1 In a world of dramatic and rapid technological changes that are constantly transforming our society at all levels, people have been looking for special places of inspiration and empathy that trigger their collective desire to act and improve things in their environment. Privileged conditions for this to happen are emerging around the world through new organizational structures that are conceived as safe places, where creativity is ignited and innovation processes enhanced through open and agile forms of collaboration (Morel et al., 2018). For some years now, governments, companies, universities and even communities have been turning to the implementation of such organizations through the notion of innovation laboratories (or innovation labs), as iconic places where a sense of belonging, shared learning, and the spark to create new solutions can be found (Acevedo, Dassen, 2016; Bloom, Faulkner, 2016).
2 With the purpose of fostering collective intelligence, guided by a sense of trust and collaboration, innovation labs emerge as particular open spaces that provide a neutral and stimulating environment for all related actors to interact (Dupont et al., 2019; Morel et al., 2018). With their high-tech equipment, inspiring indoor designs and enabling cultures, they are often embodied as dedicated facilities managed by passionate teams devoted to enhancing creative behavior and facilitating the innovation process (Moultrie et al., 2007). Indeed, the importance of the innovation lab phenomenon relies on their intermediate nature that contributes to mediating the challenges of uncertainty and complexity of innovation processes (Howells, 2006; Lewis, Moultrie, 2005).
3 The range of operations of an innovation lab is wide and flexible and can cover the whole process of innovation from idea generation and evaluation, prototyping and testing of solutions, through to implementation and feedback acquisition (Memon, Meyer, 2017). Their functional roles may vary from providing assistance to business organizations in the development of new products or services, or the improvement of existing ones (Memon et al., 2018), to supporting entrepreneurial activities in university environments (Pittaway et al., 2019), or to designing crowdsourced solutions for addressing issues of public interest and delivering public services (Carstensen, Bason, 2012). However, despite their popularity, innovation labs around the world are struggling to keep up and running. Cases like the closure of MindLab in Denmark and of the Laboratorio para la Ciudad in Mexico are proof that maintaining and sustaining an innovation lab is a challenge that goes beyond well-meant intentions (Apolitical, 2019). Among the explanations given by former members of both labs are leadership changes, a lack of understanding of what the labs did, and changes of priorities due to new policies.
4 This should be no surprise, as innovation labs are semi-autonomous organizations that are shaped by their local context and their team experiences. But despite their relative freedom to facilitate innovative projects, they still need to respond to their partners’ interests and goals (Gryszkiewicz et al., 2016; Tõnurist et al., 2015). This is the reason why authors have started to raise awareness of the importance of strategic alignment and shared values in the management of innovation labs. While lab managing teams are constantly striving to create favorable conditions for creativity and innovation to happen (e.g. collaborative culture, non-hierarchical interactions), at the same time they are embedded in rigid and traditional environments, driven by broader political and economic interests (Klooker et al., 2015; Osorio Bustamante et al., 2015). This is especially important as lab managing teams today need to strike a balance between users’ needs and stakeholders’ interests, maintaining a certain degree of autonomy, while also trying to ensure their financial sustainability (Jezierski et al., 2014).
5 In this regard, the authors have previously contributed to the academic discussion by proposing a strategic-oriented maturity assessment approach as a basis for building guidelines for the design and management of innovation labs (Osorio et al., 2019a). Based on Moultrie et al. (2007), they believe that by looking at the stages in which a laboratory is conceived (strategic intent), designed (process of creation), implemented (physical embodiment), operated (process of use) and valued (innovation outcomes), managerial teams can reflect on the journey they have made so far and potentially envision new strategies to get the best out of their labs. In this sense, Moultrie et al. (2007)‘s framework was updated to take account of the nature of today’s (more open and collaborative) innovation labs, operationalized through a maturity-based assessment tool which was tested with 15 cases through an international survey addressed to the managers of these laboratories.
6 Although the previous work proved valuable in understanding innovation lab capabilities, the selected approach (international survey with a questionnaire) falls short in providing greater details of several aspects of the management of an innovation lab, that still need to be explored. Some of these issues are: why they opted to build the innovation lab in the first place? Which kinds of situations have influenced the laboratory’s evolution and adaptation and how they have managed to do so? Our objective in this article is therefore to contribute to this discussion by continuing with the aforementioned work through a qualitative and exploratory approach.
7 To achieve that, a single detailed case study is proposed focusing on an innovation lab located in the city of Bogota in Colombia: ViveLab Bogotá. This case study is based on a compilation of technical documents, management reports and policy documents from almost 6 years of operation, an in-depth semi-structured interview with the current manager and the experience of two of the authors in this article as researchers at the ViveLab Bogotá. The structure of the analysis and discussion is based on the conceptual framework presented in (Osorio et al., 2019a), with the results revealing specific details of how the laboratory has evolved since its inauguration and which factors have played a major role.
8 With the foregoing in mind, the remainder of the document is structured as follows. First, a literature review on the evolution of the innovation lab phenomenon is presented, including a review of research into innovation labs in the public sector. Next, our case history and main characteristics are described, followed by the explanation of our research design. Then, the results of the case study are shared, emphasizing key milestones found in the evolution of our case, leading to a discussion of the most relevant practices identified. Lastly, the article ends with concluding remarks on the implications and further steps in this research.
An Overview of the Evolution of Innovation Labs
9 Amid a wide variety of definitions, innovation labs can generally be described as dedicated facilities for mediating the innovation process through uniquely designed environments, creative and inspiring cultures, and high-tech equipment (Osorio et al., 2019a). They are considered semi-autonomous organizations within real complex contexts allowing all related actors to interact under a “somewhere else feeling”, away from everyday problems, with the purpose of creating communities of knowledge, strengthening people’s innovative and technological competences and imbuing values of sharing and collaboration towards a common objective or project (Osorio et al., 2019b). However, despite being relatively recent, this phenomenon has been studied for several years and has been addressed from different perspectives, giving rise to important contributions that help to understand its nature and diversity.
10 Early studies on innovation labs focused on the ideal environments for promoting a creative climate and how the physical design should reflect that purpose (Ekvall, 1997; Kristensen, 2004; Wycoff, Snead, 1999). Later on, by studying three cases from the corporate, government and university sectors in the UK, Lewis and Moultrie (2005) introduced the organizational dimension of this kind of physical spaces. They argued that the benefits of innovation labs go beyond specific outcomes and consist in fact of a learning process for both the individuals, groups or projects and their parent institution. In addition, they also discovered that these benefits appear to be closely related to the specific application and operational context. This means that in a small organization with an already creative culture, these results could be more easily welcomed and valued. While in the more reluctant and larger corporations or government institutions, the process may be more difficult.
11 Moultrie et al. (2007) then synthesized their experiences in innovation labs in the private sector into a conceptual framework. In this case, the innovation lab is considered part of the company’s innovation strategy and therefore its operation should always be aligned with this purpose. Meanwhile, Magadley and Birdi (2009) showed, through a single case study in the public sector, why creative outcomes, human-technology interaction and group facilitation are equally important as considering the overall context around the lab. This was to be expected, as new paradigms began to change the way innovation was understood – open and democratized – (Chesbrough, 2006; Von Hippel, 2005), as was the case of innovation labs. In that sense, Dupont (2009) argued that the key pillars for collaborative environments are the participation of end-users, the involvement of multiple stakeholders and the attitude toward collaboration. The composition of the innovation labs and their operating scenarios were becoming increasingly complex.
12 More recently, studies have continued to show the diversity and idiosyncrasy of this issue. On the one hand, there are those focused on the physical embodiment and spatial configuration in different conditions, such as Knoll Workplace Research (2013), Kallio et al. (2015) or Klooker et al. (2019). On the other, there are studies providing insights into how the innovation process is actually facilitated and how this facilitation could be improved. This has led to contributions on the impacts on human development (Stercken, 2015), the challenges of implementation in ambidextrous organizations (Schaeffer, 2017), how they perform in the financial industry (Fecher et al., 2018) and whether they are capable of contributing to solving wicked problems (Zivkovic, 2018). Studies such as the one by Memon and Meyer (2017) have also made an important contribution by characterizing the activities that innovation labs have been undertaking and showing that the spectrum of innovation lab services is in fact so diverse that they cover the entire innovation process, but that they do so by specializing only in some of them, according to their own niche.
13 In any case, innovation labs are not the only concept in the literature that is used to explain the emergence of enabling structures for mediating innovation processes. Alongside this phenomenon, concepts such as living labs, fablabs, makerspaces, hackerspaces, coworking spaces or even Third Places have also positioned themselves as tangible manifestations of the will to create favorable environments to support innovation (Osorio et al., 2019b). When looking at these concepts in a holistic way, previous studies have focused on establishing the differences between these innovation structures by contrasting experiences and conducting classifications (Capdevila, 2014; Schuurman, Tõnurist, 2016) while others more recently, have opted to analyze what they have in common. For instance, Leminen et al. (2019) concluded, after analyzing 48 cases in the urban context, that despite being understood from different points of view, they may all be seen as an embodiment of each other. Moreover, Memon et al. (2018) based on 21 cases, showed how innovation labs seem to be functioning analogously to living labs, fablabs, coworking spaces, and the like. In this research, we therefore look at the vein of innovation labs as an integrating approach that helps us to address the “labification” phenomenon through its different structures, set-ups, and practices.
14 While this is a topic that has been studied from different perspectives, few studies so far have focused on analyzing the management of an innovation lab. For this reason, it was considered pertinent to create a tool that can serve as a guide for managers to understand the practices of an innovation laboratory and thus guide the operation of their own lab more consciously. In this sense, and continuing the work of Moultrie et al. (2007), a conceptual framework was updated and operationalized to take account of the characteristics of today’s more open, collaborative and changing contexts (Osorio et al., 2019a). Basically, this framework aims to facilitate the conception of a new laboratory (or the adaptation of an existing one) according to the reason for creating it, the type of laboratory that is envisaged, the resources needed for its implementation, how it is or should be used and the results that are expected or are being obtained.
15 In order to address these aspects, the framework consists of 30 criteria grouped into 5 dimensions, which have been operationalized through a maturity assessment tool and tested through an international study, as explained by Osorio et al. (2019a). These dimensions are strategic intention, process of creation, physical embodiment, process of use and innovation outcomes. Additionally, the authors recognize that the design and operation of any innovation lab must be aligned with the innovation strategies of its allies and according to its context. Likewise, the results of its operation should be observed and evaluated in order to determine the level of achievement of the lab’s intention and eventually to determine its adaptation or strategic rethinking. An outline of this framework is shared in Figure 1.
Figure 1 – Innovation labs framework. Adapted from Osorio et al., 2019a
Figure 1 – Innovation labs framework. Adapted from Osorio et al., 2019a
Innovation Labs in the Public Context
16 Nowadays, a specific group of innovation labs is increasingly receiving attention from governments, civil servants, NGOs and communities (Acevedo, Dassen, 2016; Bloom, Faulkner, 2016; Puttick, 2014). These institutions seem to turn to innovation labs as a way of helping them to overcome the internal barriers to innovation in the public sector. This is not a minor issue, since the public sector is a particular environment that attracts risk adversity, limits experimentation, and where politics and media scrutiny play a major role (Tõnurist et al., 2015). Thus (public) innovation labs are envisioned as spaces for empowering citizens, officials, and entrepreneurs in values, skills, and techniques for innovation (Acevedo, Dassen, 2016). They enable those who benefit from them to strengthen their entrepreneurial capacities, self-management and generate proactive behaviors with a view to their role in their territory.
17 They are considered as design-led, open government, evidence-based or mixed (McGann et al., 2018). In this sense, MediaLab Prado in Spain (García et al., 2018), Lorraine Fab Living Lab in France (Dupont et al., 2015), Laboratorio de Innovación Social in Uruguay (Totorica et al., 2016) and the Laboratorio de Gobierno in Chile (Arros Valdivia, Ramírez-Alujas, 2017) are some representatives of how diverse these manifestations can be. Moreover, from a public sector point of view, innovation labs are seen as agents of change to address social and public challenges (McGann et al., 2018). The importance of such open innovation intermediaries is based on social and citizen empowerment, through experimental and user-centered methods as a means of fostering participatory innovation (Gascó, 2017). This open and participative perspective, supported by collaborative dynamics, seems to be one of the most prominent results when it comes to public innovation labs (Osorio et al., 2019a; Timeus, Gascó, 2018). Although this underscores the strength of the design and participation approaches in practice, it also hints at their limitations in relation to more structural and systemic challenges (McGann et al., 2018).
18 Some of the aspects that characterize the context and operation of public innovation labs are summarized below:
- Participation to enable communities, promoting innovation within the framework of deepening democracy and active citizenship. This entails carrying out effective actions by the laboratory to stimulate the communities of a territory and their organizations to develop greater resources, qualifications, and access to networks as key elements in nurturing spaces for innovation (Chalmers, 2013). In this way, the participation of communities and entrepreneurs can be improved; these spaces and networks of new people can be accessed, and impacts could influence city decision-making and development of transforming solutions. Conducting workshops on knowledge transfer, training, hackathons, meetups, for example, are part of this task.
- A territorial approach, to recognize in these innovation environments the diversity in the territorial-population-technology interrelation. This leads to the identification of technological potentialities or limitations that give the different population groups and territories their own characteristics, defining the way they contribute to the integral development of cities. The dynamics of large territories, whose environments are diverse, characterized by rural, urban, regional and national interactions, shape particular realities that all actors linked to an innovation lab cannot ignore (Molinari, 2011).
- Orchestrate innovation, providing formal methods and tools to conduct innovation processes. Formal skills in creativity and co-creation are often lacking among civil servants and citizens, who tend to be more aware of budgets, operations, and tasks than allowing these innovation processes to take place (Carstensen, Bason, 2012; Skiba et al., 2012).
- Co-responsibility and inter-institutional cooperation, to provide human, financial, and infrastructure support to the work of an innovation lab. This implies recognizing the need for shared responsibility among various allies of a laboratory, public and private, acting permanently to give continuity to these spaces, which require long periods of consolidation and maturity to achieve levels of self-sustainability (Jezierski et al., 2014).
20 While it has been seen that innovation laboratories generally operate in a similar way, it is also true that they are context-dependent. That is why the literature shares specific experiences and details in those that are implemented in the public sector. The characteristics mentioned above constitute an essential input for setting the ground before approaching our case study, which is presented below.
Presenting the Case: Vivelab Bogotá
21 The ViveLab Bogotá is an innovation lab located in the city of Bogotá in Colombia. It was created in 2013 under a public alliance between three leading institutions from the public sector in Colombia: the Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNAL), the High Advisory Office for ICT of the Mayor’s Office of Bogota and the Ministry of Information and Communications Technologies (MINTIC). Initially conceived as a digital content laboratory meant to promote the digital content industry in the country, today, after six years of operations, ViveLab Bogotá has consolidated itself as one of the digital innovation labs of the city (Alta Consejería Distrital TIC, 2019b). Over these years, the ViveLab Bogotá has acted as a source of practical knowledge and new technologies for citizens, entrepreneurs, companies and government institutions, which has allowed it to conduct several innovation activities and projects in the city, such as the design and implementation of digital public services, citizen empowerment and participation programs, and prototyping and mentoring cycles for entrepreneurs.
22 As mentioned before, this work is part of ongoing research into the design and management of innovation labs aimed at the construction of a maturity-based assessment tool as an alternative for managers to set up more conscious strategies for their innovation lab (Osorio et al., 2019a). While the approach selected for this work (an international survey) has been useful for identifying and understanding innovation lab capabilities, it has yet to be extended and validated in greater detail and depth. How innovation labs are managed, what kind of factors influence their evolution or adaptation, and how they manage to do so are some of the questions that need to be studied further. Moreover, as little is known of the management of innovation labs, we believe that a more qualitative and exploratory approach seems relevant. A single case study is therefore a suitable method for finding answers and explanations to the “why” and “how” questions (Yin, Campbell, 2017).
23 For several reasons, we chose to conduct a case study of the ViveLab Bogotá. First, being supported by three of the most prestigious and influential public institutions in Colombia, it also implies a significant challenge for the strategic alignment of all these institutions, which is worth exploring. Second, during its almost 6 years of operation, there have been two presidential elections (2014 and 2018) and one local election (2016), showing the complexity of its environment. Third, the ViveLab Bogotá has a strong social approach and interaction with the citizens, as evidenced by the different activities and projects that the lab has carried out, so instead of functioning as an in-house innovation team, the laboratory has established itself as a meeting point and prototyping arena for the citizens and public servants. Finally, we also find it valuable to provide experiences and practices from a Latin American country in a field that has been studied mostly in European and North American contexts.
24 This study is fundamentally based on the lab management point of view. For this, three main sources of data were considered to feed data analysis and discussion (see Figure 2), within the framework already described in Figure 1. First, an in-depth semi-structured interview was conducted with the current laboratory manager. As a graphic designer from UNAL, she has been linked to the laboratory since November 2013 as head of the user experience and digital accessibility lines and as the lab manager since June 2018. With more than 5 years of experience working in the laboratory, she is a source of detailed information for this case. This was accompanied by the compilation of technical reports, management reports, and minutes of agreements and contracts of the projects carried out in ViveLab Bogotá between 2013 and 2019. The national and district development plans in force during the same period were also included in the analysis.
Figure 2 – Research design
Figure 2 – Research design
25 In addition, the experience of two of the authors as researchers at ViveLab during the data analysis and expert discussion. One of us was one of its co-founders and managers between 2013 and 2014, and then again between 2016 and 2018. He is an electronics engineer from UNAL and has a deep understanding of the background and motivations that led to the creation of the laboratory from 2012. The other is a professor of political science from UNAL who joined the ViveLab in 2016 and has since been guiding the political and socio-economic approaches to the increasingly complex challenges in which the laboratory has been involved. Likewise, the questionnaire filled out by the manager in 2015, in the earlier steps of this research, was used as a reference. This helped us to corroborate the ways in which the laboratory has evolved the most. Furthermore, the case analysis and discussion were structured specifically in line with the five stages of our conceptual framework mentioned before. The reflection will thus be guided by the way in which the ViveLab Bogotá has been conceived, materialized and used.
Case Study Results
26 This section shares the results of our case study. They are presented according to the five dimensions that compose the selected framework and their analysis shows detailed information on the evolutive stages of our case. Table 1 provides a summary of the main elements retrieved from the data of almost six years of lab operation.
Table 1 – Summarized results of framework application
Table 1 – Summarized results of framework application
Context: Bogota City
28 Bogota is the capital of Colombia. It is located in the center of the country and is its largest and most important city. With 25.7% of national GDP and a growth rate of 2.9% in 2018, Bogota is the economic backbone of the country. It has an area of 163,635 hectares, of which 37,972 hectares of urban land (23.2%). Along with twenty localities and nearby municipalities, Bogota forms a city region of more than 10 million inhabitants, the sixth-largest population center in Latin America (Cámara de Comercio de Bogotá, 2018). It is a city of contrasts, where disparities prevail between the different localities, but with the most diversified productive structure in the country. Bogota also has the highest concentration of national capacities in science, technology, and innovation: 23% of the country’s universities are in the capital city, with more than 33% of the country’s master’s and doctoral programs and more than 40% of the research groups (COLCIENCIAS, 2018).
29 Despite being home to the bulk of the country’s capabilities in terms of business fabric, labor, and knowledge, Bogota lacks a clear institutional entity to coordinate its ecosystem of science, technology and innovation (Bedoya Vélez, Rueda Prieto, 2017). Unlike other cities in Colombia, such as Medellín which drives its entire ecosystem through its Ruta N innovation and business center, in Bogota, these efforts are spread between different areas and district secretariats, such as economic development, planning or the general secretariat. The latter is where the High Advisory Office for ICT is located. Its purposes include promoting public policy in matters of ICT and the digital economy and it is through this office that the Mayor’s Office of Bogota has supported the development and continuity of ViveLab Bogotá.
30 In the course of its operation, the ViveLab Bogotá has gone through significant changes in both its objectives and its relationship with its stakeholders. The lab is part of an initiative called the ViveLabs national network, as part of the Plan Vive Digital 2010-2014. This initiative was launched by MINTIC through a public call for projects with the purpose being to “promote the development of the regional digital ecosystem by supporting science, technology, innovation and ICT entrepreneurship to boost the digital content and mobile apps industry”(Ministerio de Tecnologías de la Información y las Comunicaciones, COLCIENCIAS, 2012, p. 2). Within this policy framework, the cooperation agreement for ViveLab Bogotá was set in motion, with MINTIC overseeing the financing of infrastructure investment and initial activities, while UNAL was responsible for managing the lab with the support from the ICT Advisory Office.
31 While the original project goals set out by MINTIC were aimed at quantifying the number of people trained, entrepreneurs supported or events held, it was important for UNAL to be aware of the long-term vision. The original intention for ViveLab was never to remain as a mere digital content production laboratory, but on the contrary, it was inspired by the practices of living labs and innovation labs as novel ways of “doing things” (Camargo et al., 2012; Carstensen, Bason, 2012). The intended purpose was to be “a place with a unique experience for the people of Bogota, where citizens and entrepreneurs could learn, make, connect and create solutions to problems in their context” (Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 2017, p. 4). Early results in terms of people’s engagement in workshops, courses and networking activities provided evidence that a sense of community was being established around the lab. Eventually, this would also lead the city government to invest in the lab by the end of 2014 and again in 2015, expanding the scope of the ViveLab’s activities not only to promote digital entrepreneurship, but also to “provide mechanisms for citizens and officials to participate, collaborate and innovate in order to address the city’s challenges” (Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 2017, p. 2).
32 For the ViveLab Bogotá, 2016 was a crucial year in which a rethinking strategy was necessary. The end of the cooperation agreement coincided with local elections taking place, leading to the operations of the lab being halted for more than eight months. Ultimately, because of the significant results achieved by that time and a common desire to pursue this work, a new agreement was signed. This time, the operation of the ViveLab was structured around a new objective and shared vision as “the space of experimentation of the city, where the district government, the university, and the citizens join together to foster processes of innovation and entrepreneurship, technological development and applied research, in order to create collaborative solutions of high social and economic impact in the best possible way through exponential technologies” (Alcaldía Mayor de Bogotá, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 2016, p. 7). Subsequently, the ViveLab was opened up strategically to work with other departments of the Mayor’s Office, such as social integration, citizen participation, habitat, among others.
33 This also implied the possibility of working with other institutions outside the city level, such as the national government or even the private sector. This meant new opportunities but also new challenges, given the different areas of knowledge involved, the social issues that needed to be addressed and adding new stakeholders. Despite this, “the ViveLab Bogotá continues to work as a place of transformation of academic knowledge to bring it closer to people and solve problems” (P. P. Parra, personal communication, May 22, 2019). And moreover, for this reason, she explains “the laboratory always keeps changing and also adjusting to technological trends in order to remain as a laboratory to innovate with” (P. P. Parra, personal communication, May 22, 2019).
Process of Creation
34 One of the greatest strengths of ViveLab Bogotá is its institutional position, in the heart of the most important public university of Colombia, which provides human support through multidisciplinary teams and adequate infrastructure. This was a differentiating element in the creation process and continues to be so today. For the execution of projects and activities, the ViveLab brings together professors, students and practitioners in design, digital technologies, social sciences and innovation. Additionally, it relies on the capabilities and knowledge of UNAL’s research groups, which are integrated according to the needs of each project that the laboratory develops. While the lab’s expertise focuses on digital technologies and innovation, being part of UNAL allows it to deal with challenges in different areas of knowledge by collaborating with other research groups.
35 It is precisely the excitement, quality and interdisciplinarity of the human talent behind the lab, which prompted, from the beginning, the definition of conceptual and methodological models that would give shape and meaning to its operation. A clear thematic focus, a user-centered approach, the definition of what kind of innovation activities and processes are sought, and the methods to carry them out, are key aspects in the daily life of the lab. ViveLab Bogotá’s methodology is thus based on the Scrum principles in order to facilitate agile project development (Schwaber, Sutherland, 2017). Based on these principles, four strands have been integrated: applied research, user experience, sustainability, and technological development. In this way, the lab establishes an operational framework to address complex problems, meet needs under real contexts and generate high-value solutions for those who decide to participate in the lab’s experience. This has been an important success factor for ViveLab, as this dynamic causes that “public entities see the ViveLab as the space that helps them materialize their idea of innovation and consolidate it into a product, document or policy” (P. P. Parra, personal communication, May 30, 2019)
36 Above all, the operation of the laboratory faces several administrative barriers. For instance, the ViveLab Bogotá does not have independent legal status and is part of the administrative functioning of UNAL. This means operating under the administrative rules of the public sector, which often go against the dynamics of innovation projects (Tõnurist et al., 2015). The notion of uncertainty and flexibility implicit in each innovation project is something that is difficult to translate into the rigid and deterministic logic of the public sector. Furthermore, the hiring of personnel is carried out exclusively for each project and most of them are contractors. Apart from the UNAL professors and students who devote certain hours to the laboratory (as classes are their priority), managers, researchers, and professionals are brought in on an ad hoc basis according to each project. This generates a high turnover of human talent that requires the processes of training and adaptation to internal practices to be repeated constantly.
37 Once the ViveLab Bogotá was operational, it quickly became a meeting point for the communities and a landmark in the city. The physical area of the laboratory is 180 square meters, which are divided between a training room, a development room, a creativity room, a usability laboratory, three offices, a technical room, and bathrooms. The partitions between its areas are in glass, which means that almost all the laboratory is visible from any point, which gives a sensation of transparency and depth. In general terms, its equipment consists of computers, mobile devices, and accessories (of different ranges depending on their use), specialized software for the development of digital contents and basic material for prototyping on paper. Located near the city center, with a fresh and informal design and imagery, the physical space certainly offered an alternative for eager citizens who found in the laboratory an inspiring place and began to develop a sense of belonging.
38 The ViveLab is used in different ways and the purpose of each area or office changes depending on the activity or project. Generally, the lab is primarily intended to support ongoing projects by providing space and resources for ideation or prototyping sessions, team meetings or usability tests. This also includes activities aimed at the general public (e.g. training workshops or meet-ups). However, because the area layout and work stations are fixed, reconfiguring the space sometimes requires a lot of effort, or in some cases causes discomfort (e.g. not being able to move the tables because they are fixed to the floor). An interesting fact is that due to the nature of recent projects, ViveLab has begun to have a presence elsewhere in the territory. This means that certain activities are carried out outside the lab, in some cases requiring the mobilization of both staff and equipment. On the one hand, this opens up the option of a “mobile version” of the lab, but on the other hand, it also involves risks of damage or loss of equipment. As part of this same process, the lab also takes advantage of its relationships with allies in order to use other spaces in the city (e.g. auditoriums, libraries, community halls) when holding public events or sessions with citizens.
39 In any case, several limitations have determined the way in which the laboratory was designed. From the beginning, MINTIC laid down certain conditions for the ViveLab. In addition, UNAL’s infrastructure technical parameters prevented the acquisition of more modern and flexible furniture. In addition to this, another important challenge is the renovation of the technological infrastructure. Although the lab team has been able to progressively renew some of the technological equipment, there has not been a significant investment in this area since its inauguration. In general, bureaucratic complications imply a significant barrier in this process, which can divert attention from other processes of greater value generation.
Process of Use
40 The way the ViveLab operates is a continuous validation of the intended strategy against reality. In this sense, with each activity, project or service offered, the objectives and capabilities of the laboratory are contrasted. Today, ViveLab Bogotá offers a portfolio of services ranging from training and mentoring, the facilitation of creative and innovative processes, user experience assessment of digital content, to the design and development of digital solutions. This shows an important shift from those initially offered, which focused mainly on training talent and mentoring entrepreneurs. These changes, besides being consistent with the maturity and capabilities of the laboratory, are also seen as a reflection of a financial model that is being built.
41 Furthermore, the changes in activities also reflect changes in the types of users and clients of ViveLab. While initially, the ViveLab focused quite naturally on carrying out activities from its physical facilities, the users were mostly technology enthusiasts and entrepreneurs of digital content. However, as the goals were redefined and a closer alliance was established with the city government, the ViveLab began to target a more diverse audience that included seniors, high school students and minorities (Alta Consejería Distrital TIC, 2019b). This required that activities were to be held in a distributed way around the city. Over time, as collaborations were extended with other institutions, such as the Citizen Participation Institute and the Secretary of Housing, a more territorial approach emerged to foster innovation among communities across the different districts of the city. “This is an experience that makes us look like nomads of innovation, where the ViveLab team adapts to each situation, as a walker with the backpack of tricks to assemble the solution with the community” (P. P. Parra, personal communication, May 30, 2019).
42 One element that has continuously fed the ViveLab with new ideas and experimentation is the steady generation of knowledge, driven mainly by the curiosity and desire to learn among students, researchers, and practitioners linked to the lab. In this sense, the ViveLab focuses on providing the proper conditions for these dynamics to happen. First, a global Objective and Key Results (OKR) are set for ViveLab by quarter, then team members are invited to build their own OKR based on something new they would like to learn, but it has to contribute in some way to the ultimate goal. From there, during the following weeks, follow-up is conducted through katas, retrospectives or kudos that are usually facilitated by the more experienced members. In this way, at the same time that the lab fosters the generation of new knowledge, it also encourages professional and human development among the team, enhancing the work environment within it (Appelo, 2011).
43 As the intent and objectives of ViveLab Bogotá change, so does the type of outputs. The transition from a digital content lab to an innovation lab for the city has been reflected not only in the discourse, but also in the range of experiences, products, and beneficiaries of the lab’s activities. Thus, the scope of its results extends to different levels that in one way or another have contributed to the achievement of its strategic intent. These outcomes vary tangibly from the number of projects, the number of beneficiaries per year or the amount of investment received. However, there are other aspects, such as the recognition of the laboratory and its allies, the inspiring and changing mentality, and the transfer of knowledge to individuals and organizations, which are not quantifiable but always seem to be present.
44 In terms of project types, the ViveLab Bogotá has covered different areas of knowledge, technologies and social problems, such as the preservation of indigenous culture (Monroy Varela et al., 2017), pedagogical tools about the Colombian peace process (Sandoval Forero, Triana Sánchez, 2017), the implementation of the Bogota open data strategy (Alta Consejería Distrital TIC, 2019a), or explorations of new technologies such as blockchain and IoT with high school students (Alta Consejería Distrital TIC, 2017; Peña González, Parra Morantes, 2017). One of the most interesting results in this sense is perhaps the contribution to the innovation strategies of the different institutions that the ViveLab has worked with. For instance, Table 2 lists the 15 most important inter-administrative agreements or contracts executed by the ViveLab between 2016 and 2019. By looking at the object of each project and the corresponding specialized services involved, it is possible to observe the main roles that the ViveLab has performed:
- As a technological ally for the design and development of new digital services for citizens, with a focus on ensuring an optimal user experience and digital accessibility.
- As a facilitator in the implementation of strategies for the management of digital innovation, creativity, and agility within organizations.
- As an enabler of joint action and collaboration between communities, citizens, civil servants, and entrepreneurs.
- As the place of research and experimentation in the use of new technologies.
46 Also, as a result of the collaborative approach of the laboratory, there is an implicit objective of facilitating the adoption of the different methods, techniques or technologies used, by involving beneficiaries and stakeholders in the activities. As explained by the manager of the ViveLab “the organizations we reach begin to question how they handle their internal processes and are open to exploring how they could shift ways of getting things done” (P. P. Parra, personal communication, May 30, 2019). While this is something that is not necessarily easy to achieve, it is an outcome that definitely nurtures the motivation of the lab team, as the manager of ViveLab states, “it is very gratifying to see how the ViveLab’s discourse permeates people and organizations, and then you see other experiences that show new cases that were not necessarily made with the lab, but that followed the lessons learned with our experience” (P. P. Parra, personal communication, May 30, 2019).
Table 2 – List of 15 main projects carried out by the ViveLab Bogotá between 2016 and 2019
Table 2 – List of 15 main projects carried out by the ViveLab Bogotá between 2016 and 2019
47 Additionally, when it comes to the ViveLab’s results, financial sustainability is perceived as a fundamental aspect, as expressed by the manager, “there is an indicator that is inevitable and that is the cash flow. It is not the essence or the purpose of the lab, but it is required”(P. P. Parra, personal communication, May 30, 2019). In terms of revenue, between 2016 and 2019, ViveLab has managed to almost triple the original investment received by MINTIC and the ICT Advisory Office during the early years of the lab, which is a positive result in terms of the continuity of the lab (see Figure 3). It also shows that although revenues now come from different institutions, the nature of funding remains largely public. Although services are now offered to individuals and there are now several sales records in that regard, they are still not representative of the ViveLab finances.
Figure 3 – Change in ViveLab’s funding sources
Figure 3 – Change in ViveLab’s funding sources
48 Today, ViveLab Bogotá is not the only space or laboratory that promotes innovation in Bogota. Under the “Bogota a Digital City” program, the High Advisory Office of ICT has created four additional laboratories to establish the digital lab network of the city (Alta Consejería Distrital TIC, 2019b). Likewise, other district entities have also joined this trend in creating their own labs. This level of labification indicates that there is support for this type of initiative, but at the same time, concerns are growing regarding its continuity. In the case of ViveLab Bogotá, the future is uncertain despite its results. Given that there will be local elections again during 2019, a new administration will be in charge as of January 1, 2020, on which much of the continuity of this lab will depend.
49 This study was aimed at providing an in-depth view of the functioning of an innovation lab in the public sector through a conceptual framework that guides the strategic assessment of this type of initiative. The case study was also addressed with the interest of retrieving detailed explanations of how the laboratory was set up, how it has evolved in the course of its operation and which factors have enabled or limited its adaptation. As a matter of fact, by analyzing the case through the five dimensions defined in the framework, the dynamic and flexible character of this type of organizational structure can be observed. This is based on constant learning and adaptation that involves alignment not only with the innovation objectives of its allies, but also with their political, economic and social interests. At the same time, they have to deal with administrative, legal and financial barriers specific to the form and context in which they are created. These results will now be discussed with the intention of synthesizing the most relevant practices from the present case study, why they are important and how they are associated with what has been previously discussed in the literature.
50 First of all, it is important to stress the importance of establishing a clear strategic intention before setting up a laboratory. Ignoring the motivations that lead to the creation of an innovation lab can lead to a lack of cohesion between the interests of its stakeholders, as well as to decisions about the design and configuration of the lab that could become a limiting factor in the future. This becomes more relevant in cases where the creation of an innovation lab includes investment in physical and technological infrastructure and which, without a clear intention, can lead to merely superficial choices (Moultrie et al., 2007). For our case study, this was a process of discovery, learning, and adaptation, in which many of the initial characteristics and activities of the lab were driven by the national government (as the initial sponsor). However, once the innovation lab was in operation, the vision and capabilities of the other allies (host university and city government) began to shape their purpose leading to unforeseen uses that in some cases were constrained by the initial arrangement of the lab. While innovation labs are created with a certain level of autonomy and flexibility, it is not always possible to adapt all these features, and sometimes decisions on matters such as space design may become bottlenecks in the future.
51 From the above, it can also be observed that the objectives of an innovation lab change over time, but a shared long-term vision is constantly needed to maintain strong links with stakeholders. In highly changing contexts governed by political agendas, the lab teams, who tend to have a strong vocation for their activity, are the ones who can ensure that the essence and symbolic objectives of the lab are preserved in each transition. However, when it comes to translating that intention into strategic objectives and activities, the interests of all the parties must inevitably converge. The evidence from our case study shows that with each change in public administration, the objectives of the lab changed and with them the activities and projects that were undertaken. These transitions were made possible by the lab results, a long-term perspective and the flexibility to adapt this vision to the short-term goals of their allies. The latter could be problematic, as lab teams prefer to avoid getting involved in political issues (despite being immersed in a political context), which could lead them to distance themselves from their sponsoring institutions (Tõnurist et al., 2017). In any case, beyond taking political or economic positions, what should be kept in mind is that the purpose of an innovation lab is to strengthen the innovation capabilities of its stakeholders and its environment, an important aspect that should not be lost from sight (Timeus, Gascó, 2018).
52 Moreover, as semi-autonomous organizations, innovation labs are certainly dependent on higher priorities and strategies. However, the legal and administrative frameworks in which they are created seem to be an important factor that is being taken lightly. Since innovation labs are often part of a parent institution or a group of institutions, they do not always have an independent legal status. From the public sector perspective, this is a consequence of creating such organizational structures while avoiding abrupt changes in existing organizations or excessive administrative effort (Timeus, Gascó, 2018). However, this makes the labs far more sensitive to changes in public administration. For our case study, this has meant that the validity of the agreements under which the lab operates is strictly tied to government terms of office, leading to prolonged periods of uncertainty in each new political cycle. Thus, governance transitions carry not only the uncertainty of abrupt policy changes but also extended periods of paralysis in which the operation and the talent linked to the laboratories are compromised. The close relationship with public entities can be a strong point for an innovation lab, but it can also be a great vulnerability (Tõnurist et al., 2015).
53 While innovation labs in the public sector tend to be centered on the stages of co-creation and rapid prototyping (Arros Valdivia, Ramírez-Alujas, 2017; Totorica et al., 2016) and are often being called into question because of their “quick and dirty” methodologies (Schuurman, Tõnurist, 2016), our case study has shown that advanced stages of design and implementation support can also be achieved in an innovation lab. In this aspect, a university-hosted innovation lab benefits from a differentiating factor that translates into permanent access to a valuable source of knowledge and human talent that becomes an advantage to support the diversity and complexity of challenges in the public and social context. In any case, having a human resources strategy is a key aspect when it comes to bringing in people with the right mindset and from different backgrounds to support lab activities (Timeus, Gascó, 2018). Furthermore, this must be accompanied by the establishment of conditions and mechanisms for continuous knowledge generation, something where agile principles fit (Dupont, 2019). On the one hand, this contributes to increasing the ability of an innovation lab to understand and adapt according to its context needs, and on the other, it fosters the personal and professional development of the individuals who participate in and benefit from it.
54 Financial sustainability is identified as an additional driver influencing the evolution of innovation labs. In fact, their performance is defined by the constant search for a balance between meeting public and social interests, while at the same time trying to cover its own financial needs (Jezierski et al., 2014). Although the funding for a lab may come from a variety of sources, such initiatives in the public sector usually begin with the support of a sponsoring institution. However, these resources may not be permanent, and sponsors often expect laboratories to be able to attract additional funding by offering their ideas or solutions to third parties (Tõnurist et al., 2017). Based on this, governments proceed to encourage the creation of new “labs”, but the reality is that the path to self-sustainability is a long and often uncertain process, leading to these initiatives having a short life span. Experiences such as the one in our case study show that an innovation lab may choose to design service portfolios in the pursuit of finding a financial model. These services may also be offered to other entities in the public sector who may eventually become new allies of the lab, thus diversifying its sources of funding. However, this is not an easy task and it should be considered from the earlier stages of innovation lab implementation, given that this will affect the way in which it will subsequently carry out its mission.
55 In general, we have seen that the actions carried out in an innovation lab are shaped by the interactions with its environment. Nevertheless, in addition to adapting to political priorities, economic conditions or technological aspects, one of the main purposes of this type of organization is to act as a forum to facilitate dialogue and develop innovative projects by engaging the different actors of the society in which it is developed. In particular, this refers to the inclusion of citizens in practically every activity conducted by the lab under different innovation mechanisms (i.e. workshops, ideation sessions, hackathons, prototype testing, entrepreneurship cycles, etc.). The evolution of the activities and projects of our case study shows how participatory dynamics can range from looking at citizens as users, receivers and validators of the activities undertaken by the laboratory, to seeing them as active parties to innovate with, based on their own needs and in their own niches. This implies, first, that an innovation lab with a territorial approach aimed at working with communities should build organizational capabilities to foster innovative initiatives of a social nature (Gregoire, 2016), and consequently, that its physical dimension should not focus solely on its actual facilities, but that its presence can be distributed throughout the territory (Leminen et al., 2019).
56 Finally, this study has also allowed us to test the application of the framework proposed by Osorio et al. (2019a) in greater detail. The results show that its five dimensions provide valuable guidance for inquiry and further reflection on how innovation labs are designed and managed. In addition, the qualitative approach of this work made it possible to explore the evolutionary stages experienced by these forms of organization. In this sense, certain issues that seem to influence the performance of an innovation lab were identified: governance mechanisms, business models, knowledge management and territorial dynamics emerge as areas to be considered and that could nourish the framework in future stages of research. Furthermore, it has been also observed that there is a constant interaction between the lab and its context. While the framework calls for this to be considered, evidence from this work suggests that this is an issue to be further explored in more detail. Overall, we believe that going deeper into these issues could provide insight as to which aspects managers should be more aware of, and which ones they can rely on to achieve sustainable evolution of their innovation lab.
57 This article explored the factors that influence the management of an innovation lab in the public sector. It expands on the study of Osorio et al. (2019a), not only by applying the proposed framework through a single case study, but also by sharing experiences from a Latin American context. This case study focused on the ViveLab Bogotá and adds insight from a management point of view into the way an innovation lab is designed, implemented and used. Further, emphasis was placed on how this type of organizational structure adapts and evolves. The results showed how, in a complex and changing environment such as the public sector, a clear and shared strategic intent, effective governance mechanisms, defined financial model, continuous knowledge generation and a community-based approach are factors that may enable or limit innovation labs to experience a sustainable evolution.
58 Furthermore, we believe that this work also has multiple implications for both practitioners and policymakers. For those who wish to create an innovation lab, this study draws attention to the fact that there are other dimensions beyond operational issues that drive lab performance. Such issues as those addressed in the present case study can be contemplated even before the new lab is put into operation and may be helpful in establishing an organizational roadmap to guide future actions. Additionally, consolidating an innovation lab initiative should be acknowledged as a process of learning and evolution, where the maturity of its results reflects that same process, which can take years. As for policymakers, this study offers a reference point for the structuring of new innovation lab projects, thus contributing to the design of new initiatives in a comprehensive manner as well as ensuring the efficient use of public resources. Moreover, the structure of the framework itself constitutes a methodological guide that could guide a mentoring process for already ongoing initiatives.
59 In any case, it is important to clarify that the purpose of this research article is not to produce generalizable results on the performance of an innovation laboratory but, on the contrary, to provide insights into how the application of the selected framework could help to understand the evolutive process that entails its management, thereby shedding light on the strategic orientation of these forms of organization. We therefore believe that, despite having opted for a simple case study, and focusing exclusively from the point of view of laboratory management, the findings are worthwhile in terms of inspiring others with experiences and practices that they can ultimately adapt to their own context. Lastly, further stages of this research will be focused on expanding this study from a single to a multiple case study, seeking to make comparative research on how innovation labs function across different contexts. Furthermore, research design should also include perspectives from stakeholders, lab team members, and communities around the innovation lab. These new forms of organization clearly have the potential to drive the transformation of a society, which is why it is important to improve the understanding of what it means to undertake the journey of setting up an innovation lab.
This research is funded by the Department of Science, Technology and Innovation of Colombia – COLCIENCIAS – Call 785 of 2017.