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This is the second of 2 blog posts about what we heard when we visited 15 innovation labs in Auckland and Wellington. In this post I provide a summary of those conversations and some ideas for moving forward. 

What we heard

Collaboration is occurring organically, but most labs or teams don’t have capacity to share their learnings across the system in deliberate ways.

At the practitioner level, service design networks in Wellington and Auckland organise regular meetups to share ‘tricks of the trade.’ There was consensus that more connections and collaboration at the strategic level would be beneficial.

Some labs are keen to connect to the wider innovation ecosystem. There are incubators and accelerators that have established networks of talented entrepreneurs who want to work on real pain points. There are many corporates and private sector organisations that are grappling with their own innovation strategies — so there may be value in the cross pollination of these experiences and learning.

Funding and funding models

Funding was highlighted as a key challenge in nearly every conversation we had.

For many labs, their operating expenditure is not yet baselined. This has an impact on retaining staff and continuity of the work programme.

Providing an overview and transparency of the various funding models would help decision makers understand ways that others are approaching this and the rationale behind the funding models. For example, club funding, cost recovery/revenue earning, private-public partnerships and innovation funds. 

Agencies new to this space are unsure where to start

Common questions asked by those tasked with establishing an innovation lab include:

  • What is an effective business model?
  • What is the ideal governance structure?
  • What capability will we need?

Creative HQ’s Innovation Hub report also has some helpful tips around these questions.

Providing an overview of the public sector innovation landscape and profiling different labs might assist new comers in helping with design and set up of their lab. It may also help raise awareness of the ‘innovation space’ for those that are in key roles of influencing the wider authorising environment.

It’s worth considering the role of consulting groups and tertiary institutions in supporting the capability development within government in design thinking and social innovation. Some labs have close relationships with design schools within universities and there is a growing design for social innovation community which includes public and private sector groups.

Scaling innovation is difficult and the ‘system immune response’ kicks in

Agencies experimenting with innovation are hitting barriers such as scaling beyond prototype stages and sustaining their outputs outside the lab environment.

The Service Innovation Lab has shared the work completed on system barriers which details the insights that came out of workshops held in August 2017 to explore possible changes to the State sector to enable digital transformation of government. This work looks at the macro settings of the government system, but it can also be applied at the agency level when looking at creating a more innovative organisation.

There would be huge value in sharing experiences and case studies where labs are having success in this area. What are examples of operating models where the lab serves as a neutral space for problem discovery, ideation and early stage development of a new product or service (involving experimentation and cross-agency collaboration), and the agency brings this in house and flips it into business as usual.  

There is also a need to think about how more staff can be exposed to the ways of working in a lab environment. This will help build capability across different business units within agencies and challenge the perception that innovation only occurs in a lab environment — inadvertently (or perhaps purposefully) isolating lab teams from the rest of the business — termed by one interviewee as the “special team syndrome.” Innovation should not be ring-fenced into labs or hubs as it is a core problem solving competency and these mind-sets should permeate organisational capability.

Measurement and demonstrating impact is a common problem

“We aren’t communicating and promoting all aspects of the value of the lab as effectively as we could — leading to an array of major problems associated with short term funding commitments.”  

Attendees at the Wellington Innovation Hub hui discussed the challenges involved with measuring success. Attendees said success is specific to a particular initiative, and therefore success needed to reflect the project’s strategic objectives as opposed to measuring value in the same way as traditional funding models.

There is some work being done by the Service Innovation Lab around understanding “What does good look like?” in public service design and innovation. This is another key area where bringing people together to discuss and share ideas would achieve real value.

Where to next

Below we present a few of the early ideas we’ve had or ideas we’ve heard from others. These are not analysed, prioritised or themed, we want to continue learning in this space and connect with others that share a passion for seeing innovation labs succeed.

Potential ideas

  • Reconnecting with innovation labs and diving deeper to understand more about key issues such as operating and funding models.
  • Broadening our approach to understand more about innovation that's occurring inside government agencies (and a wider look at the govtech scene). There's no collated information on this that we're aware of. Please connect with us if you have information on this.
  • Facilitating ways that we can harness the wisdom and experience in the design and innovation space to work together on:
    • tackling system settings that are preventing innovation from scaling
    • investment strategies for innovation
    • developing a Te Ao Māori approach to innovation.
  • Continuing to host innovation showcases to celebrate new ways of working, collaboration and innovation and explore taking these on the road to celebrate innovation occurring in the regions.
  • Sharing success stories across the network.
  • Explore the need for an ecosystem map and/or a connections tool — check out this early prototype. This tool could be used to map areas of interest, sectors, expertise, or key themes emerging in labs. We would love to hear your feedback on this — would you use a tool like this?
  • Explore the need for a ‘catalogue of innovation’ in the public sector (maybe useful for those just beginning or those part of establishing an environment supportive of collaboration and innovation).
  • Facilitate capability exchanges between labs so staff can access a wider range of experiences. This might be rotations or secondments and working more with universities (some labs already do this).
  • Explore how we connect with the wider New Zealand innovation ecosystem.


While it’s acceptable in the start-up world that innovation comes with risk and failure is a necessary part of the journey, there are perceptions that this kind of failure is unacceptable in the public sector. However, perhaps being in a ‘lab’ environment where experimentation is expected to occur, and failure, or rather trying new things and learning, is more palatable.

And while innovation may be an emerging area within government, just like in the start-up community — we need to have conversations about scaling innovation. We're not yet at a critical tipping point where innovation is a normal part of the way that government does its business. Even knowing who in a government agency are the right people to have conversations about innovation is a challenge for most.

We know we've only scratched the surface and our conversations raised more questions than provided answers. But there is experience and wisdom across this community and there is real passion within the teams doing this mahi. 

Whāia te iti kahurangi, ki te tuohu koe me maunga teitei.

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