Published on October 13, 2023
Social innovators are embracing a new user-centric approach to solving social challenges.
When it comes to finding innovative solutions to real-world challenges, projects with the best intentions don’t always achieve the best results. It doesn’t help that, in the more traditional approach to innovation and product development, solutions are proposed and implemented without feedback from the communities that are most at risk
Instead, social innovators are finally embracing new approaches. An example is the concept of living labs, which bring individuals (the end-users) in right from the get-go when tackling complex challenges like housing, placekeeping, and determining how to make cities better for communities, families, individuals and the natural world.
We spoke to several Canadian innovators who are using living labs to create meaningful, sustainable change to learn more about this inclusive, user-centric approach to solving social problems.
Living labs are experiments that take place in real-life environments. They try something quickly, with a small, low-risk scale and learn from it to iterate, improve and build progressively bigger and more impactful solutions. Most notably, this concept focuses on involving end-users right from the outset.
“It isn’t about pushing a solution on people or about experts looking at users with a magnifying glass and saying, ‘I know better, do this,'” says Hugo Steben, Director of Capacity Building and Incubation at Maison de l’Innovation Sociale. “Users are critical participants in the design process: bringing their intentions to the forefront leads to a solution they’ll actually want to use.”
Living labs are about co-creation and solving problems together.
“So many projects jump into large-scale development after being worked on by ‘experts’ like researchers, sociologists and urban planners,” says Jean-Francois Jasmin, Open Innovation Researcher and Facilitator at Living Lab en Innovation Ouverte (LLio). “But these professionals are not experts in the lived experience of end users. We need to understand how people live their lives in housing and shared public spaces, see their relationships with each other, the built environment and nature.”
Steben says living labs aren’t just about innovation: they are about driving the adoption of innovation, which is often the hardest part.
“We’re already at a place where solutions are known,” Steben says. “The challenge is that they aren’t achievable within existing systems and attitudes. Many high-potential approaches to housing and placekeeping are highly complex and require a different way of thinking about policy, financing, insurance, zoning and aligning the mindsets of players with different interests.”
Living labs set an example by focusing on how to make the innovation compatible with the environment, and with available technology, climate, culture and social norms, then testing it in real-life conditions so you can account for unexpected behaviors.
Living labs is an approach to innovation that can be applied to almost anything; in business, it’s called agile methodology and design thinking. It’s also an effective way to ensure solutions are focused on the actual needs of the user, and not just someone’s idea of what a user should want.
As part of a project to improve public spaces, Steben and his team are focused on a single park that was generating a lot of security-related complaints. People expressed that they felt unsafe because there were “homeless” people in the park, and there was frequently a police presence.
That’s when Steben and his colleagues began to dig deeper. In conversations with people in the park, they learned the folks there weren’t actually unhoused — they lived in nearby affordable housing, but because their homes were small, they needed outdoor spaces for socializing. Secondly, they learned that the reason the police kept returning is because local residents were calling them because of the perceived danger of “homeless” people.
“It was a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Steben points out. “Cops were always in the park, which validated the idea that the park was dangerous.”
Next up, the team talked to 25 involved parties in the area to share their insights. This helped change attitudes and even kickstarted a “summer of experiments” to see what could help improve the situation.
The result involved bringing in more furniture, installing different lighting, greening the park, changing the way alcohol consumption is policed and shifting how some social workers are doing interventions.
These quick experiments are helping them generate knowledge of what works, what doesn’t, what people like and what they don’t. At the end of the summer, they plan to compile everything they’ve learned, iterate over the winter and then try even more new solutions next summer.
“Focusing on quick wins and small victories sets the conditions for success,” says Steben. “From there we can grow to bigger and bolder things. You need to build your way up to a challenge — it’s like training for a championship fight. You can’t get the big wins without having a whole bunch of small ones under your belt first.”
Living labs provide real-world environments for experimentation, collaboration, and the development of sustainable solutions. These labs bring together residents, experts, youth, older adults, newcomers, researchers, and nature to explore and test ideas, technologies, and social initiatives. By creating a space where innovative concepts can be prototyped, evaluated and refined, it can help facilitate the advancement of regenerative designs, construction techniques and materials that lower costs without compromising quality.
These labs also foster social innovation by encouraging community engagement, shared resources, and inclusive housing models. The knowledge and insights they generate have the potential to transform the affordable housing landscape, leading to more accessible, energy-efficient, and community-oriented housing solutions that can be replicated in various contexts.
To help foster innovation in housing supply solutions, the Housing Supply Challenge, led by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), encourages residents, stakeholders, and experts from across Canada to propose innovative solutions that help break down the barriers that limit new housing supply.
Learn more about Evergreen’s Housing Supply Challenge Support Program, which supports applicants by providing guidance, mentorship, and the resources needed to develop and improve their submission.