Three challenges of citizen labs

Photo of a garage door with the inscription 'this door blocked'
Industrial garage door blocked, courtesy Morgane Perraud

Citizen labs —as it happens with open innovation, social innovation, etc.— are very interesting tools for opening up what is now the monopoly of public decision-making. They contribute to enable a citizen participation ecosystem with open, distributed, autonomous public infrastructures, so that an ecosystem of public governance is possible.

Citizen labs (fab labs, living labs, innovation labs, etc.) have already been around for a while. On the one hand, they seem to be a more than a hype and some have a long track of interesting experiences. On the other hand, they do not seem to clearly take off, be part of mainstream citizen activism and, most especially, have a fluid relationship with the Administration.

The main three challenges of citizen labs nowadays are the following:

  1. Getting to know how their actual functioning, what works and what does not work, why things succeed or just do not happen, which actors are more relevant and what is their role, what different relationships between actors and tasks are more productive, etc. Of course, there already is quite a bit of literature about the topic, but I don’t think that “the” model has already been found, if it even exists. Related to this, which is about planning and operating, nor is there yet —and this should indeed exist— a way in which (a) the activity and performance of the lab is assessed and (b) the impact (not the outputs) is evaluated. As said, we do have terrific examples of “best cases”, but most of the times they are merely descriptive and, when they try and dig into outputs and outcomes, they usually are too singular or specific to be applied elsewhere.
  2. If citizen labs are good —and I truly believe that they have some impact and at different levels— it is only natural that governments should promote them. But there are many doubts about how can bureaucracies promote citizen labs. Citizen labs dynamics are fragile, and they are specially sensible to excessive planning and tight structures. But bureaucracies need (or at least they so far work this way) detailed planning and quite inflexible structures. The paradox, thus, is how the Administration (a bureaucracy) should promote social innovation dynamics by means of fostering citizen labs without spoiling or denaturalizing them, how citizen lab dynamics and their results can be extrapolated and mainstreamed into the entire Administration without distorting them.
  3. Sum of the previous two is the issue of how to one goes from the pilot or the project into systemic transformation. When speaking the citizen lab lingo, one speaks about concepts such as designing, prototyping, piloting, replicating and scaling. The feeling, though, is that what happens in the laboratory is fascinating (and I really believe that it has enormous utility in itself in terms of raising awareness and creating social fabric). But mainstreaming citizen labs methodologies and activities is way different from piloting or even replicating. There is this feeling that citizen labs is for the impossible intersection of people (a) interested in politics, (b) knowledgeable about technology and innovation and (c) with plenty of time to spend. And the feeling is felt both at the street level as inside the Administration. Anything about innovation has to transform reality and daily procedures; in politics or decision-making, social innovation means transforming the Administration. I do not think it is already clear how citizen labs are transforming the Administration. Or, in other words, how their impact is embedded in new political and government practices, how they are incorporated into the enormous machinery of public administration.

It seems to me that, for the ones working in citizen participation and social innovation, we still have a long road ahead to provide more solid evidence, standard tools to “easily” develop and run citizen labs and citizen labs’ based social innovation projects, and strategies to have a (deep and thorough) impact on the Administration in particular and in public decision-making in general.