The origins of 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. In response to that interest, this blog series will chronicle the journey of these Labs from conception to design through piloting. The series begins with this post, which looks back at how the Labs started. I’ll follow it up soon with a post about what we learned when we convened 10 practitioners to help us design the Labs, and how we selected the pilot sites. I’m going to be as transparent as possible about our process, discoveries, stumbles, and successes along the way, because those are the kinds of posts I like to read and find most useful in my own practice. Stay tuned and let me know what you think. – Karina


What are the Community Innovation Labs (the short version)?

In up to two US communities in 2015, EmcArts will pilot a new approach to solving tough social challenges by deeply integrating artists and artistic experiences into rigorously designed and facilitated change processes. The pilot Labs will bring together a diverse, cross-sector group of stakeholders in each location, including city agencies, community organizers, business leaders, artists, cultural organizations and nonprofit service providers, to begin to address a specific and urgent local challenge in civic and cultural life. We’ll be piloting the first stage of the Labs in 2015, with the intention of continuing on to pilot the full, two-year design through 2017. Lead support for the pilot Labs is being provided by the Kresge Foundation.

What led EmcArts to this approach (the long story)?

For the last 10 years, EmcArts has been designing and facilitating Innovation Labs for arts and cultural organizations. Our Labs create the space and conditions for organizations to test innovative new ways to take on their most complex, intractable challenges. We do this by helping them bring together teams of “unusual suspects” from inside and outside their organizations, who then work together to unfreeze the status quo, and test their most promising ideas by putting them into action.

In these Labs, we act as process designers and facilitators, not content experts. The focus of any Lab, the challenge being tackled, and the approach developed are determined by the participants. Our role is to help the group do their best work together, reach the goals they’ve outlined, and create a container to keep up the urgency, which can wane so easily in the face of day-to-day demands.

Our first Labs were for performing arts organizations. Then the program grew to include museums and arts development agencies. At the same time, EmcArts began expanding its work to other areas of the not-for-profit sector, including organizations serving youth and families. We found that the rigorous process frameworks and arts-based methodologies we’d developed for the cultural sector had great resonance with other sectors as well.

We began to explore what it would look like to craft an Innovation Lab process to work alongside multiple stakeholders from different sectors in one local community as they came together to uncover new approaches to a shared civic challenge outside of the arts sector. In other words, what role might artists, artistic practice and cultural organizations play in taking on the most complex social challenges facing our communities today, challenges in areas like education, transportation, health, social justice, safety, the economy, and the environment?

Images selected by artists & program participants that represent the future

The social challenges in these areas are of great magnitude. Addressing them requires broad-based interventions that can only happen when we ask insightful questions, make unlikely connections, and break through disciplinary silos in order to experiment, innovate and take strategic risks. Often, traditional planning-based processes fail to do these things, and thus fail to affect systemic change.

In traditional planning, stakeholders are asked to provide input, not invited to co-create solutions. These approaches also tend to be linear and focused on incremental improvement, instead of geared towards discovering new and experimental strategies. Planning approaches also draw primarily on expert research and analysis to design interventions, which results in solutions that do not adequately take into account the experiences of stakeholders. Labs, on the other hand, test solutions early and fast, and engage users to refine the solution. In short, traditional strategies for civic planning are falling short, progress is slow, and ingrained ways of working exclude most citizens from decision-making. Could Labs be the alterative we need?

At the same time, we believe that artists and cultural organizations have untapped potential in our communities. They are often marginalized in community development and planning efforts, and rarely offered a seat at the table. Yet, they are some of the most creative minds of our communities, experienced in rapid experimentation and synthesizing many perspectives. Could Labs that deeply integrate the creative sector be a meaningful new way to take on social challenges of great complexity?

With all this in mind, our hunch was that our deep experience as process designers and facilitators, and our work with over 250 cultural organizations, would be of value. With the support of the Kresge Foundation, we began developing the Community Innovation Labs.

Learning from Creative Placemaking and Social Innovation Labs

As we conceived the Community Innovation Labs, we drew inspiration from a variety of fields and practices, including community organizing, community development and planning, advocacy, collective impact, social practice and civic practice, and community-based arts organizations.

There are two emerging fields of practice, however, that most influenced our Community Innovation Labs, and which we hope to contribute to: creative placemaking and social innovation labs.

Creative Placemaking report for NEA by Anne Markusen and Anne Gadwa
Creative Placemaking report for NEA by Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa

With creative placemaking, we share a belief that artists and cultural organizations can play a critical role in civic life and community development. While there’s little consensus on the definition of creative placemaking, it seems generally accepted that the term came to wide use following Anne Markusen and Anne Gadwa’s 2010 study in which they first defined the term as:

“In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities.” – Markusen and Gadwa for the NEA.

The number of definitions has grown since then. According to the Kresge Foundation, creative placemaking is:

“For our purposes we use creative placemaking to refer simply to the deliberate integration of arts and culture in [community] revitalization work.” – Kresge Foundation

The National Endowment of the Arts Our Town program uses this definition:

“Striving to make places more livable with enhanced quality of life, increased creative activity, a distinct sense of place, and vibrant local economies that together capitalize on their existing assets” – National Endowment for the Arts, Our Town

And finally, ArtPlace America’s definition, which specifies four characteristics of successful creative placemaking projects, locates areas of intervention within ten sectors of community planning and development, and also emphasizes processes that feed into community outcomes.

“In creative placemaking, “creative” is an adverb describing the making, not an adjective describing the place. Successful creative placemaking projects are not measured by how many new arts centers, galleries, or cultural districts are built. Rather, their success is measured in the ways artists, formal and informal arts spaces, and creative interventions have contributed toward community outcomes.”

It’s fascinating to see all four of these definitions bump up against each other. For ArtPlace, creative placemaking seems to be a set of practices squarely in the realm of the cultural sector that are intentionally extended out to intersect with other sectors. For Kresge, it seems to about the deliberate integration of arts as one of many other factors in community revitalization work. For Our Town, placemaking is articulated in terms of outcomes.

Language aside, the field of creative placemaking has already demonstrated the extraordinary roles that artists play in community development. We can see this in the stories of Theaster Gates’ Dorchester Project in Chicago, Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses in Houston, TX, Springboard for the Arts Irrigate project in St. Paul, MN, and more. What we noticed in our research, however, was that the predominant model for funding creative placemaking was to support single projects and/or single organizations. While this has produced many exceptional projects that beautify public space, parks, bridges, buildings, transit stations, and main streets, we believe that this funding model may not be engaging the full capacity of artists, which more broadly includes the ability to creatively solve problems, generate new ideas, forge social bonds, and identify the right questions to ask. That’s why I was inspired to hear Laura Sparks of the William Penn Foundation say recently at the ArtPlace Summit in May that “beautification doesn’t trickle down the local community. We need to change the system and we need to be creative to do that.”

Project Row Houses, Houston, TX. Source:
Project Row Houses, Houston, TX. Source:

In other words, we need to expand our thinking about the role of art and artists in civic life to include a fuller range of creative tools beyond beautification. We need to also understand how arts practices can bump up against existing place-based inequities and social patterns, so that we can better anticipate problematic impacts around things like gentrification, community divestment or disengagement, neighborhood displacement and economic disparities. That’s part of what we’re trying to do with the Labs, to see the role of artists in community change work not in terms of the mural painted, building revitalized, or transit hub transformed, but in terms of the new relationships forged through this work, and new systemic interventions and radical alternatives to the status quo.

We also had an intuition that there could be better way of strengthening the long-term capacity of communities to integrate artists from the beginning of community change efforts. Rather than starting with a project and having the relationships follow, what would it look like to start with building relationships and let the projects follow? In large part, what we’re exploring with the Community Innovation Labs is whether a rigorous process framework over an extended period of time that engages a cross-sectoral network from the beginning can strengthen the capacity of a community to see local artists and cultural organizations as major assets in community development work, and to make space for them at the table consistently.

 The Dorchester Projects in Chicago. Credit Sara Pooley/Theaster Gates Studio
The Dorchester Projects in Chicago. Credit Sara Pooley/Theaster Gates Studio

With social innovation labs, we share a belief in the power of large-scale, cross-sectoral collaborations over extended periods of time to attempt system-level change. Similar to creative placemaking, there are many incarnations of social innovation labs. The definition that I find most resonant is from the book Lab Craft, a book written by a group of Lab practitioners:

“Labs confront complex, messy, and non-linear challenges that transcend the interests of a single institution or sector. They bring together people who don’t normally talk to each other into a space where they can discuss things they deeply care about.”

According to Zaid Hassan, author of Social Lab Revolution, social labs have three key elements, they are 1) social, 2) experimental and 3) systemic. They are social in that they invest in the TEAM and not in the creation of a PLAN. They are experimental in that the outcomes are fundamentally uncertain and new approaches are uncovered by iterative prototyping. They are systemic because they are designed to engage with not only the symptoms of a problem but with the underlying driving, structural forces at play, and they recognize that when we don’t have a picture of the whole problem or issue, we end up strenuously defending our own position.

What we find deeply inspiring and instructive about these Labs is that they take on challenges that are systemic in nature and they use intensive process frameworks over long periods of time (up to 10 years in some cases).

For example, the eLab is an assembly of big wigs in the US electricity sector that come together in a lab framework to identify, test, and spread practical solutions to the challenges facing our energy grid. Similarly, the Finance Lab in the UK is a team working towards a financial system that works for people and for the planet, one that is democratic, responsible, and fair.  There are many more examples of Labs proving to be valuable new approaches to system change, including the Labs championed by UNICEF, Stanford, MaRS, AfriLabs, InSTEDD, the government of Denmark, the World Bank.

In our research, however, we encountered two opportunities to offer new learning about Labs. The first is that Labs often take on very large-scale social problems, which have, in some cases, been their Achilles heel. Adam Kahane and Zaid Hassan have both written at length about the failure of the Bhavishya Lab in India, designed to reduce child malnutrition in India. The sheer ambition of it and the narrowness of the timeframe and conceptual frame in which the work was trying to be done simply couldn’t withstand the pressures of the larger system. With our Community Innovation Labs, we see an opportunity to design realistic change Labs that focus on ambitious challenges, but are still practically rooted in the parameters and ecology of a local community.

Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving Complex Problems by Zaid Hassan

Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change by Adam Kahane












Second, artists, artistic practice, and cultural organizations are very rarely involved in social innovation labs. This seems a major oversight in previous Lab designs, considering the need for creative problem solving and non-linear thinking to take on systems level challenges. As Jeff Barnam says in his article “Social Sculpture: Enabling Society to Change Itself”:

“The defining characteristic of a creative process is that it structures the process of metamorphosis. For an artist to create a finished work of art, he or she must navigate a journey of reaching or hunting through which a final form can emerge. This is a metamorphic process: In art as in nature, the final form emerges at the end. A creative process structures the hunt for an emergent solution.”

We see the integration of artists and artistic practice into a Lab framework as a significant opportunity for these Labs to be deeper, more imaginative about systemic solutions, more effective and sustainable.

We sensed that there was potentially great power in bringing together and remixing the most effective aspects of these two emerging disciplines.

Our hypothesis is that community efforts to address problematic social situations will be deeper and more sustainable if two things happen together: 1) artists, artistic practice, and cultural organizations are fully integrated into a multi-stakeholder and interdisciplinary change effort and 2) the effort has a rigorous process framework that balances control and emergence over an extended period of time and builds on existing local capacities.

We’ll be testing this hypothesis through the pilot phase of the Community Innovation Labs.

Tough questions, concerns, and wonderings as we begin

As we embark on this work, a number of questions immediately arose, including: what challenges and communities are a good fit for this type of Lab process? How should we enter communities so that the Lab is locally owned and implemented? What kind of process framework is needed for change in complex systems? How should local artists, artistic practice, and cultural organizations become central to the change effort? How do we, as an organization, need to build our own learning and capacity in order to manage these Labs?

To ensure that we integrated multiple perspectives in the research work, we took a page from our own Lab playbook, and brought together an Innovation Team of leading practitioners from many related fields. The Team included:

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.

In the next blog post, I’ll share what we explored and discovered with the Innovation Team over the course of three intensive full-day meetings earlier this year!

Our reading list and resources

Here’s a list of books, articles, and other resources that were helpful to us in the initial stages of ideation and development of the Community Innovation Labs:




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