Design in Action: Durham Region Social Services Innovation Labs – Part 2

Design in Action: Durham Region Social Services Innovation Labs – Part 2

Innovation Lab: Balancing the Human and Technical Sides of Innovation

By: Laura Stephan, Policy Advisor, Durham Region Social Services Innovation and Research Unit

Darren Levine, Manager, Durham Region Social Services Innovation and Research Unit

In the last newsletter, Michelle Garraway of our Innovation and Research Unit began to share about the Innovation Lab or “i-Lab” our team has worked to establish within our workplace ( In the that article, Michelle shared the first four steps in our lab process: Open sharing of problem areas, choosing a perspective, finding insights, and exploring “how might we”.

In part two of this blog, we want to highlight how our labs have been carefully constructed to balance the “human” and “technical” sides of innovation. Once a Lab Team has co-created their “how might we” question and potential solutions, the focus shifts to a circular process of building a prototype, testing the prototype and gathering user feedback… and repeating this process until testing and feedback from users suggests the prototype is solving the challenge we initially identified.

After going back and forth through this iterative prototyping process, we move ahead to larger scale implementation and evaluation. We continue to adjust the prototype as we gather evaluation findings. Through this process, the idea transforms from prototype to final product and is scaled and is eventually adopted by the people we identified as our end users.

You might be thinking this sounds like a very “technical” process, but the emphasis on Human Centred Design ensures that the “human side of innovation” is front and centre at every step of the process – a constant reminder that it’s not just about completing the process, but rather about unlocking the creative potential in every staff member, one voice at a time.

The design process in itself is focused on empathy. As facilitators, we are constantly bringing the lab teams back to a place of empathy. Empathy for the people we are designing for, ensuring we are actually building something that is going to have a positive impact on the challenge we are working on. Beyond keeping our users at the heart of our design, as facilitators we also have empathy for our lab teams, making sure they have the right conditions and supports at every step of the process.

Stephen Covey writes that “leadership is characterized by those who find their own voice and who, regardless of formal position, inspire others to find theirs”. [1] This is the essence of our innovation labs: to create a space where all staff, regardless of what position they hold or how long they have worked at the organization, are supported in discovering their voice, unlocking their creative potential, and exercising their leadership for change, improvement, and innovation.

For this to happen, we must create the right conditions – an environment where staff at all points of our organizational hierarchy have the courage to question current policy and practice, the confidence to share their ideas for change, the permission to step forward and lead the transformation of their ideas into new innovations, and the protection to experiment and try something new in the workplace.

This is where the human side of innovation becomes critical. We can have the best tools and processes for innovation, but if staff don’t feel comfortable, confident, and safe enough to step forward and exercise leadership to use those tools, the tools are useless.

Within an organization, everyone has ideas for change and improvement. Through our innovation labs, staff members at all levels are gaining confidence to unlock their creative voices and lead the transformation of their ideas into new possibilities for our department. Our labs have helped introduce the narrative in the organization that “ideas for change and improvement are within all of us and, with the right conditions, supports, spaces, and tools, we can all exercise leadership in shaping our workplace of tomorrow”.

In part three, we will highlight some of the experiences, projects, and impacts of our human-centred design based innovation process.

We always love learning about what others are doing and are happy to share our experiences, reach out to us at Laura Stephan and Darren Levine

[1] Covey, Stephen R. “Leading in the knowledge worker age,” Leader to Leader, Vol 41, August 2006. pp 11–15



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