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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Exploring the transformative potential of public sector innovation labs : assembling a cabinet of curiousities Cole, Lindsay


There is a proliferation of Public Sector Innovation Labs (PSI labs) around the world, with estimates that more than 500 now exist. They are under-studied as a contemporary innovation construct, making them a potent area for study. The definition of a PSI lab is still contested, although they commonly describe their relationship with government, their topics of focus, and the techniques that they use. The goal or purpose of innovation pursued by these PSI labs is often not described, though most efforts tend to focus on finding efficiencies and improving services for users and tend to operate within dominant governance paradigms. In this dissertation I explore the potential for PSI labs to imagine and catalyze transformative and emergent version of innovation, working at the intersections of personal, organizational and systems scales. I use a critical qualitative research bricolage, pulling together methodologies that challenge Western ways of knowing, allow for multiple truths to coexist, and invite a researcher with an active role in the research questions. Participatory action research (PAR) and constructivist grounded theory (CGT) are the backbone research methodologies in this bricolage. Research is conducted with co-researchers from three different PSI lab action research sites in Canada, and through interviews with expert practitioners in Canada and Europe. This dissertation opens up a cabinet of curiousities, rather than proposing definitive conclusions. It is grounded in interdisciplinary theory and has an ambition to be useful and accessible for practitioners. One part of the cabinet offers up a framework to more strongly theorize the work of PSI labs. A second part describes systemic interventions to create stronger enabling conditions for transformative and emergent innovation. A third section focuses on building transformative innovation learning infrastructure and practices. A thread that connects each section considers ways that we might think about measuring and evaluating the impacts and outcomes of PSI labs. Together, this cabinet of curiousities offers researchers and practitioners a plurality of ways to think about a transformative and emergent approach to PSI, and also what PSI might need to become in this time of urgent and complex challenges facing the public sector.

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