New Brunswick's Secret to Economic Growth? Social Labs

No workers? Demographics askew? New Brunswick’s social lab has answers

Why It Matters

Labs for designing, developing, trying, and re-trying new interventions are growing across Canada. Only five years ago, there were three — now there are more than 60. Their proliferation means that they are gaining the social licence, and that their approaches are gaining traction.

The future of New Brunswick relies on people who have never heard of the small eastern Canadian province. Here, immigration is the name of game when it comes to economic growth, specifically for finding workers to support the growth of new and established businesses.

The province has a population of 747,101 that has been declining annually, exacerbated by the fact that New Brunswick has a rapidly aging population.

Since 2013, the province has lost more than 11,000 workers, meaning novel approaches are needed to attract and retain new Canadians to the province.

The social lab process has been the most recent approach to address the challenges that go along with large-scale immigration.

It mixes rapid iteration, experimentation, and consultation to find meaningful solutions to large-scale problems.

New Brunswick’s Social and Public Innovation Lab, NouLAB — a program of the Pond-Deshpande Centre at the University of New Brunswick — developed and launched the Economic Immigration Lab as a novel, multi-stakeholder workshop to develop policy, programs, and services.

It has resulted in new, engaged projects to ease the process of immigration and settlement into the province.

Building from the theory that individual change is at the heart of making lasting systems change, the projects rely on a combination of having the right people in the room with agency and power to create and implement policy changes as well as having people directly affected by those policy changes deeply involved in the creation, feedback, and experimentation process.

Using a facilitated participatory design process known as co-design, the Economic Immigration Lab creates solutions with newcomers instead of for them, and has resulted in five distinct experimental prototypes that are actively receiving support and funding to test the approaches.

These five prototypes are focused on:

  1. A program to support teaching with diversity in the classroom
  2. A neighbourhood-focused newcomer integration program
  3. A dedicated support staff to guide employers and employees through the process of hiring internationally
  4. A toolkit for supporting cross-cultural connections in local meet-up groups
  5. A program to support internationally educated nurses get their credentials recognized.

These experiments can be attributed to facilitated processes that aim at getting to the heart of the problem and working on solutions with tools from the fields of design and systems thinking.

The social lab ecosystem has grown to more than 56 social labs across Canada, not including labs within government.

Approaches vary greatly across labs with one unifying feature being the mindset of experimentation and testing, often through prototyping.

This propensity towards learning through doing can be explained with the famous psychologist Kurt Lewin’s quote: “You cannot understand a system until you try and change it.”

In NouLAB’s experience, experimentation and prototyping have been essential to the early successes we have seen so far.

Receiving and being open to the feedback from the people experiencing the issue at hand allows projects to be adaptive to the often shifting targets that often exist when dealing with social issues.