The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving our Most Complex Challenges


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Social labs bring together a diverse a group of stakeholders—not to create yet another five-year plan but to develop a portfolio of prototype solutions, test those solutions in the real world, use the data to further refine them, and test them again. Hassan builds on a decade of experience—as well as drawing from cutting-edge research in complexity science, networking theory, and sociology—to explain the core principles and daily functioning of social labs, using examples of pioneering labs from around the world. He offers a new generation of problem solvers an effective, practical, and exciting new vision and guide.

Reos Partners is an international organization dedicated to supporting and building capacity for innovative collective action in complex social systems, which also has offices in Cambridge MA , The Hague, Johannesburg, Melbourne, Sao Paulo and San Francisco.

Zaid has worked around the world, on issues ranging from the sustainability of global food systems, child malnutrition, re-designing financial systems, community development, and countering violent extremism. After 10 days we end up with just over 13, hungry people, after 50 days we wind up with nearly 70,, and so on. The dream of optimization, of course, is the other way round—that we increase the number of hungry people we feed every day by a percentage, which, when compounded over years, leads to a utopian society free of hunger. Of course, all of this assumes that gains will not be wiped out by unexpected events, such as a famine or some other natural disaster.

Another problem with technocratic approaches, including optimization, is that it addresses parts in isolation, rather than the whole.

The Social Labs Revolution

This could look like feeding a small number of hungry people by cutting down massive swathes of rainforest, which helps a small minority, while vast resources are spent with massive long-term negative impact. A side effect of optimization is that the underlying causal dynamics are frequently untouched.

This is what's happening in Yemen with malnutrition. The system is generating more malnourished people every day than can be fed. Efforts to support them are helping small parts and are being outstripped by the dynamic nature of the challenge, where the problem as a whole is getting worse day by day.

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The same logic applies to many issues, including climate change, deforestation, and poverty. Imagine that ten new light bulbs are turned on every second, each emitting a tiny puff of carbon dioxide.


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This pumps greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which increases the risk of dangerous climate change. An optimization response would be to turn off three light bulbs every second, striving in time to turn off four or five, and believe this is adequate. Unfortunately this leaves us with a net increase of emissions, despite our efforts.

That is what's happening with greenhouse gases dramatically increasing the probability of dangerous climate change. All complex challenges have what could be thought of as an engine that produces the symptoms we are most concerned about, be that too many hungry people or too many greenhouse gas emissions. We see these symptoms as trends. For example, one of the trends governing the situation in Yemen is population growth, which, in itself, is not a problem. But when coupled with other trends, such as steadily declining agricultural productivity, we can see how it creates the complex social challenge of malnutrition.

This reflects a situation where demand for different forms of capital is increasing, including natural capital, such as fossil fuels and food. Simultaneously, there is a decline in our ability to meet this increasing demand sustainably.


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This is represented, for example, by declining forests, topsoil loss, less fresh water, and the shrinking envelope of carbon dioxide we can safely emit—which puts limits on how much fossil fuel we can safely burn. In other words, we are now hitting boundaries beyond which our actions seem to be causing irreparable damage to critical ecosystems.

It's not simply that we're running out of resources. The story is more complex. Ramez Naam demonstrates how we have used technological innovation to produce greater output from the same natural resources. For example, we have managed to dramatically increase yields from the same acre of land and convert greater percentages of solar energy into electricity. While the efficiencies are getting better and costs are dropping, they are not dropping fast enough to shift the underlying negative trends.

Furthermore, market-based approaches have yet to figure out what to do with the environmental consequences of economic growth. Technocratic approaches, therefore, represent a bet, a "grand wager" that our ability to optimize will be faster than the rate at which our problems grow. If our problems are growing exponentially and our ability to optimize is growing linearly or worse, declining , then we are staring at a mathematical certainty of collapse.

This is what happened with the Soviet Union and what's currently happening with many responses to complex social challenges across the world. My first response to the request for helping in Yemen was "No, of course we can't help. Henry and Ginny wanted to bring the elite—including the shadow elite—into a room and run a scenario planning exercise on the future of Yemen.

The elite would then see the implications of what they were doing to the country, and this insight would cause them to act proactively in the interests of the whole.

I pointed out that the shadow elite would not voluntarily step forward into such a conversation. Our usual approaches would not work with people who were loath to step up in any formal way, which is what defines a shadow elite. Originally I assumed this situation was unique to Yemen.

Big Beacon Radio Ep. The Social Labs Revolution: An Interview with Zaid Hassan - The Big Beacon

However, I later came across the work of Janine Wedel, a professor and author, who argues that the phenomenon of the shadow elite is widespread: "A new breed of players has arisen in the past several decades They, for example, play multiple, overlapping, and not fully disclosed roles.

Even if by some miracle the shadow elite did agree to participate, I was dubious that such a top-down exercise would result in fundamental change. I offered advice relating to the nature of the problem but largely felt that I didn't have anything useful to say. My two guests politely thanked me and left.

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Out of curiosity, I put on a suit and tie and caught the train to London. Ginny worked there, helping organize a forum on Yemen. Officially a think tank, Chatham House serves as a global rallying point for those concerned with foreign affairs issues.

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The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving our Most Complex Challenges The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving our Most Complex Challenges
The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving our Most Complex Challenges The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving our Most Complex Challenges
The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving our Most Complex Challenges The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving our Most Complex Challenges
The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving our Most Complex Challenges The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving our Most Complex Challenges
The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving our Most Complex Challenges The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving our Most Complex Challenges

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