There are many versions of the Innovation Lab model. Essentially though, the design is about coming together in small groups to plan and build a prototype that addresses a problem. The nature of the problem and the prototype will be framed by the Lab, and the Innovation Labs that Internews has been involved with--in Islamabad and Kabul in particular--aimed to produce prototype tools or applications that addressed a social issue or challenge.
There is no doubt that the Lab model is effective in exposing its participants to innovation. The first stage of the Lab is usually features a variety of technologies and tools and presents case studies on innovative solutions to challenges. The second stage allows participants to apply what they've just been exposed to address practical challenges in their own communities.
Recently, Internews Asia utilized aspects of the innovation lab model to encourage participants to develop projects that incorporated data visualisations. Last year, at the Islamabad Innovation Lab, participants formed groups and produced a number of prototypes that aimed to address real challenges they faced.
In both of these events, there were interesting presentations and prototype projects that could be developed and launched. There was the possibility of allocating a budget to one or more of the prototype projects to development them further. However, more thought is required if this third stage of the Lab model is to be successful.
So, the third stage of the Lab model is about development, deployment and sustainability. For that to be attempted, it has to be integrated in to the Lab right from the start and a plan needs to be in place not only for funding but also for mentoring on how to develop a prototype into a usable tool or application.
One strategy for innovating the Lab model is to partner with an accelerator, or for Internews to establish a 'social good' accelerator where teams can be provided with a workspace, funding and guidance.
If the social good accelerator is to be a success, a critical mass of ideas and prototypes need to be generated, and more importantly there need to be committed teams willing to invest time to develop and carry out their projects.
There are already some accelerators focused on supporting social-impact startups. Mashup gives a run-down of three US-based accelerators:
- Unreasonable Institute – Boulder, Colorado: Unreasonable’s marketplace is open; you can help determine or even be one of the projects selected for this summer’s program. Do you like the mountains and being connected to a global roster of mentors? Check this program out.
- Civic Accelerator – Atlanta, Georgia: Just announced this year, the Points of Light Insitute’s Civic Incubator program is expanding to launch one of the first accelerators focused on social entrepreneurs. Learn more as it rolls out the program in the coming weeks and months.
- MassChallenge – Boston, Massachusetts: In its third year, MassChallenge is open to all startups and has no strings attached. Compete for $1 million in cash prizes, interact with over 600 mentors and experts over four months, and enjoy free office space overlooking Boston Harbor. Four of last year’s top cash prize winners were social-impact startups. Apply for this year’s program starting March 1.
There are existing accelerator type spaces across the world that could serve as partners for Innovation Labs. For example, in Kenya, the iHub is an ideal space to take startups to the next level. And across Asia, the number of accelerators is on the rise. However, before partnering, it's critical to investigate the relationships and funding models that are required for a successful 'social good' project outcome.
There's an opportunity for Internews to get more deeply involved with the social impact startup scene. While establishing a physical accelerator may be difficult, Internews could broker relationships with existing co-working spaces, angel investor networks and mentors to aggregate the resources and skills required to take a prototype to a launchable, useful social product.