sLab recognized as ground-breaking social lab

cropped fragment from a network map of Canadian Social LabssLab, founded in 2008, is receiving recognition as a groundbreaking early presence in the growing network of 'social labs' across Canada and world-wide. In appreciation we present a brief and incomplete origin story of sLab. 

By Greg Van Alstyne with input from the sLab community.

The rise of 'social labs' arguably represent a major signal in the structure, organization and programmatic orientiation of allied social change labour and capital, world-wide. In recent years, scholars and reflective practitioners with interests in social innovation have been mapping and chronicalling the birth and rise of the social labs form, together with promising evidence of impact, new ways of working, and challenging new questions.

One such study is The Landscape of Social Innovation in Canadian Universities: An Empirical Analysis (Milley & Szijarto, 2020). Their research looks at all of Canada's 96 universites and identifies sLab as the oldest social innovation lab in the country, pre-dating more than 40 organizations that met study criteria. Another Canadian report that highlights Strategic Innovation Lab is The rise of policy innovation labs: A catalog of policy innovation labs across Canada, (Centre for Policy Innovation and Public Engagement, 2018). 

Since its inception, sLab has organized upwards of thirty contract and grant-funded projects, directed by a dozen senior researchers, employing more than sixty research assistants, most of them drawn from the internationally recognized Masters of Design in Strategic Foresight & Innovation program at OCAD University, Canada's largest and oldest school of art, design and media (formerly Ontario College of Art & Design). Organizationally, sLab is faculty-led research center operating in affiliation with OCAD U. sLab is headed by Greg Van Alstyne (director) and Dr. Peter H. Jones (director of research).

Strategic Innovation Lab (sLab) is conceived as a flexible, extensible platform for developing a new kind of design for the twenty-first century, one that is deeply rooted in life-centred values, social responsibility, community participation, strong sustainability, radical inclusivity and open access.

In practical terms, OCAD University was developing new graduate programs. sLab's founders saw benefit in creating a research vehicle for developing new knowledge across disciplines and sectors by being knowledgable, adaptive, trustworthy — intellectually omnivorous, organizationally porous, and ethically accountable. Co-founders Lenore Richards (director), Greg Van Alstyne (director of research), Dr. Robert K. Logan (chief scientist), framed the opportunity.

sLab launched in December 2008, with a boistrous and colourful gathering in the penthouse suite of the iconic 'table-top' building, at the heart of the main campus. The event featured a workshop designed and facilitated by Michael Anton Dila and visual thinker Dave Grey, author of Gamestorming and Liminal Thinking. We prepared the space for an explosion of co-creative visualization using an enormous roll of paper, by lining every wall from floor to ceiling. Participants filled the walls with drawings, diagrams, slogans, and dreams, in response to the generative question, "what kind of sLab do you want to see?" It was Dila, steering clear of the ponderous acronym 'SIL', who had suggested 'sLab' to abbreviate Strategic Innovation Lab. Van Alstyne, originally trained in communication design, developed sLab's blue 'figure ground reversal' logo and 'camel case' wordmark. With that, a new research centre -- dedicated to "envisioning possible futures" -- was born.

images, drawings & diagrams filling a wall

The following year this vision moved rapidly toward realization with the Fall 2009 launch of the SFI program -- OCAD University's Master of Design in Strategic Foresight and Innovation, led by Lenore Richards as inaugural Graduate Program Director (GPD) and Director of sLab, working closely with Greg Van Alstyne, Director of Research. Richards, now sLab's Director Emeritus, retired in 2017. 

An inaugural SFI faculty group was convened by Lenore to advise and develop SFI courses, including veteran OCAD full professors, Helen Kerr and Jeremy Bowes, sLab's Van Alstyne, Drs Peter H Jones and Nabil Harfoush, Suzanne Stein of Super Ordinary Lab, and later, Stephen Davies and Michele Mastroeni. Anchored by Lenore, who wielded deep managerial experience as OCAD's former Dean of Design, the group forged an original and legible curriculum at the intersection of design, culture, organization, futures and emergence. Tactically and pedagogically, this curricular mix was supported by twin 'lingua franca': systems thinking and visual thinking.

The community was supported and animated by sLab's program of co-creative researchfrequent public eventspublishing & mobilizing. With these intentional boosts in visibility, and an unparalleled level of commitment from program director and faculty, the SFI MDes program quickly grew to become the largest graduate program at OCAD University. Against this backdrop, sLab was able to demonstrate values-centred, ethical commitment to long-term thinking, intergenerational wisdom, and transdisciplinary, poly-centric knowledge transfer. From day one our practice centred on participatory foresight and systemic design. Initially this was not an "easy sell" but it did distinguish our work from mainstream design thinking. Our students later reported, with tempered excitement, that "foresight is not a door-opener, but it is a differentiator."

New insights and forms of knowledge have been developed in the crucible of participatory action research projects, woven into classroom experience, elaborated in numerous grad student projects, and further tested by alumni in their new positions in the field. Emboldened by trust gained in these engagements, core SFI faculty have introduced new and different kinds of risks and rewards in innumerable classroom encounters. Our students are not fresh from undergrad, rather they are "seekers on a mission" -- talented, questioning and demanding mid-career professionals, who have painstakingly searched for an alternative to the status quo educational path. Our vital community has found heuristics, language, conceptual and practical structures for integrating design thinking, organizational thinking and futures thinking in an approach to realizing themselves as wholistic changemakers with newfound agency and accountability. 

[Please send additions or omissions to the editors]


Milley, P., & Szijarto, B. (2020). The landscape of social innovation in Canadian universities: an empirical analysis. Canadian Journal of Nonprofit and Social Economy Research, 11(1), 21-21.