The latest issue of NESTA’s The Long & Short has a really interesting read on innovation labs in the social and political arena through the years. Specifically, this stood out:
Type the term “social lab” into Google’s N-Gram and you will see two spikes in its usage in the 20th century: the Depression, and the oil crisis of the 70s. It’s not difficult to see the attraction that labs promising to prototype the future hold when current institutions are failing – and whose very failure generates for labs (like their close relatives, the thinktank and the startup) a vast gene pool of talent in today’s reserve army of the underemployed. Here at the fag-end of our own lost decade it’s perhaps wise to ask whether we are poised on the cusp of a new golden age of experimentalism, or rapidly approaching Peak Lab?
There are lessons for marketing labs no doubt. The article indicates that social labs came up at a time when underemployment was rampant. I plotted the growth of ‘innovation labs’, ‘advertising labs’ and ‘marketing labs’ from 2005-2015 on Google Trends. The results for ‘advertising labs’ were too small to be of significance compared to the other two. I excluded ‘media labs’ because the results were too many (prompted by searches of institutions like MIT Media Lab, I’d assume).
Anyhow, ‘marketing labs’ peaked as a search term around mid-2009 when the economic recession was in full flow (meaning one of the article’s theses makes sense). ‘Innovation labs’ peaked in June this year. Doesn’t indicate good news on the global economy front.
I think we’re hitting Peak Lab indeed, and that innovation needs to be folded into the larger business as a core objective if it is to make any difference. Otherwise it’s all an exercise in vanity – and besides, I’d say the economy needs innovation to work and not stay an experiment.