Lesson for Innovation Labs from Around the World: 4 Virtues

University of Vaasa’s new InnoLab is an important initiative with great promise.

‘Innovation’ is a theme that cuts across different fields of research, from technical disciplines to social sciences.

Dr. Jaakko Kuosmanen is a Senior Advisor at Demos Helsinki think tank, Adjunct Professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Helsinki, and a member of the InnoLab’s Advisory Board.

Innovation can be understood as involving something ‘new’, and this new is related to an ‘outcome’ or to a ‘way of doing things’. Ultimately, sociologists and political scientists can be innovators just as well as electrical engineers or computer scientists.

My personal initiation into innovation work at a university environment was during James Martin Research Fellowship at the University of Oxford. The multidisciplinary research project I was coordinating explored how governments around the world could govern long-term future better.

The need for innovations in the field of public governance arises from two key drivers. Firstly, at present humanity has greater-than-ever capability to impact the future. Secondly, the ongoing transformation to post-industrial era means that the world has become increasingly interconnected and complex.

The nature of this challenge has been well summarised by former United States Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who said that “citizens are speaking to their governments using 21st century technologies, governments are listening on 20th century technology and providing 19th century solutions.”

Innovation labs are often turned to in questions relating to technology and business. But labs can just as well support innovations in democracy and governance. In fact, ‘Innovation Lab’ has become pretty much a cross-sectoral global buzzword.

I currently work at Demos Helsinki think tank, and we help governments around the world to establish innovation labs and to rethink their old ways designing policy. Every emerging innovation lab has to find their own way of doing things, and their own understanding of what innovation work involves. But similarities in different continents can be found.

After working in different innovation lab contexts ranging from Kuopio to Dubai and Delhi, I believe that there are four key virtues at the core of flourishing labs:


(1) Create broad communities

Collaboration and dialogue are the very essence of innovation. Bringing together broad stakeholder communities, including researchers, entrepreneurs, decision-makers, and citizens can challenge business-as-usual and break through stuck discourses and closed mindsets.

(2) Be both local and global

Labs can serve as important local catalysts for change, sparking the discovery of new technologies, creation of jobs, and cultivation of flourishing research communities. At the same time, digitalisation has created unprecedented opportunities for global collaboration and impact. Labs can function as local engines for progress, but they can simultaneously help to solve big global challenges.

(3) Be experimental

Important part of innovation is that it can emerge unexpectedly. In fact, innovation often involves exploring the unobvious. Multidisciplinary research enables the study of intersectional topics in which there can be much to uncover. New experimental methodologies and unobvious partnerships within and outside academia can potentially bring to fruition new innovative ideas, theories, technologies and other applications, or even whole new future fields of scientific research.

(4) Think beyond labs

Although innovation labs are often physical structures, they can be understood as something bigger. Labs can function as platforms cultivating innovation mindsets and changing everyday practices. In fact, it could be argued that one key aim of a lab should be to make itself redundant. Labs are only the beginning. Ideally, innovation would be all around us and it would happen organically.


If designed in the right way, labs can function as forceful catalysts for impact and new research. Of course, the idea of lab brings us only half way. A flourishing innovation lab requires also hard work.

The good thing is that Vaasa’s InnoLab is not alone here. Lessons from around the world can help InnoLab to establish itself as a local powerhouse and a global player.

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