Innovation labs and units have become so fashionable in the public sector that the question “Have we reached peak lab?” has become a cliché. From MindLab’s ideation pod to Louisville’s digital badges, the culture of innovation is spreading. But despite their popularity, innovators have to admit one failing: they are simply not good at defining what it is they do in straightforward terms.
This confusion isn’t limited to the general public; innovators themselves disagree about what many of their most distinctive words and phrases mean. In the first part of a series on innovation buzzwords, we take a light-hearted look at public sector innovation jargon — with anonymous commentary from those in the field — and translate it into plain English.
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Innovation labs: Innovation labs are supposedly tasked with experimentation — think of a science lab, but for policy. But employees tend to get edgy when asked questions like “What impact has your work had?” and “What exactly is it that you do?” One innovator said: “I think they do perform some function, but it’s become so trendy to have a lab that we don’t ask questions about how effective they really are.”
Design thinking: Loathed by actual designers, the term is supposed to denote a creative, experimental and collaborative process whereby a new service or product is designed with end users in mind. In practice, it often involves a bunch of people tacking Post-Its to a wall.
Ideation: The creative process by which innovators come up with and develop ideas — a crucial part of design thinking. Or, as one person put it: “pure jargon… using that kind of language is a good way to irritate everyone. It’s a word that doesn’t mean anything.” Synonyms include brainstorming, conceptualising, and as one lab employee volunteered, having an “innovation injection session”.
Co-designing: When end users, often citizens, have a voice in the design of a product or service — not, as it’s commonly thought, any time a group of people sit in a room and brainstorm ideas. “Even very highly educated people throw the term around to mean people doing something together,” said a lab employee. “You didn’t do anything new or different — you just brainstormed ideas.”
Social innovation: Loosely, a solution to challenging, often systemic social issues. The term is used interchangeably by everyone from public servants to designers to consultants, all of whom have varying ideas about what it means. One innovator confided that she has worked at a social innovation agency for years and still struggles to define the term. Regardless, “social innovation” should suggest a far-reaching solution to an intractable problem — not simply installing a public piano or planting a community garden.
Systems thinking: The idea of looking at innovation as a complex system, rather than a process — a concept so vague that few understand what it means. Labs often claim they are “rethinking the system” and working to “change entire government structures”. But “it’s one of those things everyone likes to say but no one actually does,” said one innovator. “In reality, not many of these labs actually interact with big systems.”
Behavioural insights: The application of behavioural science — the study of human behaviour — to redesign public services, ideally tested with a randomised control trial before being scaled. But it’s become trendy to label the use of any research on how humans behave a “nudge”. “Most people just seem to tweak the wording of the letters they send,” said one innovator. “You’re not using some deep insight into human behaviour — you’re just testing communications.”