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Regional case study: Community Lab, Emilia Romagna

Sophie Reynolds, Nesta & Valentina Gianfrate, UNIBO

Community Lab, Emilia Romagna Region: Using openness and collaboration to better respond to complex social challenges



Community Lab is a public policy initiative based in the region of Emilia Romagna, Italy. It sets out to improve community wellbeing by encouraging community empowerment and engagement with the policy development process. The initiative is led by the Emilia Romagna Regional Health and Social Agency, and Lab activities are carried out in collaboration with local government agencies and others.


Community Lab sets out to open up how social and health problems are framed by integrating the perspectives of citizens, marginalized groups, such as migrants or precarious workers – as well as social economy actors and other stakeholders – into the policy planning process. In doing this, Community Lab transforms seemingly isolated policy challenges into collective and shared objectives of a participative programme.

Working collaboratively in this way also enables Community Lab to go beyond traditional policy targets and embrace the more cross-cutting dimensions and complex realities of social problems. The role of public authorities is changed in this arrangement: with public bodies, private, active citizenship and enterprises all taking on a more active role in co-creating and co-managing new policy solutions. Furthermore, human-centred design principles and systems thinking are used to build up the innovation capacity of the government agencies involved – by uncovering opportunities to redesign policy strategy and services in a way that is more in line with real user need at a micro level; and at a macro level – radically rethinking how complex problems are framed and approached.


The Lab uses a method which seeks to put local place-based experiments and action-based learning at the heart of the public sector. The Lab’s methodology starts out with a regional call to identify the most effective local social innovation solutions/initiatives operating in the health and social welfare sector – which are referred to as ‘case studies’. Emilia Romagna local communities and municipalities then submit case studies outlining their relevant local social innovation examples. Typically these local initiatives are promoted by the local municipalities, or are bottom-up initiatives that had already garnered attention from policymakers.

These ‘case studies’ are then analysed to assess their effectiveness and scalability, and the analysis helps inform the design of a series local pilot experiments intended to tackle a number of different health and social sector challenges. Emilia Romagna regional officers then select the most effective examples to be adopted on an experimental basis by the community labs.

The local pilot experiments are then tested, and where they are shown to be effective in practice, efforts are made to replicate them in new contexts. Past experiments have sought to tackle challenges ranging from topics such as testing innovative participative practices for health and social wellbeing; trialling participatory planning, tackling gender-related issues, and encouraging welfare innovations.

Three sets of experiments have been run as part of Community Lab’s three editions, and were run in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Each of these iterations has shown a consistent commitment to refining and iterating the method. For instance, the 2013 Lab edition sought to trial the participatory planning approach; the 2014 edition then sought to identify an evaluation framework to capture the outcomes of this approach, and the 2015 edition focused on improving the architecture that would facilitate the scaling of the Lab methodology into new contexts: assessing the replicability of the method in other institutional processes (scaling up the process from local contexts to Municipality Unions, to Metropolitan cities) and modifying the guidelines so that they could be adopted in new areas.


After the first edition, the Emilia Romagna region found the Community Lab could be an effective mechanism to promote social involvement and social innovation in the Region. Replicating and testing the method in new contexts and with the involvement of new actors was supported by empirical guidelines and a practitioner’s toolbox for each of the different policy experiments. Each edition of Community Lab provided a contextually-specific response, but the collection and the analysis of each of the experiments allowed for the drawing up of effective measures to empower the Social and Health


Regional and Local Services to achieve a participatory approach to better meet citizens’ needs. Since 2012 the Community Lab method has been used to develop the region’s health and social wellbeing plan, and the approach is currently being experimented with to develop regional plans in other sectors, such as housing and urban regeneration.


Local policymakers and public officials are the main beneficiaries of the Community Lab programme. The Lab is understood (after the first set of experiments in 2013) as an effective training method to foster social innovation in the Public Administration’s different sectors, to produce greater understanding of public challenges and how to solve them through the action of the community, starting from experimental initiatives and collective processes. Community Lab has resulted in the creation of a community of practice based on the inductive learning (starting with the initial identification and analysis of local challenges) and the growth of a new culture and new ways of planning based on the integration between different areas and sectors.