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This page helps you through five essential steps for anyone starting a Lab.

Don't even think about starting a Lab without it.


A. Set a convening question

All Labs must have a convening question: a short statement of what the Lab is trying to address.

A convening question is:

  • a one-sentence summary of what the Lab will try to solve or work towards
  • a broad question that you will unpack into sub-questions later (so don’t worry too much about detail)
  • an invitation into the process to other stakeholders interested in investigating a question or issue
  • implicitly incorporating how your Lab is distinctive from current responses to the issue

Don’t even think about starting without one - it will come back to bite you later. It doesn’t need to be detailed and well researched in Phase 0, but it does need to provide enough strategic direction to start your exploration phase. Write down your convening question in this worksheet.


What is the role of citizens in future energy systems?" (Energy Change Lab)
"How can Zambia move away from a culture of maize monocropping?” (Food Change Lab Zambia)
“How can we help companies and other stakeholders in the agri-food sector find solutions to achieve living wages in their supply chains?” (Living Wage Lab Netherlands)


B. Pick an end date

Keep it relatively short: Labs work best as an intense effort to try things differently. Plan your first Lab cycle (meaning: moving through all phases) for max 1 year.

To make your lab more sustainable, involve donors from the outset as thinking partners (and potential future sources of funding), and invite organisations who have been in the ecosystem for a long time - they can sustain your Lab after the life-cycle ends.


C. Decide who will lead the Lab

Decide whether your Lab will be led by Hivos, a partner organisation, or a combination.

Learn more about the pros and cons of each approach:

Hivos as lead facilitator/convener


As budget owner, Hivos is more flexible to allocate funding where it is needed
Hivos staff has easy access to global in-house expertise on Labs and internal learning processes
Positioning Hivos in this way can help it build its profile as a social innovator


Empowering a local organization to convene a Lab may help bring in citizen’s voices and bottom-up solutions
A potential con (or: common pitfall) is to have Hivos staff leading a Lab next to other projects, making the Lab an 'on the side' effort with insufficient energy, attention and intent

Partner as lead facilitator/convener:


The partner is embedded in new / other networks
The partner is a key actor in the respective field and therefore needs to play a central part


Because a Lab approach differs from usual programmes partners run with Hivos funding, a partner needs to fully understand what it entails
For it to work, the partner needs to be able to manage and distribute prototyping funding.
The partner will be unable to easily access internal Hivos knowledge on Labs and for Hivos, it may be harder to learn from the Lab

Remember - Labs work best when:

  • The partner has strong convening power, and can mobilize the actors needed to make the change.
  • The partner commits to scrutiny in documenting the Lab process.
  • The partner is familiar with convening multi-stakeholder platforms and with facilitating an open-ended innovation process.

D. Decide the purpose of your Lab

What is the purpose of your Lab? What does it want to deliver and / or change; and on what level? There is no right or wrong, but you need to be explicit about it, to make it intentional. Common categories we use are:

  1. Insights
  2. Solutions
  3. Relations
  4. Structures

Sometimes, you may not be 100% clear on the purpose yet because you feel need to dive deeper into the issue first. In this case, make sure that you come back to this question after your exploration phase.


Some labs are very good at delivering new insights or ideas for solutions, but fail at the level of changing relationships and/or deeper societal structures. Conversely, you can think of a situation where there’s good ideas and insights already, but relationships need to change in order to get there. The Lab’s purpose will then primarily be to work on those new relationships. All is good, as long as you’re intentional about it.


E. Decide on a (rough) budget

What is your budget and where does it come from - you want a balance between resources and objectives. If management (or a donor) pushes ambitious objectives but doesn’t deliver on key resources needed to get there, you need to have an honest conversation. Don’t assume it will work out fine, be realistic.


Done those steps and want more?

Move on to the next step - Phase 1: Defining