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Elena Higgison is a Principal Advisor Digital Government. In part 1 of this 2 blog series, Elena shares her journey of discovery into the NZ Innovation Lab scene, why she did it and what common features she observed.

We know citizens’ expectations of government are changing. In the digital age, citizens expect faster, easier and more personalised services. And while New Zealand is ranked as a ‘stand-out’ digital nation we can’t be complacent.

Government has some lofty wellbeing priorities which tackle some of our toughest social challenges — so doing things the way we always have will not achieve the prosperity we seek for all New Zealanders.

We need to explore new ways to bring greater collaboration, innovation, adaptiveness and agility to government so we can navigate the complex challenges before us and deliver enduring value.

Why innovation labs?

I joined the Government’s Chief Digital Office (GCDO) last year after a three year stint running start-up programmes at Callaghan Innovation. It’s been interesting to switch my focus toward supporting innovation within government.

In my first week, I visited the Service Innovation Lab. I met the team and immediately felt I had somehow missed out on something.

Why wasn’t this sort of environment around when I was cutting my teeth as a baby policy analyst in the government sector? Here was an environment where working collaboratively and experimenting was the norm, not the exception.

So, began a journey of discovery into the innovation lab scene to learn and form relationships. 

What follows is a capture of what we heard across 15 meetings with different innovation labs and teams. This adds to earlier work undertaken by some of the Service Innovation Lab team in mid-2018. 

NZ’s innovation lab scene

Below is a list of labs we visited during Nov-Mar. This list isn’t exhaustive so please send me an email if you can connect us to others in this space.

We also attended an Innovation Hub Hui in November 2018 hosted by Creative HQ and wheretofromhere? as part of experience week in Wellington. Findings from this workshop can be found in Creative HQ’s report.

This is just the beginning of an ongoing dialogue and we're very keen to share our reflections on what we've heard so far and connect with others in this field.

What are innovation labs?

It’s important to point out that innovation labs are only one part of the puzzle and if an agency doesn’t have a lab, this doesn’t mean they are not being innovative. Many government agencies now have service design teams that are supporting agencies to be more customer centric. Our choice to focus on labs first was because these are easily identified.


Labs are springing up everywhere. While no two are the same we did observe common features:

  • Almost all were established to improve collaboration and provide innovative solutions to issues within their organisation (collaboration is more often emphasised over innovation). How they go about achieving this and the business models utilised within labs are varied.
  • Most are single agency focused. A few labs are cross-agency including the Service Innovation Lab and the Auckland Co-design Lab.
  • Teams typically work in a space/hub conducive to collaborative ways of working. One of the big advantages of having a lab operate in its own space is the ability to take people out of their day to day environment and provide the conditions (including the license and neutrality) to be innovative. 
  • There is a range of funding models – but in general, sustainable funding for lab operations and for projects is a key issue facing many labs.
  • Almost all labs have some support from external consultant groups (e.g. service design) either in the early stages of establishment (as internal capability develops) or in an ongoing way.
  • There is a mixed level of maturity around labs operating as ‘Innovation as a Service’ within government agencies. 
  • Some labs were born out of agency business transformation programmes where they started their life as a design team to support staff engagement in their agency’s transformation programme (e.g. Inland Revenue Collaboration Zone and Watercare).
  • Other labs started life with a focus on place-based innovation and change (Auckland Co-design Lab, Hatch Box and Tamaki Regeneration). Place-based innovation exposes teams to cultural context, allowing them to learn from local communities and bring these learnings and principles into their co-design process.
  • Innovation labs typically enlist a range of innovation methods, frameworks and tools. There is no shortage of innovation tools and resources and many are shared online including: Service Innovation Lab, Auckland Co-Design Lab, Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI) and Nesta
  • Some labs are underpinned by the principal of ‘open source.’
  • Labs often sit alongside related functions within agencies including customer experience, business improvement, business transformation, organisational development, and strategy. It’s not always clear how the various functions work together on the overall innovation strategy of the agency.
  • Labs crowd source ideas from their organisation in various ways. Most are demand driven as opposed to strategically driven. Almost all have unpredictable work programmes.
  • Not many labs are exploring commercial partnerships or opportunities as an outcome of the lab process, including supporting startups to work on issues the agency is facing or partnering with private sector companies to deliver new products or services. Exceptions include Data Ventures, Creative HQ and NZTA’s Innovation Lab.
  • Most labs are struggling to effectively measure their impact and tell their story.

What appears to be common across most labs is that their operating model and value proposition change over time. Like a new product entering the market, some labs have pivoted and released newer versions of themselves as they learn more about the needs of their customers, understand their place in the market, grow their internal capability, and adapt to uncertain funding environments — more on this later. 

Te Ao Māori approach

There is a strong desire to develop a Te Ao Māori approach to innovation and co-design.

There is some emerging experience within the design community and we can see real value in connecting and sharing these experiences to develop a ‘uniquely Aotearoa’ approach to design and innovation.

Read the second part of this blog to find out what we heard in our conversations and some ideas for moving forward in this space. 

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