Skip to main content

Guest Blog Post by Lori Lobenstine: Tricks for Innovation: Boston Innovation Lab

Submitted by: bcelnik on Oct 31st, 2011 at 10AM PDT

Guest blog from Lori Lobenstine, from the Design Studio for Social Intervention

At the Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI), one thing we've learned over time is that coming up with new ideas is more than a matter of being asked. Even when people are asked to "think outside the box," we tend to have a hard time getting away from the things that limit our thinking. In the nonprofit sector, those things include: "Is this fundable?" "Do we have the staff to do this?" and "Does this sound too crazy?" among others. Youth are not immune to the challenges of innovation either. Sometimes in youth programs we feel that "youth know what youth want", and if we just get out of their way, they'll come up with the perfect idea. While youth are just as likely as adults to come up with a good idea, they also have the same challenges and needs for tools to help them think creatively.

We were excited by the possibility of co-leading an
Innovation Lab with the Leadership Learning Community (LLC) that was focused on developing leadership, especially when we talked with Claire Reinelt, LLC’s Evaluation Director, and found out that we could really think at a large scale. The very question that Claire posed, "How do we support and catalyze 1000s of leaders with a passion and a vision for whole child development in vulnerable communities?" meant that neither we nor our participants could think in traditional ways about leadership development. It was time to imagine entirely new possibilities for LD! 



At DS4SI, we have a number of tools to help folks get out of their own way and imagine new possibilities; we call them speculation tools. Many of them involve ways that force participants to triangulate their thinking. It helps move them from first order thinking to deeper and trickier spaces. One example of this from the Innovation Lab was our Scenario Exercise.

Each of three small groups was given a scenario. They had to come up with a way to support and catalyze 1000 leaders to take on this issue.

  • Half of all children of color are in poverty with too little to eat to insure healthy development.
  • School buildings are crumbling and 80% of schools in vulnerable communities do not have the teachers they need.
  • The school-to-prison pipeline is funneling 50% of poor youth of color into prisons by the age of 20; vulnerable communities do not have the young leaders they need.

In order to address their issue, the groups had to choose:

  • 1 anti-hero / trickster (Hermes, Cat in the Hat, Joker, Bugs Bunny, Hesher) Tricksters create new possibilities by acting in ways we rarely do. Trickster tales function as a story-telling tool for exposing white space and new possibilities, and getting to have a trickster on our side frees us to think in ways we don't usually allow ourselves. For example, one group employed Bart from the Simpsons to question the need for school buildings with his usual irreverence!
  • 1 systems specialist (architect, acupuncturist, car mechanic) We frequently ignore what we know about systems, especially when we get caught up in thinking about people. Engaging a systems specialist helped participants think about systems, even metaphorical ones, like when one group had the architect break down all the walls of schools to make the larger community the school.
  • 1 21st century technology (ex—YouTube, Twitter, electric cars, or made up technology not yet in existence) This final challenge helped participants engage new tools for new solutions. One group imagined a new technology ("what if youth had a hearing app that would tell them that we were meeting here right now, and then 8 youth show up from nearby to weigh in on this?") that went on to become a larger idea in the next phase of the Lab.

In having to involve the 3 choices above, participants had to think differently. They couldn't fall back on hoping that we could "scale up" familiar solutions and they were freed to imagine ones that were quite impossible.

After triangulating their thinking in new ways, participants got the chance to come back to earth and see how these ideas could gel into real possibilities. The ideas and energy we saw come out of this were amazing. Many focused on youth, new technologies, and the "breaking down the walls" idea of using the community and public spaces as active learning (and teaching) spaces for youth. All used profoundly new ways to really imagine mobilizing and supporting 1000s of new leaders. We're excited to see what happens next!