Together with a fellow researcher, I considered academic literature on the changing understanding of design innovation, the role of innovation labs in this context, and how evaluation approaches have changed to address the challenges of evaluating such projects. We then use and build on these insights to investigate ‘Experience Labs,’ a design-led approach to innovation developed by the Institute of Design Innovation and currently deployed at the Digital Health and Care Institute. The resulting report introduces the concept of ‘learning based innovation’ as a framework for articulating the value produced by design research. Moreover, we developed visual tools to use this framework to help Experience Labs practitioners learn from their own work as a form of formative and participatory evaluation. This way, our research addresses both the conceptual and practical challenges of evaluating Experience Labs.
Experience Labs is at the core of Scotland’s Digital Health and Care Institute model of innovation and is led and developed by the Institute of Design Innovation at The Glasgow School of Art. Bringing together academic, business and civic partners, Experience Labs promote a new way of working within the health and social care context in Scotland. Within each lab, the Experience Labs team work collaboratively with participants to understand and investigate their experience using design research methods and to explore possible alternatives in order to tackle the complex health challenges facing Scottish society.
Together with a fellow researcher, I was asked to develop an evaluation framework that can capture the impact and value of Experience Labs in light of its inherent complexity.
To better understand the changing landscape of innovation labs worldwide, we conducted desk research and looked at the work of a range of teams who address social and public challenges and who design or uncover new ways of working. We located Experience Labs as part of a new understanding of innovation as flexible and emergent, where experimentation and collaboration are increasingly important. As part of this paradigm, one of the defining characteristics of many labs is their complexity: they do not prioritise implementation, they embrace risk and failure, they create indirect and non-linear impacts due to their emergent and processual nature, and they are itself part of a complex and wicked environment.
Focusing on Experience Labs more specifically, and gradually widening the lens to also include its wider structure and context, we uncovered more and more layers of complexity. We delved into internal documentation such as operational documents, project reports, videos, team meetings, and papers published by the Experience Lab team, and visually mapped structures, contexts, and relationships in order to explore their implications. Throughout this process, we increasingly realised that the complex nature of Experience Labs and its flexible emergent approach to innovation, is not only an inconvenient but inseparable feature of this project. It is in fact the main way Experience Labs create value and where its greatest potential lies.
Defining what a meaningful evaluation of Experience Labs would look like and focus on, meant defining what is to be evaluated, and describing the activities, outcomes, impacts, and context of Experience Labs. Yet we quickly realised that due to its inherent complexity, Experience Labs and its impact cannot be captured by applying traditional evaluation approaches. Like many other evaluators, we see the evaluation of such projects as a territory open to experimentation where there are not yet well defined or recognised methods. Our research contributes to this novel territory by addressing both the conceptual and practical challenges of evaluating Experience Labs.
Our work is documented in a report which gradually uncovers and maps layers of complexity, and demonstrates that they are at the heart of how Experience Labs create value. It introduces the concept of learning-based innovation as an evaluation framework which positions complexity at the centre of the evaluation and highlights non-linear, indirect (and less well documented) impact areas as showing most potential. Learning is a core strength of design research and plays a significant role in supporting a culture of innovation. Our approach thus addresses the need to articulate impact without disregarding the distinctive strengths of design research, and the resulting report can serve as the basis for gathering evidence and data to support and build on this hypothesis.
Our research revealed that Experience Lab is at the intersection of diverse expectations and aims as it brings together actors from fields that traditionally work separately and from users usually not involved in decision making processes. The report presents a visual tool evolved from this research which groups these various aims and expectations into four potential impact areas and their corresponding stakeholders. It can be used as a compass for evaluation which helps to navigate the layers of complexity we have uncovered and to reveal where learning-based innovation can be valuable.
This tool helps the Experience Lab team to better understand their work by supporting meaningful self-reflection. It shows a way forward in how to understand value that is distributed socially, organisationally and temporally. It also reveals how co-produced and emergent knowledge moves through the organisation and its context and captures what other forms of value emerge from learning-based innovation. Providing the Experience Labs team with this visual tool supports them in their progress and development as they continue to work and adapt to complex design challenges. It clarifies how they can create synergy between the wide range of stakeholders where diverse forms of knowledge can be co-generated and distributed as learning-based innovation.