Innovation Hubs/Labs

Teams focused on applying techniques to reframe problems, generate solutions or grow innovation capacity
Dan Monafu

Innovation Hubs/Labs (also known as innovation teams, labs, units) are differentiated from other teams in that they often adopt new and experimental methods to tackle various social and public issues. They come in a variety of sizes, use a range of techniques, and are equipped with different resources.

Hubs/Labs can be distinguished from other teams on several main axes:

  • by the methods and skillsets they employ (e.g. design; behavioural insights; lean startup);
  • by the field in which they work (e.g. policy, program, service delivery);
  • by where they focus their efforts (e.g. upstream to downstream in the innovation process);
  • by how they work (e.g. undertaking experiments; primarily supporting and funding others)


  • Creating solutions to solve specific challenges. Such Hubs/Labs focus on solving high priority problems, and developing usable and scalable solutions, in collaboration with colleagues. These Hubs/Labs are developers and creators of innovations.
  • Engaging citizens, non-profits, governments, and businesses to find new ideas. Such Hubs/Labs focus on opening up voices and ideas from the entire system. These Hubs/Labs are enablers, providing a safe space for inter-sectoral collaboration and co-designing.
  • Transforming the processes, skills and culture of organizations. Such Hubs/Labs focus on transforming the way an organization approaches innovation to develop the skills and mind-sets of its mainstream components. These Hubs/Labs are educators, providing the insights and knowledge to change the culture and empower others within an organization to innovate.
  • Achieving wider policy and systems change. Such Hubs/Labs focus on bringing about transformation, looking beyond specific interventions to the wider policy context and complex systems that need to change. These Hubs/Labs are architects, creating the designs and blueprints that others can adapt and follow. 


  • Will not solve problems without access to the whole organization/system; few Hubs/Labs will be responsible for long–term delivery and implementation - systems and processes should be in place to scale Hubs/Labs solutions, or Hubs/Labs should work directly with business line owners at project onset.
  • Will not always have simple indicators of success, and may struggle with attribution - metrics should be chosen wisely. Transformative ideas can take many years to spread, and Hubs/Labs need to improve the way they measure and communicate their impacts.
  • Will not fix complex, entrenched problems overnight. These units are often a very small percentage of their parent organization (which may limit their potential impact if the right authority is not in place), and need to be part of a broader solution with multi-layered interventions at targeted levels. 

Policy Opportunity

  • Rally and coordinate system actors to better understand and then design strategies to tackle seemingly unsolvable and entrenched challenges (e.g. chronic disease prevention).
  • Deliberately apply relevant (emerging) technologies (e.g. data analytics), disciplines (e.g. behavioural economics, design), and funding/delivery models (e.g. social finance, social innovation), and foster a structured approach to the innovation process.
  • Tighten linkages between policy development, program design, and service delivery by improving specific stages of the innovation process (e.g. idea generation, prototyping, testing or implementation and scale). 


  • The design of a Hub/Lab should be driven by an ultimate goal (e.g. generate specific solutions, grow innovation capacity, etc.).
  • More specifically, creating a Hub/Lab team requires:
    • Clarifying aims and capabilities - determining why a Hub/Lab is needed, identifying current issues or opportunities it could help tackle, and assessing current and potential innovation capabilities and gaps.
    • Designing the team model - creating the design of a Hub/Lab, including its relationship with government, reporting relationship within the organizational hierarchy, funding resources and potential partners.
    • Building the team - developing the leadership, skillsets and culture of the team.
    • Implementing and delivering - selecting the method(s)/output(s) the team will use.
    • Measuring impact - quantifying success and communicating value.
    • Governance placement of the team within the organization.
  • To understand where a Hub/Lab could create impact, it is important to identify the current capabilities and gaps within an organization’s current structure. For instance, consideration should be given to:
    • What expertise does the organization currently possess that could help it reach or determine its aims and objectives?
    • What are the gaps in its knowledge and capabilities?
    • What expertise exists in its wider network? And how could it leverage this?
    • What other resources could it draw on (e.g. citizen insights)?

Government of Canada

  • Impact and Innovation Unit (Privy Council Office) acts as a resource on new tools and approaches and as a connector among federal innovators. It also directly supports the development and trial of innovative solutions to policy, program and service delivery challenges using new tools and approaches (e.g. big data, behavioural insights and user-centric design).
  • IN·spire Innovation Hub (Natural Resources Canada) specializes in introducing new ways of working, collaborating to create user-driven pilots, developing “first of its kind” initiatives and embracing “open by default.”
  • Service Lab (Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada) applies design thinking to help federal programs co-create great government service experiences for business.
  • Accelerated Business Solutions Lab (Canada Revenue Agency) uses data analytics and behavioural economics, and other innovative techniques to improve taxpayer compliance and service to Canadians.
  • Change Lab (Employment and Social Development Canada) uses a new policy, program, and service delivery development process that integrates end-user perspectives from the outset and brings together a horizontal team to explore problems and develop solutions.

Best in Class

  • Action research - a participatory approach to problem solving:
  • Behavioural economics:
    • The Behavioural Insights Team in the UK uses behavioural economics to understand and solve policy challenges. At the heart of the approach is the EAST framework, aiming to encourage behaviour by making it Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely.
  • Co-production and Human-Centred Design (HCD) - approaches used to help link the perspective of the end user to government decision making:
  • Notable sector - specific innovation/entrepreneurship models:
    • Nesta (UK) is a charity that works towards advancing public and social innovation based on a strong network of partners.
    • UILabs (Chicago) innovates in the manufacturing sector.
    • Level39 (London, UK) helps develop financial technology in what is known as the ‘fintech’ sector.