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Social innovation labs

30 August 2019

The article at a glance

A research paper by a recent graduate of the Masters in Social Innovation programme at Cambridge Judge Business School is published by …

A research paper by a recent graduate of the Masters in Social Innovation programme at Cambridge Judge Business School is published by CERN.

Creative people standing in the office and working together on computer. Blurred motion.

A research paper on social innovation labs written by a recent graduate of the Masters of Studies in Social Innovation degree programme at Cambridge Judge Business School has been published in the CERN IdeaSquare Journal of Experimental Innovation.

Author Claudia Marcelloni was a member of the first class of the MSt in Social Innovation, enrolling in 2016 and graduating in 2018, and the published paper closely follows her thesis paper for her degree.

The paper entitled “The 3 T’s framework of social innovation labs” describes how social innovation labs differ from other innovation labs in three significant ways – in their use of:

  • Time to let ideas germinate
  • Techniques to listen and learn
  • Tools to generate and test ideas.

“(Social innovation) labs create a process that harvests the individual’s expertise and experience of being part of the system it aims to innovate,” the peer-reviewed journal article says. “In order for this process to take place…it is important to build a safe space for collaborating.”

This need not be a specifically designed physical space, “but the space in which it is set up needs to give the sense that it is not business-as-usual. It should be a space that invites learning and experimentation. The space is created by using the 3T’s framework.”

On the three “T’s”, the paper says:


It is essential for social innovation labs to give participants enough time to understand the system and the problem, given the diversity of the stakeholders and the “wicked” nature of the difficult issues tackled in such labs such as climate change, inequality and social injustice.


These include “dialogue interviews” to listen to stakeholders in advance; “democracy of time” that gives each participant equal time to express themselves to the group; and “learning journeys” in which stakeholders visit parts of the supply hosted by small farmers, fishermen and others directly affected.


One such tool to generate new ideas is known as “transformative scenarios” that imagine the best and worst scenarios for that system in the future, analysing what needs to happen for each result to unfold.

Claudia, a native of Brazil, is a Global Engagement Officer in Geneva with CERN, the nuclear research organisation which operates the largest particle physics laboratory in the world, with which she has been associated for 14 years.

The CERN IdeaSquare Journal of Experimental Innovation seeks to “advance theoretical and practical understanding and methodologies on how new knowledge turns into use for society.” 

Claudia’s paper notes that there has been little published academic material on social innovation labs, which emerged only in the early 2000s. Such labs engage diverse participants on a long-term basis to collaborate in order to create and develop solutions to systemic challenges.

Based on documentation and interviews, Claudia’s paper focuses on three different social innovation labs in different parts of the world: a Sustainable Fashion Lab in Brazil, a Food Lab in South Africa that seeks sustainable food chains, and an Oceans Lab in Central America and Africa that links people around the world to preserve ocean ecosystems.

The research was supervised by Paul Tracey, Professor of Innovation & Organisation at Cambridge Judge Business School and Co-Director of the School’s Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation. A summary of the paper is posted on the Centre’s website.

“We are delighted that Claudia’s research has been published by the journal at CERN, which shows how social innovation is being recognised at the highest levels as an important force for solving some of the world’s most intractable problems,” said Paul.

“The Masters in Social Innovation programme is only three years old. Claudia’s paper is the first by a student at the programme to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, and we’re sure it won’t be the last given the quality of research being generated by our students.”