Why it is important to conceptualize Spaces for Social Innovation

I have recently written my master thesis, basing my research on “spaces for social innovation”, understood by us as physical spaces that enable and aid social innovation. We recognized the need of a clean concept with clear characteristics with which different initiatives can be compared and reviewed but I left that idea aside. Recently I was listening to Will Norman from The Young Foundation discussing the “What works” project during the introduction to Experimental Spaces for Social Innovation conference organized by Social Innovation Exchange and the ambiguity built around spaces for social innovation returned to me.

 “The fifth area was looking at this enormous growth in the number and types of, for the lack of a better word we can call them innovation labs, hubs or… but I think experimental spaces for social innovation is a nice way of thinking about these. These can range from being online and offline, they can be physical buildings, they can be networks of actors, they can be just sort of shared approaches but we really saw how there was quite a widespread growth of these and a hunger for more of them and people wanting to set up a lot of these institutions in different parts of the world.” (Will Norman, min 6.35 -7.14)

Searching for a better word

According to Social Innovation Exchange, experimental spaces for social innovation are labs, hubs, incubators and accelerators that focus on systematic experimentation: “quick development, testing and iteration, implementing and scaling of game-changing solutions to the ‘wicked problems’ facing society”. Incubators are often associated with offering the tools for the successful development of a social start-up or initiative while accelerators usually come at an earlier stage in the process. Continuing the classification, The Waterloo Institute of Social Innovation and Resilience splits labs into “change and design labs for social innovation” while also proposing an open-source design for a social innovation lab. A deeper search reveals several definitions and different classifications for these four types of experimental spaces for social innovation.

Merete Grimeland and Helen Bakos explore the difference between hubs, labs and co-working spaces, distancing themselves from the experimental perspective and approaching a more collaborative one towards spaces for social innovation. In their interview we see Peter Ramsdem from Hub London who uses the distinction between incubation (process) and incubators (place) but also uses a spectrum of support offered to explain the variety of spaces. Geoff Mulgan discusses different models of incubators with slight changes while Eli Malinsky from CSI Torronto combines different types of spaces to explain their activity.

Essentially, all these types of spaces have different models at their core based on several characteristics related to their main activity, form, funding, way of organizations and many other. Different combinations of these characteristics lead to different models associated, or not, with current used names for what, together, represent spaces for social innovation. Some organizations find themselves adopting several models while others invent their own.

Hubs, labs, and other names of describing as space for social innovation are also being used as buzzwords. Two different names can be used as synonyms, antonyms or as components of each other, weakening their original uses and encouraging ambiguity. For examples, IkasHUB describes itself as “a co-learning laboratory where to develop personal skills and generate new ideas with value for the society”. One can find co-creation labs, hub labs, lab hubs, and other types of centers, factories, gyms and other combinations of names, with new terms constantly associated with this field.

So why is it important to conceptualize the space for social innovation?

The concept “space for social innovation” can act as an umbrella for all the spaces mentioned above, as well as a generic term to refer to one or several of these spaces. But what exactly falls under the spaces for social innovation umbrella? Though it may have been loosely used in the past with similar meanings, grounding it as an important concept in this field will facilitate future research on these spaces as a whole as well as ease understanding among researchers and common users. In order for the term to be used correctly, there should be no ambiguity around it. This makes it very difficult as social innovation is defined in several different ways and the delimitation around spaces for social innovation are still not clear.

Spaces for social innovation represent a focal point for a clean and clear organization of different type of spaces, based on different criteria and characteristics. It is important to look under the buzzwords and closer at what is hidden behind words such as hubs and labs, forming a map based on ranges of characteristics. This, in turn, can help form a clear understanding of spaces for social innovation and also reveal new combinations of characteristics, missing categories or models that can hold potential.