Why Labs?

Last week I quietly slipped out a new service Changeist is offering: Pop-up Labs. Eagle-eyed Stuart Candy asked if I had explained the backstory, which I hadn't officially done. It's also good timing as Ed Cotton at Influx Insights has asked a different question: are labs or incubators better? I'll try to take on both questions here.

So, why labs, why pop-up, and why us? The answers, like the questions, are multifold. Since it was founded almost four years ago, Changeist has had a dual personality. My intention in creating a formal company was to explore and create, not just to write and muse. I wanted to turn the research shop model I'd spent over a dozen years working within, inside out—to use the real world as a resource and to explore the future via experience and interaction with its probable inhabitants. I also wanted to explore more thoroughly the values of collaboration and experimentation, pushing futures thinking in new directions and into closer interaction with other disciplines—experience design, game design, social sciences, urban planning, engineering, the list goes on. In short, gene splicing and crossbreeding as much as possible.

Venture Research

 All along, we have also been focused on the more traditional problem solving metrics. You just can't take the technicians out of us, so we've produced an enormous amount of research, synthesis and forecasting for clients. The process typically takes three to four months from RFP to final briefing to find, frame and explain emerging possibilities. We can, and do, handle projects in a very linear and process-oriented way. All of this comes after the client takes three to six months to wrestle with strategic imperatives and figure out which ones it can fund. The results frequently find their way into hefty documents, though we manage to develop more artifacts than I might have expected. The direction of work remains the traditional: tightly defined strategic question or worry, months of highly focused investigation, and a deliverable. It's a process not unlike investing in start-ups, only these are start-up questions, not companies. From the client's point of view, it's a pageant to select the problem most worthy of funding exploration of, backing it with an "investment" and commercializing the insights that result. To Ed's question, it's more like the incubator/VC model of research.

To the Lab

To us, the lab model has equal, but different merit. For every "known unknown" approached through the process above, organizations are faced with dozens of other "unknown unknowns," some of which could be the source of creative sparks, and new opportunities they never knew they might face. The lab approach is less about fixing a problem or filling a gap and more about finding totally new spaces to define. In the areas of foresight and innovation, the discovery of possibility is critical—to us, as critical as identifying a hidden threat or knocking down a barrier. 

Setting up a lab allows us, together with a client, to define a general problem or exploration space and then mine it for possibilities. This is done both physically, through ringfencing of budget, staff, space and time (think Google 20% Time) and culturally, with a formal decision to allow resources to be given to finding the new. Foresight R&D, it might be called. Labs allow an organization to switch from problem-finding to opportunity creation. Labs can also be elastic, interdisciplinary and most of all, experimental—a space to try out "what ifs." In Lab mode, Changeist can bring something to the table that has become one of our specialties, a seed stock of new ideas, insights and approaches we can then mix with a client's internal culture to create something fresh and new.

We need new ideas, now, more than ever. Not all organizations can afford to set up an elaborate new insight generation machine but many can manage an injection of this type of thinking and the accompanying toolsets. Creating temporary Pop-up Labs allows a safe way to explore foresight and innovation with some broad boundaries, mixing in the most interesting skills and ideas and can provide a foundation for a larger, more formal structure and process when it makes sense.

So, while incubation is important, to me it isn't an either/or question. Organizations need to be able to step back from the risk-averse hyperfocus on answering questions about known problems, and be able to open up the frame to explore possibilities, but they need ways to do that, and labs present one possible way to do this—creatively, constructively, and with broad broundaries. People need to have the opportunity to grapple with possible futures, not just have one or two presented to them for a thumbs up/thumbs down vote. After all, some of history's greatest inventions have come from a moment of asking "What if?" We'd like to think that's what we do best.