive, do you have any insight into, you know, how you are able to do that, or?Alex R:
It does definitely challenge we faced as well. And it goes back to my point before, like, if the whole point of setting up one of these labs is to drive systems change, then that's a long game. And, you know, election cycles, attention spans, like audits on return on investment, like you're gonna have to show results before you've actually changed any systems. So if you only focus on the long game, then you will be done. Like you will lose your your sponsorship and your funding, before a couple years are up. On the other hand, if all you do is the like the innovation theater and, and like the super like low hanging fruit, then you'll also be out of business, because people see through that, and it doesn't drive impact. So the way I think about it is it's a portfolio approach. And I deliberately in the portfolio, I deliberately try and create a barbell, like the traditional portfolio that you'd see on a like a McKinsey portfolio is 70% core 20% adjacent 10% transformative. But actually like for a lab, I think you'll either need to be doing like super high value, quick wins the like, and they're not quick wins in the traditional sense of the word. But there's a lot of fundamentals that can be done by an innovation lab to just make government work better, like better meetings, like the meetings and government, they're all about downloading. Nobody speaks truth to power. They're very performative. And so you can hold a very different kind of meeting if you hold it in a lab. And lab people are great facilitators. So let them facilitate strategic conversations, it gives the lab really good context on the strategy and the mindset of executives, it gives executives really great facilitation and use of their time. So that's something that's like, it doesn't take a lot of effort. But it provides a lot of direct value to executives and builds, builds relationships and buy in and allows you the cover to go and do the deeper work and you keep the deeper systems change kind of off the radar as much as possible. But then when you've got real results and real impact, then you make a big big deal out of it. But like that's the barbell you you do really fast turnaround low, low effort, high impact work, and then you you dedicate the rest of your resources to the big transformative shifts that you're trying to make. And, and that's how to balance that that demand.Ryan:
Yeah, I mean, that makes a lot of sense to me and resonates with some of my own experience in this in this space as well. Even with things like the Canadian Digital Service that we launched federally, you know, there's always that notion of, you know, What's your theory of change? And as you said, how do you balance off kind of those short wins to build credibility and momentum versus the long term systems change? So we had made this kind of throwaway comment earlier about a lot of labs have died off. And I do think there really was this kind of boom, at least here in Canada, of Public Sector Innovation Labs, you know, five to 10 years ago. And as I think both of you have noted, there's less of them around today. I mean, Alex, maybe I'll start with you. And Nick, please jump in on this too. Like, are you, do you think the reason why we've kind of had this culling of some of the labs has been because they didn't take the barbell kind of change approach? What do you kind of attribute to the fact that a lot of them seem to have not been very kind of long lived in terms of their duration, even if some of their impacts are continuing to live on in different ways?Alex R:
Yeah, I mean, I think part of it was 1000 flowers bloom, like a lot of people watch a TED talk. And then they're like, I'm going to launch a lab and get some students in, and we're going to change the world. And that didn't happen. So. So it's just like a natural culling of some, some kind of superficial lab approaches. But even like the big first generation labs, like Mine Lab and the Mexico City Lab, the ones that people would hold up globally as standards, they also got killed off in that same kind of timeframe. And so I think it's not just like a culling, but it's, it's more a maturity of, of the of the ecosystem in the sense that when these ideas were brand new, you had to deliberately carve out this container, this subculture that would operate with very different values and very different methods than the rest of government. Because that was the only way that you could allow it to take root. But of course, as soon as you do that, you're now creating something that is ripe for organ rejection, like it's, you're painting a target on its back, it's by calling it a lab, like it now has to justify itself. And labs are really susceptible to changes in leadership, most of the labs were killed at the point where that leader moved on. And most of the people who want to leave an- lead an innovation lab, honestly don't want to be career bu- bureaucrats, like they're almost there half a foot out of government anyway. So like, it doesn't take much for them to decide to move on. So these things are inherently difficult to sustain. But, but also, like, I think the positive news out of it is that the methods that were so cutting edge, you know, a decade ago, are now just mainstream, like everybody knows about human centered design. Everybody knows how to do ethnography and user engagement. People know about brainstorming like and, you know, prototyping like these are not terms that are foreign to the average public servant anymore. So, so I think like, I gave a speech in that transition period where I was moving between, between the CoLab and MaRS, I went to London for the Social Innovation Exchange, the sixth social innovation event. And I was asked to talk about the last decade of social innovation and the coming decade. And my vision for that was like, I want all the labs to die, I want this to be mainstreamed to the point where it's just become in the water supply. So I think like, there's always limits when you, when you no longer have the dedicated team that goes really deep on the method. It's hard to evolve and innovate the practice. But generally, I view it as a positive trend, that we're not building these siloed labs that, that for the cool kids to hang out. And you see that in the corporate sector as well, that those labs are very rare. If they're only just doing ideation, front, front, fuzzy front end type work.Ryan:
Yeah, I mean, I think that's, that's really interesting, the notion that this is a positive sign in some ways of maturity that the labs themselves are dying off, Nick, like, is that kind of, will you take a similar view that the labs almost kind of act as like a bootloader for innovation, but then over time, you know, ideally it mainstreams in?Nick S:
I, I really appreciate the the optimism of that of that take for sure. Yeah, and I think there's a couple of things that you said, Alex, that I was I was all again, thinking, Yeah, this is this is ringing so true. In my experience, I mean, one being susceptible to changes in leadership is a big one. And we see that quite a bit, especially leaders who are, you know, interested in this kind of idea, right and, and challenging the status quo in a very authentic way. They also don't stick around even as executives or deputies or what have you. And when they go and someone with a different idea comes in their place, you know, those things no longer have have the support that they had. The other one was that superficial approach Like we've seen, we see that a lot. And I don't think it's intentional, right? Like, I think it's you said something earlier as well that I think speaks to this, we we create the cool space, we have the really awesome mandate. And then we staff it up with folks who have been in the public service for, you know, 10, 20 years, and ask them to do a whole whole new thing and don't bring in anyone new. And I think when you see that, it's very difficult to change those kinds of embedded behaviors and habits.Ryan:
Well, and that talent mix, Nick, I think that we were talking about right, that notion, I think, Alex is it was a great point, that you had that intentional notion of 50% from inside, 50% from out, because having it balance too far in one end or the other, you know, has some real risks around that, obviously.Nick S:
Yeah, absolutely. Because if you bring in 100% outsiders, which my lab was actually staffed with 100% outsiders, right, and then supported by some, some folks at the executive level, who were very forward thinking, were aligned with their peers across the country in terms of supporting innovation and experimentation in a public sector context. And then they leave and you have 100% outsiders, they also leave.Ryan:
Right, the immune system kicks back in, right, so.Nick S:
Yeah, yeah. What are some of the big sort of the things that the lasting impacts despite the lab being gone? For you, Alex? Like, what do you what do you see as some of the things that stuck around after the lab left?Alex R:
Yeah, I think it's the community of practice that exists is that is being encoded into, into methodologies. Like, like the Design Council. And you know, just last week, I got a, I got a message from, from somebody in, in Germany, who had read the Follow The Rabbit, systemic design guide, that's part of the open data collection on the Government of Alberta website. And they just jumped onto LinkedIn and wrote me a note. And then just said, Thank you so much, I thought I was the only person who thought this way. And now, like, I realized that there's a language and a framework and a methodology behind it. And, and it's given me so much confidence that I can like practice that form of innovation. And so I just took a screenshot of that and sent it to Roya Damabi, who was like the co-lead author on that she's a rock star now with Coeuraj Design, but. But yeah, it's, it's just great to see that you put these things out there. And like, we just published it on the open data, we didn't, weren't really looking to spread the word, we just put it up on the portal, and people find it, and it's been put into curriculums and so forth. And so yeah, that's, they're the kind of lasting impacts that that I really enjoy.Ryan:
Yeah, that's, I mean, that's always really gratifying, right? To see how those unexpected ways that these kinds of seeds that get planted take off. Alex, I do want to talk a little bit about your experience at MaRS, and not Mars, the Red Planet, but MaRS, the organization in downtown Toronto, you know, after you lead CoLab, in Alberta, you made the move to Toronto, to go work at MaRS. And for our listeners who may not be familiar with MaRS as an organization, maybe you can explain a little bit about what they do. And, you know, be quite interested, you wrote a very interesting piece on medium a few weeks back about your recent transition, leaving MaRS and kind of the five years there and what that experience was, like, we'd love for you to kind of summarize, you know, what, what motivated you to go there and what the experience was, like, you know, in that five years, that you were leading innovation from that different perspective, you know, from outside of government, but still working on a lot of social problems?Alex R:
Yeah, happy to talk about that. So yeah, I was just I was I just left the Government of Alberta to start my own company, Synthetikos, and was really happy doing that. So that was really the dream for me. But then I got a call from Joeri van den Steenhoven, who was running the solutions lab at MaRS at the time. And he said, Alex, I think you're the only person in Canada who could do my job. And I have to move home to the Netherlands for family reasons. So so he said, would you have a chat with Ilsa, the CEO and, and I said, Well, you know, I'm not looking for jobs. But you know, I've got a client meeting there, Nick, in a couple of weeks, so happy to drop by MaRS. And so MaRS is this big, shiny building 1.5 million square feet in downtown Toronto, directly connected to the subway there, right between kind of University of Toronto and, and OCAD University and and then you've got Bay Street and all the financial districts so it's that perfect kind of bridging between research and commercialization. And, you know, because of the influence of people like Ilsa and, and Joeri and Adam Jagelewski and Allyson Hewitt and Tim Draimin. You know, MaRS was never just a tech hub, it was always had this vision of social innovation, social impact, and systems change, and some really amazing programming in that space. So, yeah, I came in had a chat to Ilsa, she was very, very persuasive. Like one of the people I admired the most, she's just incredible human being, so intelligent and articulate. And so yeah, she convinced me that, you know, I could have more impact on the MaRS platform. And so that was kind of the selling point for me was to be part of something bigger. And so yeah, it's pretty unique as a, as a not a not for profit charity, that has many lines of business that it is the real estate side of things, full 360 degree innovation ecosystem, supports 1400 startups across Canada grow into global companies in impactful sectors, like clean tech and health. And then yeah, this this kind of other social innovation side of things. So I joined to run the solutions lab. And then after a couple years, I was asked to take on a bigger role, and bring together five different teams, our data analytics team, the data catalyst, our what was formerly the Events Energy Center, and was kind of like transitioning into a fee for service consulting practice. The, the Innovation Challenges practice, as well as the solutions lab in the center for impact investing, doing social finance work, and so so yeah, it was a really wild ride in terms of like, just exposure to all these different innovation methodologies. And one of the things that attracted me the most to the role was the ability to take a lab project to scale. Like, I had done 100, 100 odd innovation labs inside the Government of Alberta. And I was convinced that this approach had real value and merit. But you know, I wanted to stick around and see something just to national scale. And so we had a couple of projects with that potential. And one of them on my very first day arriving at MaRS, Jerry Koh, he, he said to me, you know, don't know about this, this project, I think you should kill it off. And I can understand why he'd been very frustrated, it was very hard to do the fundraising for it. But I wasn't going to make that decision on my first day. So we stuck it out for a bit. And then Jerry was very successful in landing have a big investment from from ESTC. And so we then were able to kick it off as a full lab. And so the idea of it started as this youth skills and unemployment kind of lab that we ran with Rockefeller, and then with Starbucks and McConnell. And what we noticed was that every initiative to tackle youth employment started from the supply side of like, we've got these unemployed youth, let's skill them up, and then they'll be able to get jobs. And we're like, Well, why don't you start from where the source of power and leverages in the system? Why don't you go to the employers, they're the ones that actually have the jobs. And guess what employers can't get the talent that they want. And, you know, the employers want more diverse talent, talent that represents the communities that they are trying to serve. So if we can offer them a talent stream, then they ought to be interested in this. And so with Starbucks at the lead, we built this coalition of about 30, 30 employers. And so we had when I joined MaRS, we had this idea of this lab, but I really wanted to see it turn into something real and so, so yeah, I hired this amazing VP now, but she was the lead for, for the lab, for this lab project. Angela Simo Brown. And, yeah, we have over a period of the five years, we built it from just an idea in our head, we did a launch with Justin Trudeau came along we went to the Rexdale center and we got 300 kids into interviews and in a big job fair. But then we took that model and replicated it, we pivoted through the pandemic. We got 23,500 youth into, into jobs across Canada, their first meaningful job, most of them from racialized and varied backgrounds. And we did that all during a pandemic where youth employment was spiking up to 26%. So it was like seeing this problem, like the lab approach allowed you to see this wicked problem before it became a crisis. And then when the crisis hit, we already had a coalition of stakeholders. We built a process that like the hard nosed business decision from an HR department of a corporate, this is saving you money. It's quicker to hire and longer to retain the staff and you get more diverse talent that hits your DEI goals. And then for the youth, you just see it changes their lives, like these life changing moments for them. And it's such a great feeling. And for the, the community agencies, it's, you know, for them, like, the system is so fragmented across Canada, but we can provide some, some standardization, we can provide them with extra resources and supports, and a channel, like they all want employers to come in and offer jobs to their youth. And that's what we're offering. And so it's being that platform that mediates between a supply demand problem. And, and removes all of the barriers for youth to get into jobs. So, so that was like a really cool project. And then I was able to bring, convince a friend of mine, Mark Abbott, who had known some from before MaRS to actually join the MaRS team. He'd been building a lab called the engineering change lab. And this is a lab that was around, they framed the question of like, what is the highest higher potential for the engineering profession. And it was really they landed on to to be stewards of the bridge between society and technology. And so they came up with this idea of tech stewardship. And when I joined MaRS, this was before the Cambridge Analytica scandal. So there was this kind of, like the purpose of MaRS is to help innovators create a better world. And at the time, I joined MaRS that was kind of like, a common like, taken for granted myth in society that technology is for the good of society.Ryan:
Right? It was like the Google the Google ethos of like, you know, do no evil, right?Alex R:
Do no evil. Yes, Lincoln Valley, perpetuate this myth that technology progress is good. And then you had the tech lash against Cambridge Analytica. And then like, more recently, now, we've got the innovators themselves asking for a pause of six months of this technology, because everyone's freaking out about the downsides of generative AI and how powerful it's gotten so quickly. And so tech stewardship really is the solution to this problem of like, how do we actually think through and navigate the values tensions? How do we design tech and bend the arc of tech towards good? How do we, how do we think about technology that's purposeful, inclusive, responsible, and regenerative. And this is really like, it's not a silver bullet solution. But it's a practice that if we have people who are who are building and using innovation, to develop this practice in the mindset, then we're going to be able to redirect technology to get more of the promise and less of the peril. And, and so, yeah, that's another kind of lab that we again, it was six years of really deep thinking by a great co creation of community. And then we built that out into a into a practice program that in the last year 6000 people from across Canada and around the world taking, and there's so much thirst for this from students like engineering students today, they want to be ethical in their application of, and they want to grapple with these, these morally complex issues, and have tools to do that. So. So there's a couple of examples of I mean, I did a lot, a lot of different projects in mission oriented innovation, in innovation challenges, all different kinds of projects. But specific to this innovation lab conversation, there are a couple of stories that really, really stood out to me in terms of being able to take the lab idea to scale and prove that this is not just people sticking, putting a bunch of sticky notes up on a wall. But these are is that can actually shift systems.Ryan:
No. And they're great stories. And I think they're very illuminating around the potential, as you said, right, of that kind of system shift and different way of thinking. So I you know, as we kind of kind of come to close off this conversation a bit, I really want to get out to kind of one important point for a lot of our listeners who are tend to be in the government sector. Right. And I'm gonna throw a contention out there. And I want to see, Nick, tell me if you agree with this. So my contention is, that government doesn't do a very good job in innovation, that I think government struggles. Do you agree, Nick?Nick S:
I have to I have to agree.Ryan:
Yeah. Okay. I was gonna say for those who are listening, Nick was nodding silently and thinking hard.Nick S:
Well, let's if we throw it out as a contention and Alex feel free to disagree with me, but you've had you know, I think unique experience driving innovation projects in the public sector. You've worked in kind of the third sector, you know, not for profit, social innovation sector. You've worked with the private sector as well. What do you think makes innovation particularly hard in that kind of government public sector context, right? Like why are we seeing governments just adopting that youth employment model that you were pioneering in MaRS? Why did they have to essentially fund MaRS to do it for them, versus doing them themselves? And I'll just add to this, I mean that my observation has always been in this space for my experience, government's okay at doing pilot projects, but it's really bad at scaling innovation, right? It seems to have real trouble taking an idea that seems to have merit and really kind of scaling it up. Curious to get your take on, you know, why that is so challenging in government. And or if you think that's true, if you think government is a more challenging place for innovation than some of the other sectors we've been talking about.Alex R:
So it's a really interesting question, and I'm going to first disagree with you, and then I'll agree with you. On the counter argument, like I think if you listen to someone like Mariana Mazzucato, she is big on the role of government and that government needs to take a stronger role. And when you actually analyze some of the biggest successes out of Silicon Valley, they were built on the back of 90% of the work being done by government in the early research and development before the commercialization so. So I think, like, innovation looks different in government. And there are areas where only government can innovate. And one of those is regulations, because you cannot outsource the innovation of of new regulations, because otherwise, that's called regulatory capture. So I think that there are certain areas where government can and must and does lead. But it's not the kind of product innovation that your typical startup does. Like governments tend to be terrible at products. Product development is really tough to do insider, risk averse, conservative government enterprise, you want to be inside a lean, agile, venture capital back startup to do that kind of work. But yeah, so I think like if people want to find out like see good news stories about government innovating, they should go to the OECD observatory of Public Sector Innovation. And look at things like Uganda's transparent infrastructure transparency initiative, that are better involve citizens in decision making about infrastructure projects, or Australia's pilot in rules of code to around vaccinations that allows for machine readable regulations, or Singapore, creating the SingPass for this smart nation digital transformation. And here in Canada, the social innovation social finance strategy is documented on that website. It's a great example of cross ministry, innovation for a $755 million Innovation Fund. So like, check those out. And you can be inspired by the good stuff that governments do in really amazing innovation. On the flip side, yeah, any of us who've tried to innovate inside government, it's frustrating, it's, it's, it's a long game. It requires a lot of persistence. And it requires a lot of belief in the public vision, the public mission and the public good. And, you know, from my own perspective, what makes it difficult is, firstly, culture. The number one thing that everyone complains about is risk aversion. And it's just a cumulative effect of just like, there's less risk to kicking the can down the road of not taking the decision of not taking a risk than there is to just doing that. Process orientation versus outcome orientation, public servants always default to the process. And really what drives innovation is an outcome focus, there's a low bias to action, which I've already talked about, and the bigger and the bigger and the higher level of government becomes, becomes more and more internally focused versus citizen centered. So like, those are the barriers and then when incentives, I think there are two big incentives. One is don't rock the boat, at all costs, avoid surprise and embarrassment, failure, making waves and making enemies, particularly if it's going to end up in the newspaper, and it's going to embarrass the minister. Like that's the worst thing you can possibly do. In the private sector, you risk investment dollars, but in the public sector, you're not only risk dollars, you risk reputation, when you make a mistake. Then there is the incentive to keep the routine going just perpetuate the last year. That's probably the thing that government is the very best at doing is doing exactly the same thing as they did the year before. Then you look at the management systems. So you've got the futile authorities, you've got excessive oversight and accountability. You've got antiquated and cumbersome performance management system and no meaningful rewards. And then you're like, Well, why aren't our people like innovating? It's like, of course they're not. And then you look at the structure, like the one of the things that every single workshop I hold in government it's like, well What's the problem here? The one thing that everyone always draws in their visual is silos, like we're too siloed. But we designed those silos, it's called the Westminster system like that's, that's by design very much, very intentional to give every minister their own set of priorities and portfolios, and for the deputy ministers to act like CEOs of their own portfolios, and so. And yet, in the 21st century, all of the crises we're facing, fall in the cracks between the ministries. So, so and then, like, I've already talked about meetings, that's another, another piece of it. So like that, to me is like, it is cultural, its structural, its incentives, its management systems. And it's, it's how we hold meetings and just big waste of time. And then just to speak to your second point, if you'll allow me to, to do that. Like the, the, if you've got a startup with an innovation, and they want to scale it, the first bit of advice you'll give them is do a capital raise to extend your runway. Scaling is a multi year journey. So you need multi year funding, and you need to be able to attract the best talent and build a scalable product. But in government, you know, there's, there's rules, that's, you know, you just can't go out and raise venture capital. And so you're going to be right limited by your annual, annual budget. And that's been set to run operations, it's not been set to scale the adoption of a big idea. And you already have all of these limits on talent attraction levers compared to the private sector. So you can't get all of the niche skills you need to scale a product. And then, yeah, like, there's, there's the leadership turnover thing that Nick already spoke to, when I was at CoLab. In four years, I had four premiers, two deputy ministers, five ADMs. So after a while, you feel like you're in foster care. And there's no guarantee your sponsor is going to understand what you did, let alone value it. And of course, the private sector has turnover. But in the in the public sector, you know, with four year political cycles, you can get a 180 degree shift in ideology. And then all of a sudden, anything that was ever initiated under the previous administration is automatically labeled a bad idea. So, so that creates some problems. And then I'll just flip back to the positive, which is the really big positive about scaling in government is that government's already operating at scale. Like you have the amount of grants and funding and regulations to shift entire systems, and literally do that overnight. So when we were developing regulations for the sharing economy at MaRS, and our recommendations were adopted by the City of Toronto, all of a sudden, 3 million people were given choice and protection, whenever they caught an Uber or stayed in an Airbnb. And it's the same if you can simplify a tax return, or automate a license renewal, you can have a positive impact on millions of lives. But you really need to have a solid, really solid evidence base, and build really trusted relationships with the regulators and operators within the existing system to even get the opportunity to make that change. And I think that's where innovation teams have sometimes struggled, is that they're not well enough connected into the people in government who actually hold the levers. And, and that's, that's the key to getting adoption inside the government.Ryan:
Yeah, I mean, Alex, I think those are some really profound points. I mean, we on this show, we talk a lot about the impact of structures, incentives and culture on either enabling or holding back, you know, kind of digital progress within government. And that's very true for innovation. And I just want to say your comment about government already operating at scale, I think is actually a really important one. I've never heard it quite phrased that way before, but it's true. A very smart friend of mine once said, you know, when you're in government, it's like you're trying to move a mountain an inch, but if you do it, you've moved an entire mountain an inch, right. And that scale of impact you can have, when you are able to kind of navigate that very difficult landscape is huge on that. This has been a really interesting conversation. I think we've we've uncovered a lot of great stuff. Nick, I want to throw it back to you to kind of close this, this section out. You and Alex have some interesting stuff coming up. For anybody who might be listening who's out on the East Coast in June. Why don't you tell us a little bit about the session that you're running together and about Govmaker?Nick S:
Sure, man, thanks for the opportunity. We're bringing back Govmaker. This was a conference that ran for five years previously, previous to the pandemic. And it was you know, it was a wildly successful conference that we actually borrowed from MaRS, who had done it in Ontario first and then thought, well, you know, You can take this and run with it. And so we're very fortunate to have that opportunity to host an annual dialogue and an opportunity to connect with folks across the country, and in many cases from around the world to talk about Public Sector Innovation, digital transformation and open government. So we're bringing that back this year scaled down a little bit for one, for one day. And it also will be marking the sunsetting of the New Brunswick Social Policy Research Network, which that's a, you know, a subject for another podcast episode probably. And then yeah, I'm really happy to have Alex in the, in the city for this. And so we're taking the opportunity to run a workshop, largely for managers. Right, Alex? On mission, mission, innovation. Yeah.Ryan:
That's great. So we'll put the links for both of those in the show notes and up on the screen for those who are watching on YouTube. But it'd be great chance to dive into this more for anybody who's going to be you know, in the in the vicinity, or wants to make a trip out there for Govmaker or for the workshop on the 15th. Alex, thanks so much. This was a really great conversation, I think we got into a lot of really, you know, interesting and meaty areas that are core to the challenges governments are facing, and no doubt will will continue this conversation down the road. But good luck on the new challenges you're taking on. And I look forward to discussing this more in the future.Alex R:
Thanks, Ryan. It was a blast. Thanks, Nick.Nick S:
Wow. So that was a really fascinating conversation with Alex. Nick, what, what resonated for you, what stood out for you from that conversation?Nick S:
There were there were a lot of nuggets that stood out for me. And I think we could have continued to have many different conversations, given the number of threads that Alex was presenting to us today. I think one that really stuck out to me was this idea that government is already operating at scale. And you know, when he said that, it just kind of it really resonated with me, you know, government is scale. Even if you're not working in government, if you want to scale a solution, a product or service, whatever. It's through government.Ryan:
It's like government by definition is at scale. Right?Nick S:
Yeah, that is scale. Yeah, absolutely. And I think that connected really well with another thing that's that stood out for me, which was when near the end, Alex was talking about the role of government in innovation. Right. You know, I think he used the the, the the concept of, you know, publicly funded research that led to the the iPhone, for example. You know, I think, again, it's, it's like government has a role both in enabling innovation and scaling innovation, right. And we have to go through government to do that. And regulation plays a role in that. Regulation plays a role in setting a standard, that actors within our society need to figure out how to meet that standard and exceed that standard.Ryan:
Yeah. Yeah. Because I think sometimes we fall into the trap, when we talk about government innovation, that innovation is something that is kind of, you know, the the antithesis to government, right.Nick S:
Where I think Alex did a really useful job of reframing that to say actually, like, through its regulatory powers, government almost kind of sets up the superstructure through which innovation can happen. And and I think it's true, right? I mean, I don't think you could have the kind of large scale societal innovation we've seen in the tech sector, if government hadn't put in place some of those building blocks that it was able to grow on top of and, and, you know, I think that's a really important reframing that, that it's worth people kind of thinking about. And I think for folks inside government and outside government, understanding almost the symbiotic relationship they have when it comes to innovation.Nick S:
Yeah, that's absolutely true. Absolutely true. I think, you know, government funds, also funds research, you know, whether it's funding research that leads to innovations or policies and, and regulatory that sort of set the stage for innovation to scale. They have a role, I think it's important to make the distinction, you know, at the system's level, government is the thing that scales and that, that, that does enable innovation, even though sometimes it's not innovative on the inside, right?Ryan:
Yeah, exactly.Nick S:
At the organizational level.Ryan:
Yeah. And because of that, it takes some different tactics, one, and the, the thing that keeps standing out to me is, everywhere I go keep seeing the Pac Man model, right, the whole idea of structures eating incentives, eating culture, eating strategy, and this really came out to me in, in today's conversation as again, you know, if we're going to think about how to enable new ways of doing things, we got to start thinking about how do we shift our structures and incentives in our organizations? Because I just don't see what the path forward is without that and we're going to fall into that trap of repeating what we've always done.Nick S:
Yeah, absolutely. And Alex addressed that as well. You know, that almost we're incentivized to not be innovative inside government. Right.Ryan:
The incentive is actually to repeat what you already have done. And be consistent, even if it's not the right thing.Ryan:
Right. And there are, and like in fairness, there's probably some cases where that's a feature not a bug, right? Yeah, hurry is where you don't want government to move too fast.Nick S:
100%, we want government to be stable and consistent, right, 100%. And this is why the concept of innovation labs is so important. Because we, we don't want to just scale whatever wild idea we have, or whatever thing is in vogue in the moment, we need to have those spaces to work in new ways, right, scale, we'll find ways to scale what works, and conduct safe to fail experiments in order to find out what does work, you know, and do proper, proper risk assessment, right, proper risk mitigation.Ryan:
So speaking of spaces, one of the things that came up was this notion of the importance of creating those kind of focus spaces to allow innovation to happen. So you've got one of those spaces. A really interesting event coming up, as we mentioned earlier. Govmaker, June 14, right? In Fredericton, New Brunswick.Nick S:
That's right. Yep, June 14, Fredericton, New Brunswick at the University of New Brunswick, we are bringing Govmaker back. And as I mentioned, this is this is a place for folks to become exposed to some of the leading thinking in our sector in the public and social sector, specifically around innovation, digital transformation and open government.Ryan:
And so we'll put the link for that in the show notes for anybody who's interested in looking into it further or buying a ticket to go attend. And then Nick, you've also got a kind of limited edition podcast that you've set up about Govmaker as well.Nick S:
Yeah, actually, we, we have brought in this podcast idea because we're sunsetting the New Brunswick Social Policy Research Network, and we wanted to take an opportunity to interview the folks who helped create the network to get some more, you know, stories from the leaders who were behind it, and the folks who benefited from it. And get those those documented because we want to be able to share the legacy but also the lessons for anybody who's trying to engage in network governance, or public sector innovation.Ryan:
That's great. No, I think that's it's a great initiative, and so glad that you taking the time to actually document some of that, some of that history that we sometimes lose in our organizations. So keeping that kind of organizational history live is really important. So check out the show notes. There'll be links for the podcast and for the Govmaker conference for those who are interested. Nick, thanks so much for being a co-host on today's episode. This was a lot of fun.Nick S:
Man, my pleasure. Love to be back anytime.Ryan:
Absolutely, we will make sure that happens. So let us know what you think. We'd love to hear your reactions to today's episode. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the #letsthinkdigital on social media. If you're watching this on YouTube, make sure to like and subscribe. And if you're listening to us on your favorite podcast app, please give us a five star review afterwards. And no matter where you're listening, be sure to share this with others in your network and tell them about the letsthinkdigital podcast. Today's episode of letsthinkdigital was produced by myself, Wayne Chu, Mel Han and Aislinn Bornais. And I was joined by my co-host, Nick Scott, thanks so much for listening and let's keep thinking digitally.