The laboratory life of innovation labs

Ben Williamson

New ‘labs’ for public, social, government and policy innovation have proliferated widely in recent years. Many of them seek to apply new technological solutions to identified problems. To date, though, little research has traced the ‘laboratory life’ inside these spaces, or considered the technical methods, practices and forms of expertise through which they seek to apply their solutions. Addressing this gap in critical understanding is significant since labs are translating emerging innovations such as data science, analytics, experimentation, design-based research and digital R&D into key methods of government. As I have written before, labs are mobilizing these methods in order to shape the future of many public and social institutions and practices. In terms of the wider ambitions of the Code Acts in Education project, I see labs as important actors in the promotion of particular technological approaches to the specification, analysis and interpretation of education problems, and to the associated design and application of technological solutions. Labs provide some of the framing for the programming of the technologies that will influence the future of education.

Futurelab 1
Image from Futurelab by Andy Potts

Future imaginaries
In these notes, I indicate the importance of examining the laboratory life of innovation labs through paying historical attention to one particular lab. Futurelab was a prototypical innovation lab, operating 2002-10 in the area of educational technology and innovation, originally established by Nesta as ‘Nesta Futurelab’ before becoming independent and rebranding simply as Futurelab. It makes little sense to consider Futurelab as some kind of isolated organization, as if it existed in a decontextualized and de-socialized neutral setting; instead, it needs to be seen as the product of a whole host of intersecting ideas, assumptions, practices, techniques, technologies and human actions, all located in a particular social and political setting. That is to say that Futurelab had a ‘laboratory life’ that shaped what it did and how it presented itself—its methods and messages—and that informed its orientation to educational change and futures-thinking in education. I worked as a researcher at Futurelab from 2002 to 2010; in what follows I want to suggest that by reflecting critically and historically on Futurelab we can begin to trace the kinds of ‘futures’ it sought to catalyze, the methods through which it did so, and the messages it circulated to make these futures seem possible, plausible, and even preferable. I do so by mixing my own critical reflections on the experience of the laboratory life inside Futurelab with a survey of the online archive of some of its key projects and resources.

To adopt terms from the sociological field of science and technology studies, which has fundamentally concerned itself with the complex processes by which any technical innovation becomes assembled, I’ll term these futures ‘sociotechnical imaginaries’: collectively held, institutionally stabilized, and publicly performed visions of desirable futures, that are animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order and made attainable through the design of technological projects. By tracing something of the laboratory life of one particular lab, I want to suggest that we can examine how its key methods and messages inscribed particular futures, and to indicate how these ideas have become collectively shared across the labs field. As such, Futurelab can be viewed as producing a particular sociotechnical imaginary of education, one that can be identified through exploring its combination of key methods and the circulation and adoption of its key messages.

Lab methods
Methods do more than simply surfacing data about particular social realities. The design of research methods ultimately involves methodological decisions about the design of instruments, the selection of samples, decisions made about analysis, and the interpretations brought to bear on the data. Moreover, methods are underpinned by particular views of the reality to be examined. So, for example, many data science methods are based on the assumption that social reality can be understood through its data; data are viewed as ‘statistical facts,’ and the more data that are available are therefore seen as producing a richer and more detailed picture of that reality (this is the basic ‘realist’ logic of big data analysis). Other, more ethnographic methods, in contrast, tend to see social reality in terms of complex social, cultural and embodied experiences that can only be traced through the ‘small data’ of up-close observation in the field. Indeed, methods themselves have ‘social lives’: they  are designed in particular social settings, by specific actors and their sponsors, to surface particular kinds of data; they are underpinned by particular assumptions, commitments and aspirations; they generate data that are collected in ways that make them available to be interpreted according to specific theoretical frameworks of understanding; and they are predicated on existing views of how social reality works. In other words, methods are both socially produced and socially productive. Socially produced in that methods do not provide a ‘view from nowhere,’ but are embedded in distinctive disciplinary approaches and assumptions; and socially productive in that methods are consequential how particular aspects of social reality are known, and to how that reality might therefore be acted upon in order to improve, enhance or modify it.

The commitment of public and social innovation labs to emerging methods, as the recent launch of an open policy making toolkit demonstrates, means we should be alert to the social life of the methods now increasingly being mobilized to make sense of the problems that government faces and to which policymakers are seeking solutions.

Like many labs, Futurelab tended towards an eclectic mix of methods. One of its key methodological commitments was to ‘user-centred design’ and ‘participatory design.’ These design-based research approaches tend to see users, researchers and designers as co-creators of particular innovations. Futurelab mobilized design-based methods extensively through participatory workshops, user ethnographies and other informant design approaches that saw children or teachers as experts or ‘native informants’ informing designers of key issues related to their experience, helping to develop early design ideas and testing prototypes in development. In advocating designing educational technologies with users, Futurelab drew explicitly on the Scandinavian ‘democratic’ tradition of participatory design, as well as on methods from the field of Human-Computer Interaction and on philosophical traditions associated with ‘learner voice’ and ‘human-centred’ schooling. Today, the entire ‘design for policy’ approach adopted by many labs is likewise based on the assumption that design can envision desirable futures and develop ways to makes those futures realities. While Futurelab certainly did not invent such methods, it can clearly be seen as part of a movement towards the translation of methods and discourses of design in an important area of public policy.

Futurelab was highly active in conducting field trials to test out new technical innovations. Almost all of its own projects, and those of partners it supported, were designed as iterative prototypes that could be tested out ‘in the wild’ with selected relevant users. Enquiring Minds was a notable example, a ‘curriculum innovation’ project predicated on the ideal of enquiry-based learning that was developed in collaboration with two secondary schools and trialled and iterated over a period of three years, with serious financial support from Microsoft. Anticipating the current vogue amongst labs for ‘experimentalism,’ Futurelab’s projects were based on the view that it could test out particular theories on a small scale before attempting to roll out its innovations to larger populations and publics. Futurelab was also an active advocate of the idea of ‘living labs,’ including an experimental school-based ‘Live Lab Academy’ model that was intended to focus on school improvement through objective metrics and measures, and in some senses prefiguring the current lab enthusiasm for metricization and measurement as a means of deriving through experimental methods evidence of ‘what works’ for futures policy design. It also prefigured the growing interest among some labs to develop their own ‘startup schools‘ to educate young people in design and experimental methods.

As its name would suggest, Futurelab was also highly active in exploring different educational ‘futures.’ Its Beyond Current Horizons project sought to explore possible and preferable futures associated with sociotechnical developments. It considered the rise of cloud computing, the massive growth of digital data and analysis, and the increasing symbiosis of people and machines for the future of learning institutions, largely by mobilizing a repertoire of futures methods such as government foresight and social scientific ‘futures studies.’ This futures-orientation certainly anticipated the proliferation of futures-thinking among later labs, as reflected in Nesta’s annual predictions for the year ahead, or in the recent announcement by the Open Policy Making team that it is considering how newer technologies such as data science, predictive analytics, and machine intelligence might in the next five years become parts of a new operating model for the work of government. Such futures-thinking around government issues is now the staple of innovation labs, but as Futurelab’s work in this area has highlighted, it comes with its own methodological idiosyncracies.

Futurelab also drew on a methodological repertoire that owed as much to digital R&D as either design-based or social science traditions. Its approach to ‘open innovation,’ ‘disciplined innovation,’ and ‘transformative innovation’ took inspiration from the methodological innovations of science parks and high-tech innovation incubators. These approaches are in some ways consonant with the emphasis on ‘disruptive innovation’ that has been popularized in the high-tech sector, where new technologies are viewed as challenging and unsettling existing assumptions and practices. Indeed, Futurelab featured as an example in a booklet on innovative methods in educational change produced by the Innovation Unit, which explicitly likened the innovation process to Silicon Valley.

In sum, through a brief survey of some of Futurelab’s approaches, we can see how it deployed a highly mixed methodological repertoire of social science, design-based and digital R&D methods. Through these methods, Futurelab was able to construct particular images and ideals of how the future of education might be, or even should be, and therefore to generate messages that might produce conviction in others that such futures were desirable and even attainable. Much more needs to be done here to explore the complex social lives of the methods that have contributed to the ways Futurelab has functioned. For example, what are the principles upon which its approach to ‘transformative innovation’ rests? What political tensions underlie the approach to futures thinking? On what theoretical assumptions does its ‘experimentalism’ rely? What are the limitations of a scientific ‘lab test’ methodology for understanding social and public problems? Are there competing methodological paradigms at work here, and to what extent might that matter? And how are methods consequential to the development of key messages about the problems of education and to the circulation of proposed solutions? How, in other words, do methods contribute to the creation, circulation and legitimation of particular sociotechnical imaginaries?

Futurelab 2
Image from Futurelab by Andy Potts

Lab papers
Futurelab did not just engage with educational futures methodologically. It also used the insights generated through its methods to produce particular messages and arguments. Many of the key messages it generated remain continuous with the dominant aspirations of labs today. What we might suggest here is that Futurelab, like later labs, has contributed to the production of a particular ‘knowledge infrastructure‘ for a major area of public policy. It has created a web of methodological techniques and practices for making education ‘known,’ and has then built on top of that a set of communicative practices for circulating its findings, insights and recommendations about educational change.

For example, Futurelab was an enthusiastic advocate of social media, and produced a series of reports detailing the potential of ‘social software’ and ‘learning networks’ for disrupting the classroom. Such interests have been taken up in more recent work around using social media such as Facebook in education. The dominant argument of this work was that social media could provide a kind of model for new forms of educational personalization and customization. In collaboration with the think tank Demos, Futurelab produced a detailed report on using new technologies such as social media to enhance personalization. Today, labs concerned with education tend to focus on personalisation as a set of possibilities associated with predictive learning analytics; there are continuities here but also, critically, new pathways and disjunctures developing around seemingly coherent concepts.

Futurelab also sought to develop ideas and practices around issues of digital participation and digital literacy, in particular by emphasizing the critical literacies required for participation in a heavily mediated social world. In the more recent context of big data mining, we can see how a focus on critical digital literacy might help enable young people to understand how their personal data might be used for a variety of commercial and governmental purposes. However, digital literacy has largely been superseded by the current emphasis on learning to code and programming, and the assumption that knowing how to code might equip young people to do things with computers. This is at least partly becoming an issue of economics and employability instead of informed critical civic participation. Notably, as coding and programming have been embedded in the new computing curriculum in England, any reference to critical digital literacy has been displaced by an emphasis on computer science concepts and the skills associated with software development.

In addition, Futurelab’s work around digital literacy has anticipated more recent concerns around ‘digital making.’ Current interests in the skills and competencies of ‘digital makers’ as producers of digital media, not just its consumers, can be found in the Make Things Do Stuff by Nesta and the Nominet Trust, as well as much more widely in campaigns such as the BBC’s Make It Digital. Again, though, there is a missing critical angle in this emphasis on digital making, which is the ease with which it has been subsumed into commercial imperatives. Critical social science researchers have pointed out, for example, that ‘prosumption’ and the blurring of consumption with production in participatory web cultures actively feeds into the ‘free labour’ required by most of today’s major social media organizations.

Perhaps as important in Futurelab’s approach was the materiality of its messages. By this I mean the actual material presentation and production of its resources. Futurelab worked extensively with designers and project managers (many of them in-house employees) to create glossy graphic presentations of its work for a wide variety of audiences, from practitioners to policymakers to wider publics. Futurelab emphasized high design values, and most of its handbooks, reports and various online resources can be characterized by their high-gloss design, interactivity, visualizations and graphic forms of display. Most of the labs we can see operating today also mobilize such methods of data visualization, infographics and other forms of graphical display to illustrate their messages, reinforce their arguments, and construct compelling graphical displays to support possible educational futures. These graphical techniques all make particular imaginaries of the future ‘visible,’ and ultimately lend visual support to the discourses and ideas of its other outputs. These materials, then, can be seen as particular devices for ‘inscribing’ sociotechnical imaginaries in words and images, making them seeable and knowable, and therefore amenable to being acted upon through the design of technical projects.

Future lab life
What are we to make of all this? My point, quite simply, is that we need to see labs like Futurelab as producers of sociotechnical imaginaries—collectively imagined views of the future that might be attained through the design and deployment of technical projects. But sociotechnical imaginaries are more than simply naïve predictions. Instead, sociotechnical imaginaries are embedded in methodological commitments and embodied in both the words and the materiality of their messages. Labs like Futurelab need to be understood as particular spaces in which different methods from across different sectors and fields—from social science, digital R&D, and design-based research to future foresight—become entwined as a set of techniques for surfacing particular views and perspectives of the social reality that they then wish to intervene in to bring about some sort of change. This means interrogating the rich ‘social life’ of Futurelab, and inquiring into the genealogical combinations of methods and messages that contributed to the formation of its futures-thinking approaches.

When Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar produced their classic sociological account of the work of scientists in Laboratory Life, their conclusion was that scientific laboratories are deeply complex places where negotiations, arguments, disagreements and compromises are constantly hammered out as scientists seek to construct ‘scientific facts,’ or models of how the world works. Within laboratories, methods are powerful devices that are designed to capture aspects of the world, or particular phenomena, and translate them into formats that are sufficiently intelligible for interpretations to be made and explanatory models to be constructed. Published scientific papers are merely the product or outcome of such methods, arguments, translations and compromises. But these papers, as ‘inscription devices’ that freeze such translations, debates and disagreements into scientific facts, are important political acts because they construct reality in a particular way.

Policy innovation labs are likewise committed to the production of inscriptions that fix reality in particular ways, shape interpretations and provide explanatory power. As my survey of Futurelab’s methods and messages has shown, it too was involved in utilizing methods for making sense of social phenomena and generating messages to redefine how it might be or should be in the future. Ultimately Futurelab can understood as having partaken in a reconstruction of the social reality of education, redefining the way the educational world works, designing methods to measure it, and producing products and recommendations to modify it.

A closer analysis of the laboratory life of Futurelab would explore the various debates, disagreements and compromises that underpinned its approaches, its methodological commitments and its circulation of key messages. After all, Futurelab was not some innocent and politically neutral organization, but consisted of many human hands, eyes and minds, each with distinctive ways of doing and seeing things. The researchers, designers, business manager, marketers, project managers and technical experts who inhabited it were engaged in a constant struggle (sometimes with each other) to make educational problems seen in particular ways, and to propose solutions that might remedy those perceived problems. Many of its solutions were the joint production of researchers (many on their way toward academic careers in the social sciences) with designers, managers and programmers whose commitments were not always commensurate with one another. Moreover, Futurelab was managed and governed under a particular style of thinking which saw educational change as an imperative; close historical research into its trustees, governance and management would help to illuminate how its strategic objectives and purposes were operationalized in its methods and messages, as well as less visibly in its business plans, its partnerships, its recruitment of particular personnel, and its distribution of expertise across technical, business and scientific spheres.

As such, the new laboratories for experimenting on social and public life require much greater scrutiny as political actors as they gain influence in the definition of policy problems and the specification of policy solutions. What is laboratory life like inside a policy innovation lab, or in a network of labs? What problems do they define, by what methods? What innovations do they design, and what are the effects of such products on the world out there beyond the lab, its methods and its publications? How, in particular, are the lab methods of today’s policy innovation labs—like Futurelab before them—influencing (or not) the ways in which educational institutions and individuals are known, understood, and made amenable to intervention and modification? Labs are sites where sociotechnical imaginaries of the future of many public and social institutions are being constructed and circulated. These imaginaries are not simply ideological visions, but carefully crafted methodological accomplishments and the result of technical projects made public through the material circulation of discursive and visual messages. As such, lab methods are not neutral, but key techniques governing the ways in which major areas of public and social policy are being reimagined and made amenable to active intervention. As labs develop their methodological repertoires to adopt emerging technical developments such as data science, analytics and even machine intelligence techniques, the future of education looks set to be accomplished through the future of labs. We need detailed genealogical and empirical studies to get inside the laboratory lives of these new social and public innovation labs in order to understand the ways in which they are becoming consequential to the imagining and shaping of the future of major areas of social and public policy and governance–and to the programming of the technologies that will operationalize and materialize these imaginaries in educational institutions and practices.

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1 Response to The laboratory life of innovation labs

  1. samkinsley says:

    Thanks for the interesting post Ben. I really like your use of Woolgar & Latour in thinking about the epistemic contexts of policy labs. I suppose one interesting thing about FutureLab is the politics of its funding context – with the demise of Becta, how it had to reshape & relocate etc.

    It occurs to me that you may find the book on Science Parks by Doreen Massey et al. of interest, if you haven’t already seen it:

    Work by Ben Anderson in geography on anticipation and preemption may be of interest here too, he has a current project on this: Also, if may plug my own work(!), I’ve done a bit on how particular kinds of spatial imaginary of the future circulate within computing R&D labs, such as:

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