The early stage analysis of a systemic innovation lab

Author: Zivkovic Sharon

Systemic design
Systemic innovation Lab
Wicked problems


This paper documents the early stage development of a South Australian systemic innovation lab that is using Wicked Lab’s FEMLAS process as its lab methodology. Systemic innovation labs are a lab type that has been purposefully designed to address wicked problems. While systemic innovation labs and the FEMLAS process incorporate the core set of principles that have been proposed for systemic design, they differ from traditional systemic design in two ways: instead of taking a systems thinking approach they take a complex systems approach and instead of their design component being centred on solving problems it focuses on the development of initiatives that assist system transitions.


Systemic Innovation Labs

The complex wicked problems that the world faces need to be addressed through self-organising governance networks (Meuleman, 2011, p. 104). These networks require enabling conditions to be established in order to maintain the coordination required for emergent self-organisation, adaptive capability (McKelvey and Lichtenstein, 2007), systemic innovation (Davies et. al., 2012) and transitions to new improved states (Goldstein et al., 2010, p. 104).

Systemic innovation labs are an ideal mechanism to strengthen self-organising governance networks. They are a hybrid lab model that incorporates and synthesises key features from other lab approaches that are recommended for addressing wicked problems: they focus on addressing complex problems, take a place-based transition approach, enable coherent action by diverse actors, involve users as co-creators, support a networked governance approach and recognise government as an enabler of change (Zivkovic, 2018).

A range of principles have been embedded into the systemic innovation lab model including the core set of principles that have been proposed for systemic design and principles from solution ecosystem and systemic innovation approaches (Zivkovic, 2018). The core principles proposed for systemic design are: idealization, appreciating complexity, purpose finding, boundary framing, feedback coordination, system ordering, generative emergence, continuous adaptation, self-organizing and requisite variety (Jones, 2014, p. 106). Solution ecosystems consist of all the initiatives in a geographical area that are addressing any of the interdependent causal factors that underpin a wicked problem (Eggers and Muoio, 2015) and systemic innovations are ‘a set of interconnected innovations, where each is dependent on the other, with innovation both in the parts of the system and in the ways that they interact’ (Davies, et al., 2012, p. 4).

While systemic innovation labs incorporate the proposed principles for systemic design, they differ from traditional systemic design in that they take a complex systems instead of a systems thinking approach. Systems thinking and complex systems approaches are based on different intellectual traditions (Castellani, 2018) and have different ontologies (Snowden and Stanbridge, 2004). Systemic innovation labs also differ from traditional systemic design in that the focus of design is not on designing interventions to solve problems but rather on designing initiatives that have the required characteristics to enable system transitions (Zivkovic, 2018).

Development of the Lab Methodology

The need for Wicked Lab to develop a lab methodology was identified during the evaluation of Wicked Lab’s Complex Systems Leadership Program. Wicked Lab’s program incorporates an online Tool for Systemic Change, and both the program and tool support systemic design that is informed by complex systems theory, and solution ecosystem and systemic innovation approaches. The evaluation highlighted that Wicked Lab’s program and tool would have a greater impact if they were components of a systemic innovation lab methodology (Zivkovic, 2017).

Concepts and techniques from four complex systems leadership theories are embedded into Wicked Lab’s program and tool. Complex systems leadership theories are leadership approaches that are based on complexity sciences (Hazy et al., 2007, p. 2). As a problem solving approach, they do not focus on finding the one way to solve a complex problem. Instead, their focus is on providing a framework within which stakeholders can learn, interact and adapt to maximise their effectiveness in solving complex problems (Geyer, 2003, p. 254).

The Complex Systems Leadership Program consists of three units of study which are undertaken online during a six-month period. Unit 1 focuses on participants understanding the characteristics of wicked problems and why a complex systems approach is required to address them. In Unit 2 participants gain an understanding of initiative characteristics that assist communities to strengthen their adaptive dynamics and undertake transitions, and in Unit 3 they gain an understanding of initiative characteristics that assist governments to support transition approaches.

During each of the program’s units, participants use Wicked Lab’s online Tool for Systemic Change to address a wicked problem of their choice in a geographical community of their choice. In Unit 1, participants define the boundary of their solution ecosystem: the geographical boundary and the wicked problem, and enter into the software all of the initiatives within that geographical boundary that are addressing any of the underpinning causal factors of their targeted wicked problem. In Unit 2, for each of the initiatives that were entered into the software in Unit 1, participants identify if the initiative has any of the initiative characteristics that assist communities to transition to a new state that has increased coherence and performance. During Unit 3 participants identify if any of the initiatives have initiative characteristics that strengthen the interface between community and government systems.

To progress the need for a lab methodology that was identified during the program’s evaluation, Wicked Lab has developed the FEMLAS Lab Methodology which incorporates the capability building of its Complex Systems Leadership Program and the mapping, analysis and reporting functions of its online tool. FEMLAS is an acronym that stands for the six stages of the FEMLAS Systemic Innovation Lab methodology: Form, Explore, Map, Learn, Address and Share. At the Share stage of the process there is an iterative loop: after completing the Share stage, the four stages from Map to Share are repeated periodically.

Case Study

The South Australian Systemic Innovation Lab case study that is described in this paper focuses on climate adaptation and is a partnership between the Natural Resource Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges agency of the South Australian Department for Environment and Water and the City of Marion. Wicked Lab’s FEMLAS process is being used as the lab’s methodology.


Schuurman’s (2015) three levels of lab analysis: macro, meso and micro are used to analyse the case study. The macro level is the lab’s core team which consists of a diverse range of stakeholders to ensure that the complexity and interconnectedness of the wicked problem is represented. The lab’s meso level consists of the solution ecosystem of initiatives and the organisations that are collaborating on these initiatives. At the micro level the focus is the specific lab methodology: Wicked Lab’s FEMLAS process. Semi-structured interviews are undertaken with key stakeholders involved in the lab’s establishment to undertake this analysis.


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Zivkovic, S. (2017), ‘Determining the social performance of a complex systems leadership program’, paper to the 9th International Social Innovation Research Conference, Swinburne University, 12-14 December.

Posted Oct-2018

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