Working Paper

Testing governance: the laboratory lives and methods of policy innovation labs


Williamson B (2015) Testing governance: the laboratory lives and methods of policy innovation labs.

Public and social innovation labs have proliferated globally. By combining resources and practices from politics, data analysis, media, design, and digital innovation, labs act as experimental R&D labs and practical ideas organizations for solving social and public problems, located in the borderlands between sectors, fields and disciplinary methodologies. Labs are making methods such as data analytics, design thinking and experimentation into a powerful set of governing resources. This working paper analyses the key methods and messages of the labs field, in particular by investigating the documentary history of Futurelab, a prototypical lab for education research and innovation that operated in Bristol, UK, between 2002 and 2010, and tracing methodological continuities through the current wave of lab development. Centrally, the working paper explores Futurelab’s contribution to the production and stabilization of a ‘sociotechnical imaginary’ of the future of education specifically, and to the future of public services more generally, and analyses how such an imaginary was embedded in its ‘laboratory life,’ established through its organizational networks, and operationalized in its methods of research and development as well as its modes of communication. By taking a historical and genealogical perspective to the study of labs, it becomes clear how their current concerns, ideas and methods have been formed over time in concrete organizational sites and inter-organizational networks. The purpose of the working paper is not to evaluate labs’ methods, but to explore the longer continuities of thinking that animate them, their inter-organizational and ideational connections, and in particular to examine the imaginaries or visions of the future of public and social services that they share. Innovation labs are proposing to introduce more experimental methods into strategies of contemporary governance, and testing out new practical ideas and techniques for managing relations between the state and its citizens. Conducting detailed genealogical case studies and situated ethnographic research of the laboratory life within specific labs, as well as documentary analyses of their products and resources, are necessary next steps in social scientific and policy studies of innovation labs.

data; design for policy; governance; methods; methodology; public and social innovation labs

FundersEconomic and Social Research Council
PublisherUniversity of Stirling
Publisher URL…ovation-labs.pdf