Taking Back “Experimentation”
By Josina Vink
It’s time to reclaim experimentation to enable people-powered innovation in mental health.
Mental health systems in Canada have a dark history with experimentation. In the 20th century, we tested some horrific therapies on people with “mental disorders” including hydrotherapy, insulin coma, and the medical surgery of lobotomy. Because of the legacy of these tests and studies, there is some resistance to experimentation in the context of mental health today.
However, in the fields of innovation and design, the use of experimentation, testing, and prototyping is gaining a lot of ground as a valuable method for the improvement of public services. In these circles, tests are not about experimenting on patients, but rather system stakeholders partnering with people with lived experience to co-design, try out, and refine new ways of working.
The good news is that we can experiment with large, complex issues at small scale with little resources, lots of participation and limited risk. There are methods like paper prototyping, bodystorming, walkthroughs, and service blueprints that effectively bring to life ideas and enable early critique. We can learn a lot before we ever start implementing service changes.
This new wave of experimentation catalyzes the exploration of a large quantity of ideas, but encourages us to let go of those ideas that don’t work early. It thrives on input and feedback from diverse perspectives to strengthen promising practices. This time, instead of experts leading the way, co-design methods place the people affected at the centre of the process.
It is in this vain that we see an emerging number of social labs popping up in Canada like the MaRS Solutions Lab, Alberta Government’s CoLab, UHN’s OpenLab and CAMH’s PSSP Systems Lab. There are also incredible organizations like InWithForward prototyping new community services by partnering with people on the ground. Plus, our work happening through the Service Collaboratives in Ontario, like the Peer Positive initiative, demonstrates that there can be a community-driven approach to systems change that learns along the way.
There is hopefulness in these methods for a better future, but not if we ignore the lessons of the past. I am optimistic that the current generation of health innovators will be thoughtful, ethical and responsive, modeling a better way to progress.
What do you think?
Can we take back experimentation?
Are social labs just another wave of expert-driven change?
What will it take to innovate responsibly in mental health?