MindLab: The evolution of a public innovation lab

On January 27th, Kit Lykketoft, the Deputy Director of MindLab and a visiting scholar at Parsons the New School for Design – DESIS Lab, visited The GovLab to share insights about the design and evolution of a public sector innovation lab.

MindLab was the one of the first public sector innovation labs in the world. Founded in Denmark in 2002, MindLab is celebrating 14 years of existence. Its innovative approach has inspired the proliferation of similar labs and user design methodologies deployed in many countries. MindLab is also an institutional member of the MacArthur Research Network on Opening Governance which is chaired by the GovLab.

The Deputy Director of MindLab, Kit Lykketoft, visited The GovLab to talk about the evolution of a public sector lab.

Kit Lykketoft is an expert in implementing user-involved projects and change processes, and consults on development of public sector innovation labs and capacity building for innovation in organisations.

From its start MindLab has embraced an iterative approach of rapid prototyping and testing to evolve not just their government co-creation projects, but also their organizational structure, describing their 14 year journey as an organization as being defined by six different stages or “generations.” in her talk, Lykketoft, who has been with MindLab for nine years, shared the challenges and lessons learned from working within a cross-governmental innovation unit.

Picture of the cover of a MindLab booklet that describes their evolution.

The journey of the lab is described here.

Initial projects were quite experimental for the time.  As Lykketoft puts it, “it was like throwing a grenade into the system.” For example, they used art installations to popularize citizen rights in taxation. It turned out to be too radical an approach, that didn’t resonate well with the system. They learned that they needed to move more slowly, and their focus on being experimental could come at the cost of opportunities for collaboration with government actors. “We needed to understand not only the citizens and businesses, but the system. We needed empathy.”

MindLab is tasked with breaking down silos between ministries. Currently, it is part of three ministries (education, employment and business) and the Odense municipality. Their collaboration in itself is an experiment for the lab. Lykketoft shared that in the view of MindLab, the public sector has more bottom lines than the private sector for success: productivity, service, changes in behavior, and democracy. “To meet them you need to be good at defining the right problem. We fall into well-known solutions because we don’t take the time to know well the problem.”

Skills and methods

When thinking about how to staff the Lab, “we decided we needed skillsets not commonly found in the public sector at the time. We also needed people that understood how the public sector works.” MindLab decided to build capacity with a mixture of interdisciplinary and cross-functional skillsets: public administration, social research, and design. An early job posting  called for individuals who wanted to “revolutionize the public sector.” This brought in a flood of applications. The professional backgrounds of employees were varied but “all had some idealism, wanted to change something in the world,” explained Lykketoft.

MindLab’s methodology is based on the use of ethnography and design methods, like rapid prototyping and testing, to co-create public sector solutions with citizens, businesses and government agencies. The novel incorporation of design enabled a new medium through which public sector stakeholders could reimagine problems and opportunities.

Design thinking has enabled MindLab and its many imitators around the world to understand drivers of behavior, to experiment, and to create a common language between citizens and civil servants. MindLab staff conduct semi-structured interviews in the field based on a hypothesis that emerges from initial research and issues exploration. “Quickly you see patterns emerging,” said Lykketoft. Team members may also conduct observational studies to see what people actually do in their natural environments, and not just what they say the do. Sometimes MindLab has  employed props such as a video diary, a personal user diary, or a cell phone, to text people with questions. With these artifacts and research material, MindLab engages in co-creation sessions with citizens, experts and other relevant stakeholders to come up with more ideas and prototypes. Rapid prototyping involves the creation of concrete and physical objects to understand what cannot be easily explained or immediately understood. Together they intentionally test very rough prototypes, so people can add to and adjust the solution. “It’s not hard to find people that want to engage.”

Picture of Kit talking to Ideas Lunch attendees.

The Govlab hosts Ideas Lunches in our offices in Brooklyn. You may find information about upcoming lunches here.

From service design to policy reform

At the very beginning MindLab engaged mainly in service design projects. Over time it has moved on to projects with more complex dimensions and deliverables, such as engaging in policy making, reform, and capacity building and projects they couldn’t have done initially because they didn’t know enough. According to Lykketoft, this has been possible because they have learned from their previous interactions. MindLab has captured institutional knowledge in a dynamic environment through a research program developed to look across learnings from project and programs. Their research efforts showed that IT projects, for instance, tend to share many commonalities. This knowledge helps MindLab to test richer, more evidence-based hypotheses for similar future field work.

When working on policy design or reform, MindLab has a focus on the intended political effect and on thinking about implementation very early in the process. For example, having the policy makers go into the field to  spend a day with a caseworker so that they can experience the end user’s experience. One example of engagement in reform-work was around elementary school reform that involved moving from a half day of school to a full day that would result in teachers spending less time preparing and more time teaching in the classroom. MindLab was part of different phases in the reform, including work to make common learning-goals tangible on a day-to-basis. In the implementation-phase MindLab worked with  teachers to see how they had faced the time and quality challenge, and co-created solutions together with them. Among the ideas were new and more efficient ways of meeting and “speed sharing,” a type of speed dating so teachers could share with other schools what they had learned.

Takeaways for Lab design:

  • Communication is a key success factor for innovation labs. To capture the value proposition and engage collaborators, practitioners need to explain the lab’s objectives, methodology and, eventually, its wins. Many times a good spokesperson is the user. The MindLab records audio and video with users to allow them to explain how research insights were operationalized, for example.
  • With a wave of labs being set up all over the globe, there is an ongoing discussion on their format: should they be internal, external, a nonprofit, a consultancy? For MindLab,  being an internal government lab has been an asset, as it has helped them build a network inside. “We have been able to work with the people in the ministries as colleagues, engage at an early stage in these projects, and stay longer, for implementation, which consultants often don’t do. If you don’t adjust your solutions when you implement then you won’t meet those intended political effects.”
  • Measuring impact is a constantly evolving process: “We are experimenting on a good way to do this.” They have indicators for every specific process, but, “how do we set up indicators that are right to measure what? In many cases we won’t know until years from now.”


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