Program Officer

If you work at a science funding agency, you may have heard about Ideas Labs and Sandpits and how this methodology can be used to gather a diverse group of people around a complex or important challenge and stimulate novel thinking for research or project ideas.

Or if you’re at a non-profit or at an non-government organization, you’ve seen the trend toward creative, interactive meetings, or “innovation labs” and maybe you’re wondering if this is the right approach for your challenges and your community.

Read on to learn more about Knowinnovation facilitates these kinds of workshops and our philosophy for supporting collaborative, interdisciplinary innovation.


Know Further:


Surviving Human Contact

Surviving Human Contact

It’s not that we don’t have a design for the workshop. Nor is it that we’re keen to keep our participants in the dark. Our experience is that no published agenda survives human contact. So as soon as there are people introduced to the process, things change, slow down, speed up, go a different direction. Our workshops need to be flexible so that we can react to the decisions participants make along the way. Our job is to facilitate what is happening, not necessarily to facilitate what will happen.

Connect and Catalyze

Connect and Catalyze

The team of mentors – there can between three to five at an Ideas Lab – usually represents a range of different academic perspectives that have some bearing on the question that’s central to the event. Their expertise is essential, but an equally important attribute for a mentor is to be ambitious about the science, intensely curious about the topic of the workshop, and adept at giving feedback, without being directive. This is the critical bit: they have to stay neutral and avoid getting tangled up in the ideas or too engaged in the participant groups.

Workshops and Introverts

Workshops and Introverts

A Sandpit or an Ideas Lab collects academics from a range of disciplines and mix them around, working in groups to solve a problem or develop ideas for research. It smacks of just what an extravert will love: conversations with strangers, moving chairs a lot, making presentations in front of a group. But just the idea of being in a meeting room with 25 other people for five days can be enough to discourage an introvert from applying to attend, let alone the idea of having to interact with a large group all week.

One More Day

One More Day

Over time, we’ve worked out that the optimal length of one of our innovation workshops is five days. That gives ample time for participants – strangers when they walk in the door – to feel each other out, find some common (and uncommon) ground and begin to trust each other, intellectually. It also takes time to unpick the challenge area. The exercise of defining the scope of the challenge together, as a group, informs a broader perspective and helps to avoid making assumptions about the problem. But that takes time.

To See or Not to See

To See or Not to See

If there is a revolving group of strangers who come and go and stand on the side of the room and watch and listen – and chat amongst themselves – it’s a bit unnerving for the participants, who start to feel in a fishbowl and get self-conscious, which effects their ability to express themselves freely. It’s remarkable how our process will help people will begin to trust each other and take intellectual risks. The presence of an observer can thwart that, instantly, unraveling the trust that we’ve spent two days building.

Ideal Participant Pool

Ideal Participant Pool

KI’s Sandpits and Ideas Labs are very intense and immersive, bringing together people of diverse backgrounds and disciplines in order to generate ideas for radically novel research proposals. KI has developed a process that helps these extreme ideas emerge, but there’s another very important component to the success of these workshops: the collection of participants in the room. Here’s how we counsel our clients to organize a group for one of these events.

Frictionless Creativity

Frictionless Creativity

Workshops can be expensive. You need a budget for hotel and food and the meeting organization. The travel is an additional financial and carbon cost. These days its hard to coordinate people’s calendars so that you can actually get the right people in the room to address the challenge. So as much as we enjoy facilitating workshops and working face-to-face with groups, KI has also been exploring how to take advantage of the virtual capacity that, each year, is more and more realistic and user-friendly.

Make Room

Make Room

Where you meet sets the mood for your meeting, which is why the space matters. Put people in the same old meeting room and the chances of getting the same old output are pretty good. If it’s a big open room with an inviting seating plan around Arthurian round tables, with long walls of white paper ready to receive hundreds of colorful ideas, it sets an entirely different tone than immovable chairs lined tight and facing forward. If you want to make room for innovation, you have to make the room the kind of place that will invite it.