Tackle wicked problems with design labs

Traditional approaches won’t do it

Sweden, as well as the rest of the world, is undergoing major changes. The pandemic has had a profound impact on our lives and has had serious implications on the health system, the job market, education and our social lives. It’s pushing the boundaries of all sectors, forcing organizations to rethink and transform their operations. And the crisis is not happening in isolation, it accentuates the ongoing ones, such as climate change and inequality. It demonstrates how interconnected our challenges have become, involving a lot more complexity. They all have one thing in common though; traditional approaches won’t solve them, and one single stakeholders’ effort won’t do it. We need to come together, and we need to find innovative approaches to tackle today’s challenges.

In the last couple of years there has been an increased interest in how design could contribute to solving challenges that are complex and more social rather than technological (Szücs Johansson & Solding, 2014). One early example of this is when the research group RED at the British Design Council in 2004-2006 set out to tackle complex social and economic problems by applying design to large scale systems and services (Burns et al., 2006). Among other things they worked with reducing the escalating costs for treating chronic diseases such as diabetes.


Instead of focusing on improving the medical system they focused on preventive measures, enabling people to live healthy lives, which led to radically different kinds of solutions. In addition to this they involved both patients and health care professionals as active participants in the design process in order to design services that met their needs. This so-called ‘co-design’ approach is well suited for tackling complex issues as it allows diverse viewpoints to come together and create common understanding of the problem space and use that as a starting point to co-create solutions.


Laboratories for societal challenges

In the last couple of years even more attention has gone into addressing the root causes of societal challenges, such as health, to support whole system transformation. This has led to an enormous interest in the concept of “labs”. Traditionally labs have been a place for scientists to test hypotheses but have now been re-purposed to address “wicked problems” in society, often called design labs or change labs (Westley et al., 2012). During the global financial crisis in 2009 British social pioneer Geoff Mulgan highlighted the need for a disciplined approach to societal challenges in his TEDTalk:

“We know our societies have to radically change. We know we can't go back to where we were before the crisis. But we also know it's only through experiment that we'll discover exactly how to run a low carbon city, how to care for a much older population, how to deal with drug addiction and so on. And here's the problem. In science, we do experiments systematically… And what's striking though, is that in society there's almost nothing comparable, no comparable investment, no systematic experiment, in the things that capitalism isn't very good at, like compassion, or empathy, or relationships or care.”
- (TEDGlobal, 2009)

What Mulgan points out is that we need space for experimentation, and many argue that design labs can offer that space. So, what characterizes a design lab? They usually provide a platform, a common space or a dedicated team that brings together diverse stakeholders to collaborative experimentation and learning. A design lab doesn’t provide any solutions, but an approach based on design methodology and a set of methods and tools to find answers to different challenges. As a space it is characterized by action-learning, driven by the purpose of discovering problems from a user/citizen perspective and sparking actions for change.

Chart on Design labs verses traditional labs

Translated from: Designlabb för social innovation (Szücs Johansson, 2014)

How do Zenit Design work with design labs?

Our approach to this is rather straight-forward. We apply our design mindset to any challenge that comes our way. With our broad and interdisciplinary team of experts we put together the right people to facilitate the experimental journey needed to find innovative approaches to complex challenges. We provide a neutral space where diverse stakeholders and competencies could come together with users/citizens to collaborate on equal terms. 


Our collaboration with Coompanion Skåne is a good example of this approach, as we joined forces to organize a design lab addressing the needs of people seeking asylum in Skåne. With the County Administrative Board of Skåne as our main partner our purpose was to find new methods for understanding needs and co-creating solutions that could make a real difference for individuals who are in the asylum process.

Photo by Coompanion Skåne

We developed a range of interview methods that in a safe and comfortable way could be used in the conversation between professionals from the non-profit sector and asylum seekers in all parts of Skåne. The methods focused on what’s important in the lives of asylum seekers in order for them to feel safe, have a meaningful life and feel involved in society. After the interviews we organized a series of workshops where 40 representatives from the sector analyzed the data, identified opportunity areas and co-created ideas for the future.


Enabling many to contribute

The project resulted in insights that provided the partner with in-depth knowledge about the everyday life and situation of asylum seekers in Skåne. The methods used in this design lab enabled us to collaborate across disciplines and silos. The visual way of working, with both framing problems and generating ideas, made the process understandable for all participants and enabled everyone to actively participate. 

Another example of a lab we took part in organizing was The Sustainability Lab 2020, a project in which we were exploring ways of involving and empowering youth to voice their future scenarios for the city of Malmö. The lab was a collaboration between the city of Malmö, Malmö museum and other local stakeholders where we created and facilitated an unusual summer job experience for 40 young residents in Malmö.


We contributed to the lab by facilitating two periods of four-week long co-creative processes, during which we explored different themes and provided tools and techniques for the participants to understand, create and discuss issues relevant to them and their communities. At the end of each period the youth exhibited visualizations of their ideas for a more sustainable Malmö to the public as well as decision makers from the city.

Photo from The Sustainability Lab 2020

The lab created a unique opportunity for dialogue between different stakeholders in the city and contributed with new perspectives on inclusion as well as sustainable development efforts in the city. Genti Cifliku, the project manager for the initiative expressed the need for labs in the following way:

“With the current situation in the world the lab is perhaps more relevant than ever. The more people who contribute with thoughts and ideas, the more voices that can be heard, the brighter future we can build.”

- Genti Cifliku, Project Manager at the city of Malmö

Today, around the world labs are increasingly seen as a vehicle to solving complex problems. However, these labs are still a fairly young construct that needs to be developed further. Labs are essentially catalysts of disruption that depend on decision makers who welcome change that might fundamentally impact their business. If there’s something we’ve learned from our years working in the field of design, it’s that this type of transformation is necessary to achieve real systems change.    


5 tips on how to get started setting up a lab

1. Scope the challenge for your lab 

One of the first things you need to do when setting up a lab is defining the scope of the challenge. The broader the scope, the more time you need to invest. On the other side, if the scope is too narrow you might overlook the systems perspective and develop solutions that won’t have a systemic impact. 

2. Identify who should take part 

A good way to identify who should be involved is to map out stakeholders that are active in the system around your challenge. Make sure to identify a diverse mix of actors. For example: people affected by the problem, organisations working with the issue, municipal or governmental decision makers and inspiring entrepreneurs doing promising work in the field.    

3. Connecting with stakeholders 

Once you have identified interesting stakeholders, go out and connect with people and organisations that you want to involve. Talk to them about your intentions, ask for their thoughts, experience and advice on how to move forward and invite them to get involved.    

4. Setting up your approach and tools 

There are many approaches that could be used in a lab, but it’s no coincidence that many labs around the world use human-centered design. Make sure you have a wide range of methods and tools to stimulate creativity, guide conversations, facilitate collaboration as well as develop, prototype and test solutions.  

5. Avoid the solutionism trap

When working with complex challenges there are no obvious solutions. Many different factors are intertwined and need to change in order for real transformation to happen. One could say that solutions that are functional today usually are products of the established system and therefore not challenging enough. Instead, a lab could help develop processes enabling us to better address these challenges and show possible paths forward.  

Are you interested in discovering more about the opportunities with design labs? Don’t hesitate to get in touch!



Burns, C., Cottam, H., Vanstone, C., & Winhall, J. (2006). Red paper 02: Transformation Design. London: Design council.

Szücs Johansson, L. (2014). Designlabb för social innovation. Mötesplats Social Innovation.

Szücs Johansson, L., & Solding, L. (2014). ABC Design och Social Innovation. Mötesplats Social Innovation.

TEDGlobal 2009. (July 2009). Post-crash, investing in a better world (Video).TED. https://www.ted.com/talks/geoff_mulgan_post_crash_investing_in_a_better_world/transcript

Westley, F., Goebey, S., & Robinson, K. (2012) Change Lab/Design Lab for Social Innovation. Waterloo Institute of Social Innovation and Resilience.

March 18, 2021
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