Designing EmcArts’ Community Innovation Labs

Karina Mangu-Ward, Director of Activating Innovation, EmcArts
Karina Mangu-Ward, Director of Activating Innovation, EmcArts

In January 2015, we announced a new program, the Community Innovation Labs. We heard from many of you that the program struck a chord. You also let us know that you wanted to follow what we were learning from piloting this program in up to two U.S cities this year. This post is the second in a blog series that chronicles the journey of these Labs, from conception to design through piloting. Read the first post here. Stay tuned and let me know what you think. – Karina

Last December, during the first meeting of a team we’d gathered to help us design the Community Innovation Labs, one team member offered a warning: “Don’t assume it’s change a community needs, rather than actualization of potential.”

For me, this was an ah-ha moment, a shift in my thinking about the Community Innovation Labs. I went from seeing the Labs as catalysts for urgently needed change, to seeing the Lab as an opportunity to build on connections and momentum already present in a community, where an external partner like EmcArts and a process like the Community Innovation Labs could support and deepen efforts already underway. The distinction is important, I think.

Now, internally at least, we talk about the Labs as “capacity building” labs, not “change labs.”

Yes, our hope is that they result in changing the local system to make it more equitable. But the larger goal is to make community development efforts deeper and more sustainable, to ensure that artists have a seat at the table for the long-haul, and to foster connections across the system that enable even greater progress in the future.

Getting to this kind of insight is exactly why we convened a group of 9 people to assist us in designing the Labs and developing a plan for piloting. We called them our Innovation Team.

Putting together our Innovation Team

In our own programs, one of the first steps in our innovation framework is putting together a diverse team that represents key voices in the organization or system that is seeking to change. Since the Community Innovation Labs are new terrain for us here at EmcArts, we decided to practice what we preach and pull together a group that could challenge our thinking and contribute to a better program design.

After several months of research, networking, asking for recommendations, and invitation emails and phone calls, we put together a team that included artists, leaders of arts organizations, non-profit leaders, a community development professional, a city official, a lab researcher, and funders (plus all the other hats they wear in their personal and professional lives) from 5 cities.

The team included:

Over the course of 3 full-day meetings this past winter, this group worked alongside EmcArts staff Richard Evans, Melissa Dibble, Karina Mangu-Ward and Liz Dreyer to design the full Lab framework and determined the focus of the 2015 pilot Labs. The meetings were facilitated by John McCann of Partners in Performance.

What happened in Meeting 1?

At its first meeting, in December 2014, the Team explored two key questions:

  1. How can we enter communities and engage so that the change effort belongs to, and is implemented by and with, that community?
  2. What kinds of process framework(s) are needed for complex system change? How robust or malleable should these be?

Entering communities and questions of ownership

One of the potential pitfalls of a program like this one is that it is perceived as (or worse, is in practice) an outside agency parachuting into a community with resources and a framework either uninvited, or without thoughtfully adapting that framework to the local context in collaboration with local stakeholders.

We asked our team members to share their insights on Question 1, above, so that we had the best possible chance of the Labs supporting processes that belong to and are implemented by local stakeholders.

The group started by sharing some widely held assumptions that need to be questioned when embarking on a process like the Community Innovation Labs, including:

  • Communities have a problem they don’t know how to fix
  • Because an organization has resources, it will be welcomed
  • Everyone wants change
  • All communities are enter-able
  • Frameworks are neutral
  • The loudest or most insistent people adequately represent the community
  • More people make a better process

The group then recommended a set of strategies, based on their own experiences in the field, to get beyond these assumptions:

  • Only go where you’re invited
  • Be clear about your values and intentions
  • Start with assets, not deficits
  • Understand the systemic and cultural context in which you’re working
  • Work alongside communities to reduce systemic inequities and injustice
  • Use plain language, define it
  • Bring together unusual suspects
  • Allow time to build trust
  • Plan for exit (or ejection)
  • Aim to create change that can’t be taken away, or better create capacity that can’t be taken away

These recommendations have become the bedrock of our approach. They’ve influenced everything from our mindset, to the language we use, to the process we developed to select sites, to the design of the Labs themselves. Most importantly, they’ve determined what areas we need to learn more about before beginning the pilots and made clear where we need to stretch from our previous practice.

The first draft of a framework for the Community Innovation Labs

The next part of Meeting #1 was devoted to Question 2:

What kinds of process framework(s) are needed for complex system change? How robust or malleable should these be?

We started with a presentation and critique of the EmcArts team’s early thinking on the possible design of the Labs, summarized in this slide:

Our early thinking about Community Innovation Labs design
Our early thinking about Community Innovation Labs design

This slide represents the 30,000 view of the 4-stage Lab process. It looks an awful lot like petri dishes, which wasn’t intentional, but is somewhat apt. In this version:

Stage 1: Gathering focuses on recruiting pilot sites, identifying a core stakeholder group in each community, holding meetings with the core group to refine the focus of the Lab and identifying up to 40 participants to be involved in intensive workshops. This phase is estimated at roughly 3 months.

Stage 2: Swimming Together and Clustering, is centered on 4 day-long facilitated workshops with up to 40 workshop participants, which were intended to create a safe-space for people from different sectors to reframe the challenge together and name the assumptions associated with it. The goal, stated loosely, is to “unfreeze the status quo.” The hope was that clusters of individuals and/or agencies would organically emerge from the workshops as they uncover shared interest in exploring a specific innovation response to the challenge at the heart of the Lab. This phase is estimated at roughly 5 months.

Stage 3: Experimenting is an extended period for undertaking repeated prototyping and learning through on-the-ground testing of innovative strategies by several consortia. During this phase, collaborators conduct research, gather data, and try and discard ideas. A multi-day retreat is used to build momentum. This phase is estimated at a year to 18 months.

Stage 4: Sharing is time at the end of the process for the consortia organizations to work to institutionalize their new capacities, and share learning from the Lab is shared across the community. This also where other agencies are enrolled into the new joint strategies.

After Richard and Karina presented this framework, the Innovation Team offered questions and provocations about this overview of the framework.

Overall, we heard from a number of Innovation Team member that the process felt too neat and clean, too separate from the community that surrounds it. The closed container didn’t seem to reflect the reality that people would need to enter and exit the process over time for various reasons, nor that this process would be happening alongside many other community processes already underway. One Team member reminded us that we are entering communities “mid-stream” and needed to position the Lab relative to other ongoing efforts and seek out opportunities for connection.

The team was also concerned that during the “Gathering” phase there was too much emphasis on existing networks and relationships. The drawing suggested that whoever is in that smallest circle (the initiators of the Lab) and their relationships in the community would wholly to determine the composition of the larger Lab group.

We heard that we needed 1) be very careful about who initiates the Lab, making sure that they are a trusted presence in the community and 2) come up with deliberate strategies to engage unusual suspects in the Lab process, not only those connected to the initiators and not only connect through established networks of power. These two considerations prompted the group to recommend a “Phase 0” which was a much heartier process to assess the readiness and fit of the communities. This discovery would eventually lead us to decide to do full, day-long site visits at each of the five communities we were considering as pilots, as well as begin the process with a much more rigorous stakeholder and network analysis to increase our changes of getting beyond the usual suspects.

One of the most challenging queries that arose was captured in the question from one of our Team members, below, about who might participate it a Lab and in what capacity:

  • What is the difference between participating in a Lab as an individual and as a representative of an organization? How do we acknowledge and manage the power that is implicit in both scenarios?

In our previous work, EmcArts has worked primarily with individual organizations. While organizations are an important part of the fabric of communities, they are not the only organizing unit, and they alone cannot mobilize systemic change. There are many individuals – artists, activists, organizers, parents, youth and more – who are a part of a local system, but exist outside the boundary of a 501c3 organization, government agency, or other formal/legal structure. To confine the Lab participants to those affiliated with an organization or agency reinforces existing hierarchies and power dynamics. However, to ask Lab participants to show up only as themselves, risks losing the potential of those local organizations and agencies to use their authority and resources to take action as a result of the insights gained in the Lab. And, of course, no matter how we formally define participation, people will show up with a multiplicity of identities.

Although we didn’t resolve it at the first meeting, our Innovation Team pushed us to get clear for ourselves about what level of participation we’re aiming for: individuals or organizations. In the weeks after Meeting #1, we struggled with this decision. Eventually, after speaking with a number of colleagues, in particular, Marianne Hughes, founder of the Interaction Institute for Social Change, we realized that we were missing a piece missing from the choice between “individuals and organizations.” We hadn’t thought enough about networks. Networks, both formal and informal, engage individuals across organizational boundaries, in both their organizational and individual identities. Since then, networks have been an important part of our mindset and planning for the Lab.

We’ve also let go of the idea that we have to decide in advance about how people show up in the room. As we design the pilot Labs, we’re staying open to participants coming from organizations and agencies, networks (both formal and informal) as well as people who come as individuals, as citizens, with a multiplicity of identities at play, and as a result are committed to finding strategies to manage the dynamics of power and privilege among people entering the space through different identities.

We also came to realize that anyone participating in the Lab has to be open to bringing their whole selves to the work, regardless of their primary affiliations, and that it’s our work as process designers and facilitators to create a safe space for that to happen.

Meeting #2 – Frameworks for innovation

For the second meeting, The Team continued to investigate Question 2:

What kinds of process framework(s) are needed for complex system change? How robust or malleable should these be?

We got deeper into this question by investigating four different experimental approaches to addressing community challenges, namely:

  1. The Collective Impact movement
  2. The Orton Foundation Community Heart & Soul approach
  3. The U-Process
  4. Transformative Scenario Planning (as practiced by REOS Partners)

I won’t go into detail on each of these methods in this post. Below, are just a few highlights from our exploration:

– From the Collective Impact movement, we took inspiration from the emphasis placed on developing a shared vision of the future and the importance of having a relatively neutral and well-respected convener for the group. We also clarified that the Labs differ from Collective Impact in that they don’t require alignment around a small set of strategies and outcomes, and that while measurement is important, the most important thing is developing metrics that are meaningful to the community and the work, not necessarily quantifiable.

– From the Heart and Soul approach, we took inspiration from the incorporation of local artists and the emphasis on storytelling as a way to bring communities together in shared purpose. We also appreciated the emphasis on starting from a place of strength by mapping community assets. We wondered about the applicability of elements of this process for an urban setting, given that it’s devised for a rural setting. We also questioned the assumption that there’s a shared set of values in any community that can be uncovered.

– From the U-Process, we took inspiration from the way action is intentionally deferred to give space for reframing, building relationships and networks, letting go of old assumptions, and seeing the system as a whole. We also appreciated the emphasis on prototyping and experimentation to discover a new way forward. We wondered what it would take to build the level of trust required by the U-process to get beyond the “bottom” of the U, and whether that would be possible in the timeframe of the Labs, and whether it’s the right aim at all.

– From Transformative Scenario planning, we took inspiration from how the method focuses on two uncertainties of the current reality and uses that as a tool for imagining possible futures. We also appreciate the use of metaphor, as each of the four visions of the future that gets created is given a metaphoric name. We were concerned about the lack of action here, as it ends with the development of four future visions, with little attention paid to how those visions become reality.

Overall, and perhaps most importantly, we noted that different communities will require different activities and tactics (some of which cannot be defined in advance), and we agreed on the need to equip our potential partners with clear, simple guidelines and to co-design processes that would be replicable once we leave.

We followed this conversation with a detailed review and refinement of the provisional Lab process framework. Significant development resulted from the Team’s input, which eventually lead us to create the two diagrams below.

Our updated process framework for Community Innovation Labs, generated after conversations with our Innovation Team
Our updated process framework for Community Innovation Labs, generated after conversations with our Innovation Team



As you’ll see, the backdrop of the first new diagram is the community as a whole. The process is no longer separate, but in and of the community. We also added a first phase called “Co-Design” to ensure that we are working with the local conveners to finalize the design of the Labs and to establish the leadership structure. Engaging networks is another entirely new phase, devoted to deep analysis of the local system to ensure that that Lab group we gather is truly representative of the system relative to the challenge.

We haven’t yet solved the problem of the diagram looking too neat and clean, but that’s something we’re working on for the next round.

You can hear us talk more about this final version of the Lab Framework on the webinar we gave in March about the program.

Meeting #3 – The role of artistic practice

In the third meeting, the Team focused on this question:

  • For what purposes, and in what ways, can artistic practices become central to the change effort and to adaptive strategies that emerge from it? 

When it came to integrating artist practice into our own Innovation Team work, we wanted to, again, walk our talk, so we invited Michael Rohd of the Center for Performance and Civic Practice to lead artistic experiences as a part of all three meetings with our Innovation Team members.

Throughout the first two meetings, Michael led movement and performance exercises, including a role-play in with some team members embodied the role of someone who had just participated in a Lab, and other team members embodied the role of a journalist researching how the Lab impacted participants. Together, these roles helped the group uncover what success might look like for this program.

The Team also undertook a exercise to rehearse expressing the Lab approach in an accessible way. With team members playing community members who were introducing others to a possible Lab in their community, this exercise was used to better understand what could be put across clearly and simply, what was compelling, and what needed further unpacking so it could be effectively communicated.

In the third meeting, we dug even deeper into these more detailed questions:

  • Where and how might artistic practices be deployed for maximum impact at different stages of Community Innovation Lab processes?
  • What distinctions can we make between artistic practice & creative facilitation? To what extent is effectiveness based in a design that is teachable, or in the particular aesthetic point of view of the implementer?
  • What principles and priorities should guide whether artistic techniques in the Labs are designed by EmcArts and led by local collaborators, or co-designed by Emc and local artists together?
  • What benefits and challenges arise when you consider integrating artistic practices into a community process that is primarily designed and led by outside facilitators?

These questions represent some of the opportunities and the tensions of an arts-integrated Lab.

There was consensus among our Team that artists and artistic practices could be powerful tools at every stage of the Lab and should be thoughtfully integrated throughout, but how exactly? There was disagreement in the room about the line between creative facilitation and artistic practice. We’re still exploring these questions: When could a facilitator that doesn’t identify as an artist effectively lead a creative or artistic experience in a Lab convening? When do we need a self-identified artist? When do we need the artist who originated the experience/tool himself or herself in the room?

There was a strong consensus that engaging local artists as process leaders and as co-designers was critical because 1) it increases the chance that the process is authentic to the local community, and 2) it builds the capacity of those local artists to go on leading local process.

Our discussion around all these questions led to a first draft of some principles and a clarification of the different roles artists and those from the arts field will play in the Lab.

A few principles for engaging the creative sector:

  • Ensure that artists and cultural leaders are represented in the champions group
  • Engage local artists as process leaders
  • Engage local artists and local cultural leaders as process participants, focusing on artists who see their artistic process primarily as convening and connecting people, rather than making a piece. Offer training and support to these local artists, as appropriate
  • Don’t be afraid to involve non-local artists who are leaders in the practice of integrating arts into community development, when appropriate and asked for by the local community

Here are the three roles we think the creative sector should play in the Labs:

  • Champions: Local artists and cultural leaders as part of the champions group
  • Process Leaders: Local artists as facilitators, designing and leading activities alongside EmcArts’ team
  • Participants: Artists and cultural leaders as community members, bringing their perspectives to the discovery process and development of innovative strategies

Our thinking about the role of artists and the creative sector is still evolving, and will continue to evolve as we begin piloting the program in two communities.


At the end of the three Team meetings, the team members reflected on the power and purposefulness of the gatherings, the value that was derived from bringing multiple and varied perspectives to the table, and the open, learningful approach that everyone brought to the design process. Many of the Team members have continued to support and advise us in the research project as it has moved forward.

Much of the design, values, and activates of the Lab we discuss in that first public webinar are the result of the work we did with this Innovation Team. Our huge thanks to Erik, Marlon, Kemi, Dayna, Liz, Ellen, Savannah, Laura and Michael.

My Next Post

In my next post, I’ll be reflecting on the process of identifying pilot sites. After the informal announcement of the program in January 2015 we received 67 informal inquiries from 53 communities. In response to the official launch of the pilots in March 2015, we received 36 formal inquiries from 30 communities. Between February and April, we conducted 29 phone calls to explore inquiries in greater depth.

I’ll reflect on how we arrived at the five cities we visited and the two we are selecting as pilots.

Stay tuned!

Karina Mangu-Ward is the former Director of Strategic Initiatives at EmcArts.