A Multi-Stakeholder Approach to Social Innovation

My second day in the Netherlands starts with a very early train ride from Utrecht to Amsterdam. I drop Spivet at the hostel that will provide my bed for the night. Some people are still stumbling their way home. The bartenders working the morning shifts in Warmoesstraat are taking the trash out dumping it on the narrow sidewalk. 8.30 a.m. The Social Venturer is on schedule. Perfect. I am watching my left and right more than usual, hundreds of bikes – and this is not a metaphor – swarm through the streets and over the bridges. I’m in the Netherlands. The grey weather comes as a bit of the surprise as I walk across the De Dam covered in the misty morning light. I march on along the canals, the chilly humid air making me shiver. 20 minutes later I arrive at Keizersgracht, right around the corner from Anne Frank House (which – in case you ever wanted to visit – has queues winding around several blocks). My first field visit of the day: Kennisland.

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Amsterdam Centraal

First of all – great place. Similar to Enviu everybody was working in utter silence (pun intended) sitting around large desks typing away on their computers. I agree, changing the world through entrepreneurship and innovation requires focus – I’m all for it. Don’t let me interrupt. Nora van der Linden had agreed to meet with me on very short notice and I was thrilled to be able to fire all my questions at her after having read their report Lab Matters on the train from Utrecht earlier that morning (click here for their latest publication on Social Labs).

Kennisland is a think tank that has been working to “make society smarter” (their humble mission, love it!) for more than 15 years. Their issue portfolio includes education, government, cultural heritage, copyright, the cultural sector and social innovation. As I soon found out, public responsibilities in the policy area of work and income, youth care, and long-term care for the elderly had recently been transferred from central to local governments.

How do you ensure that the services provided to vulnerable citizens match their real needs? Click To Tweet

This transition challenged the latter to find local solutions, and Kennisland has positioned itself to develop such local approaches. As we speak about their work in Social Labs, Nora helps me understand this approach: “With already limited resources, how do you ensure that the services provided to vulnerable citizens match their real needs and desires? This is what we try to figure out in Social Labs.”

Social Labs – User-centered design to develop local solutions

A Social Lab focuses on a specific issue in a certain area and is often commissioned by local government authorities. Kennisland sets out to analyse the context and understand the issue from different angles. They then identify the relevant community around that issue and invite local citizens, professionals and (local) government officials to assess the situation (week 1) and derive possible solutions (week 2). Based on a recent neighborhood example (read more about it here) Nora explains: “We first go out and collect stories of the people in that neighborhood trying to understand their life situation, needs, and how they are affected by the issue we want to address. We publish the stories, collect feedback and re-evaluate until we get it right. Based on these findings, we spend the second week talking to local service providers and municipalities taking the beneficiaries with us. We start a dialogue about the current situation and its challenges, and develop opportunities to solve the issue. We look for quick fixes as well as long-term solutions.” Every Social Lab ends in some type of festival or closing event where all stakeholders come together, present solutions and – if available – prototypes, and have a chance to discuss on how to move forward.

Questions of Sustainability

An obvious dilemma is the question of the sustainability of the developed solutions. Who takes the lead after the Social Lab experience, once the Kennisland team has gone back to their offices? To what extent do you manage to identify and equip community leaders within the short time frame of such a pop-up Social Lab, and support them in the long run? For now, Nora says “We managed to secure a follow-up project and can go back to the community for a longer period.” To me, Social Labs are a great tool to raise an issue and ignite a first spark in the search of long-term solutions and change. What follow-up mechanisms are available to pick up the work after a Social Lab?

Kennisland now also runs other labs that cover a longer time frame. In Dordrecht and Nijmegen they work with municipalities on questions affecting their young population and work issues for several months, with ‘Lab days’ each week.

Social Labs and Social Entrepreneurs

Throughout our conversation I was trying to figure out how social entrepreneurs fit into this equation. We had talked a lot about civic participation and involvement of different stakeholders. Nora helped me out: “Some individuals feel compelled to implement a social business to address a need that is not met by any other stakeholder within that community.

Social entrepreneurship can be a tool for social innovation, but it’s not the only option. Click To Tweet

Very much in line with what I would learn from other social innovation enablers over the coming days. The Dutch chorus seems to be “Social entrepreneurship can be a tool for social innovation, but it’s not the only option.” I had and would hear it a lot more on my field visits. So what can we learn from Social Labs?

Learnings for Social Enterprise Support

Social Labs are a great way of tackling a specific issue securing the buy-in from all parties involved. I sometimes find that social entrepreneurs participating in incubators or other support programs tend to work in isolation from their target beneficiaries without fully understanding

  • the root causes of the issue,
  • the impacts on the community,
  • the consequences for beneficiaries,
  • the involvement of other stakeholders in the issue, and
  • their potential contribution to the solution.

A Social Lab approach borrows from the Lean StartUp Method and is a great way of getting social entrepreneurs out of the building, their support program, and potentially develop business models that consider the above-mentioned issues.


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