On spending a Saturday innovating

If I said to you ‘I spent last Saturday in an innovation lab’ what would you picture? Would you imagine me in a white coat with goggles on, surrounded by bleeping machines and burbling test tubes in an underground research establishment hidden somewhere behind chain link fences? If I told you it was a mental health innovation lab, would you add lots of electrodes attached to heads and lots of machines scratching out brainwaves on rolls of paper?

Well, this weekend I was in an innovation lab and it wasn’t quite like that.

Saturday 10th December saw the first of two Innovation Labs in London funded by Comic Relief, Nominet Trust and Paul Hamlyn Foundation. A development of the young people’s mental health programme Right Here, the aim of the day was to get a load of young people together with some professionals to come up with ideas for ways that technology could be used to improve the lives of young people with mental health difficulties.

Innovation labs and camps have been a fixture of the technology world for a while now. They’re a way of getting people together, getting them thinking and getting them to find ways of taking ideas forwards. It’s a bit like locking a load of creative people in a room and saying ‘you’re not allowed to leave until you come up with something’. There are various techniques for structuring them, many of which seem to involve pizza. The aim is to get ideas flowing, get people involved in them and then to develop something that can be taken forward once the lab or camp ends.

The innovation labs that I was at on Saturday set out to marry the Silicon Valley ‘white heat of technology’ aspect of innovation labs to the solving of the problems that young people with mental health difficulties face. When I went to one of the initial discussion events for these labs there had been a degree of scepticism in the room (not from me I might add). There were concerns that the macho nature of a load of people battling for their own ideas might be too much for young people with mental health difficulties. There were concerns that young people wouldn’t come up with any ideas that could be taken forward. There were also concerns that the whole format disadvantaged people who weren’t natural creative innovators.

Fundamental to these concerns were the tensions between freewheeling creativity on one hand and the idea that solutions to social problems need evidence bases and research and planning, and that the creative response to problems comes at the end of the process of development, rather than at the beginning.

The day was quite tightly structured. After the obligatory warm ups, people attending were divided into four different ‘labs’, each with at least one facilitator and a mixture of young people or ‘younger innovators’ and people who were there in some sort of professional capacity – referred to quite flatteringly as ‘older innovators’. There were about, at most, ten to twelve people in any one lab.

The order of tasks set us was wonderfully sly, and in our lab worked extremely well. Firstly we split into little groups and were given the task of inventing characters based on photographs strewn on the table. I had a hand in inventing a five year old boy named Henry who was the unhappy child of a divorced couple and who had a closer relationship with the people who looked after him than he did with his affluent parents. I also had a hand in creating the character of Geoff, a late thirties deputy head teacher going through a midlife crisis, dying his hair and lusting after one of the cleaners at his school; disillusioned with his life and the loss of his dreams of changing the world, spending empty sleepless nights scouring dating websites after his wife has gone to bed.

Other characters created in our lab included Barbara, an ex sex worker who turned dinner lady and lollipop woman with a heart of gold, Babatunde, a sixteen year old gym addict on the edges of gang culture in London, a jack-the-lad drug using night club door man, a young physically disabled man starting university, and Roxy, a social drug using teen.

Once we’d made up these characters, we got into different groups then thought of scenarios or events that might apply to them. These included things like having an auditory hallucination, finding out a cousin had just been shot or even winning the lottery.

Once we’d done that, we re-jiggled our groups again and started to come up with things that might help the characters we’d created get through some of the challenges with which we’d saddled them. This was where we began to come up with ideas for applications, bits of technology and things that could exist to help people overcome problems.

So, instead of setting out with the task ‘think of a new website’ or ‘think of a phone application’ we came at things from a different angle. We began with people, then really got to know them and work out what made them tick, then we looked at some of the challenges they might face and only once we’d done that did we start to think about what things might help.

We were given about ten minutes in our groups to come up with five ideas. Then we changed groups and had to come up with another five ideas.

We came up with loads of ideas for things. Some of them were websites. Some of them were smartphone applications. Some of them were more tradition text or telephone line based services. A number of them were for additional functions to existing things or online platforms.

We then voted on our favourites which we shared with everyone else from the other three labs in little on-the-spot 30 second pitches.

The success of the format was shown by the fact that in our lab alone, there were a large proportion of ideas that could very easily reach the prototype stage of development with a little injection of cash and technical know-how.

One of the advantages of the innovation labs format is that they remove the gap between thinking and doing and they encourage the closing of the space between recognising a particular problem and arriving at a potential solution to solve it. Starting not from a big list of things that are wrong with the world, but looking at people and the challenges they face is an excellent way of short-circuiting the ‘someone should do something about this’ response.

One of the interesting aspects of innovation labs is their elective nature. People who get involved with them want to be there and want to take ideas forwards. They are as much about helping people to come together to work on things as they are about the ideas that come out of the process. This presents a stumbling block for people who are used to consultation projects. Innovation labs can and should be inclusive, but they can’t include everyone. They create a situation where people speak for their own ideas, and those ideas make friends with other ideas and as a result those ideas become stronger and find ways of growing and being put into action. Innovation labs, therefore, are focused on making stuff happen rather than establishing an overall consensus of the challenges faced.

Coming as they do from product design, innovation labs are weighted towards coming up with ‘things’ or actual practical projects. The aim of innovation is to find a need, find a solution or solutions then test that solution as quickly as possible before refining it or discarding it. It’s not about identifying the problem alone, it’s about identifying a solution to the problem that will work for the people who experience it. Our lab on Saturday didn’t have any difficulty moving to that method of thinking, but I do wonder how much a challenge this would be for other groups of people? The idea of going ahead and trying to work something out and make it happen, then modifying it as it goes along can seem dangerously risky to people; as does the idea of designing things around people rather than designing them and expecting people to arrange themselves around them.

It’s fascinating how similar the ideas behind innovation labs are to the ways in which the ‘new’ protest movements such as the Occupy movement are run. Both are elective, in that people choose to involve themselves. Both move quickly from idea to working party to action. Both are open to criticisms that the solutions reached by such elective action are not representative in a more traditional democratic sense in that neither seeks to ask ‘everyone’ what they think. Most importantly, both are measurable not by the success or perfection of the process but what comes into being after the process has taken place. They’re both places where the process does not set the end result. The ideas that came from the innovation labs last Saturday were not predefined by the structure set up by the team who ran them. The ideas came from the people who were brought together and supported by the structure of the day.

Looking at the ideas for ‘things that came from the Innovation Labs on last Saturday, I think we’re going to see some interesting results. I met some people with whom I’m really keen to work. I heard some ideas that I’d love to have a hand in making happen and I went away with a head full of ideas for other areas in mental health where we should be doing innovation camps too.

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