Policy lab

Policy Labs for quick tests done right

The public sector faces major and complex social challenges. Policy labs are connecting social actors and citizens to find new solutions.

The public-sector operates in a complex world. People, organisations and institutions comprise a system in which the actors influence each other and the entire system over time. Society's challenges usually span a range of different sectors and meeting these challenges is a complex task. Managing issues such as refugee reception, mental well-being or the complex building of society means that the system's components must work together and organisations must coordinate their efforts. This is made more difficult by the traditional silo thinking that permeates Sweden's public, non-profit, and private sectors. It has become more and more clear that traditional forms of governance based on a top-down perspective with sectoral boundaries are no longer effective. The classic administrative structure is quite simply not built to handle complex social challenges that require a holistic perspective and an ability to work across both policy areas and administrative boundaries.

Policy labs an international phenomenon

Ineffective silo thinking is not only a Swedish problem. To meet these challenges, many other countries have established policy labs to create the forums and tools for cooperating across boundaries and sectors and between various administrations, authorities and government ministries. It is particularly important to also involve users and citizens in this process, which should be open and inclusive. One Danish forerunner is Mind Lab, which has existed since 2002 and is a cross-sectoral development unit working with public-sector innovation. Starting from the views of citizens and social actors, Mind Lab helps the public sector to design various services and implement legislative changes. Among other things, Mind Lab has worked with almost 400 educators in Denmark to develop a plan to turn the country's new school curricula into a reality. In Sweden a number of labs have been founded, such as Experio Lab (which works with challenges within the health-care system), Trafiklab (a "community" that aims to disseminate public transport data to various social actors), OpenLab (for social innovation in Stockholm), and Mötesplats Social Innovation (with a focus on social development in Skåne).

Policy labs can be quite varied in terms of their organisation. Erika Augustinsson, who works at Mötesplats Social Innovation, gave a good summary of the structure of policy labs in an article in the Swedish magazine Dagens Samhälle (Today's society)1. She says policy labs are platforms with a mandate to act quickly in order to increase the ability to design holistic policies and to facilitate policy development between administrations, authorities, government ministries and academic disciplines. A lab normally contains several different forms of expertise that work together, such as change management, communication, service design, ethnography and behavioural science. Labs use testing and an iterative method to build up the ability and courage to think in new ways and respond to risks as they arise.

Together with the officials who will design the service for the target group, the lab can drive a process of change that focuses on new solutions. Equally important is to identify obstacles in the form of laws, regulations, praxis and policies. These are legacies from the time before terms like "cross-sectoral work" or "sustainable development" were in use. Today's rapidly changing world does not offer any simple answers. These lab environments are therefore needed so that we can experiment, explore and find ways to get the target group involved in order to create a more agile, co-creative and open public sector.

Dare to make mistakes in order to get it right

The most important aspect of the labs' function is – in addition to having a testing and inquisitive work method – to also include both users and employees in the work. By understanding these groups' needs in depth, and by working in an exploratory and iterative way, this inclusion will lead to solutions that meet actual needs and not just ease the symptoms.

The labs' work method is based largely on design methodology. This builds on exploring needs and problems, generating ideas, creating prototypes, failing and trying again – together with the user. Drawing on things like interviews and observations, the lab gains an insight into the user's daily life and the needs that exist from the user's perspective and not from that of a specific organisation. This is important in order to identify the "right" challenge area and problem. On many occasions, the immediately apparent problem can merely be a symptom of the real problem. After a solution has been found, the next task is to have the power to implement change and to scale up.


The article is written by Fredrik Olausson and is published in Swedish Design Research Journal no 1, 2017.

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Swedish Design Research Journal no 1 2017

Framsidan till Swedish Design Research Journal nr 1 2017

This article is published in Swedish Design Research Journal no 1, 2017. 

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SVID, Swedish Industrial Design Foundation | Svensksundsvägen 13, 111 49 Stockholm | info@svid.se I +46 (0)8 406 84 40


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SVID, Swedish Industrial Design Foundation | Svensksundsvägen 13, 111 49 Stockholm | info@svid.se I +46 (0)8 406 84 40