Inspiring Ethical Innovation with staatslabor

The laws of unintended consequences are embedded into the history of our technologies. Don Delillo warned that if you create a car, you also invent the car crash. Today we find the stakes for these collisions in the digital world have become unexpectedly high: algorithms carrying a strange logic to the everyday, revealing new threats through an ever-escalating combination of unhappy accidents and deliberate manipulation.

Yet the counterpoint to these threats are increasingly rising from the public sector, which is often forced only to anticipate changes or react to unexpected twists cooked up in a Silicon Valley garage. The public sector benefits from innovative thinking just as much as the private, but what happens if “moving fast and breaking things” harms people in a public sector context, or delays essential services to vulnerable populations? How do we balance the essential ingredients of innovation with care and responsibility toward the result?

We spoke with Maximilian Stern and Alenka Bonnard, of staatslabor, an organization which takes many roles: a forum for exchange, a laboratory for public innovation, and an interdisciplinary platform connecting experts from civil society and administration. They’re also behind the staatsBox, an open-source toolkit for innovation in the public sector. staatslabor was included as part of the swissnex Salon’s event, Ethical Innovation: Move Fast and Break Nothing, where their staatsBox was presented alongside the Institute for the Future’s Ethical OS toolkit, Switzerland’s ethix lab, and the first-ever Humanitarian Innovation Guide.

The staatsBox

They describe the box as a physical box of tools, which guides those who use it through mentoring and training through interactive tools, templates and guidance, including diverse materials such as videos, maps, chocolate, and even a prepaid credit card.

Maximilian Stern, staatslabor

“To come up with new ideas, new approaches or solutions is basically the same thing in the private and in the public sector,” said Stern. But while the goal of private innovation might be based on a market need to something cheaper or faster, in the public sector the central goal is to improve the quality of service. “The difference lies in incentives, processes, know-how, tools,” Stern continued, “and perhaps language and culture, too. If you want to extend your social services to an underprivileged minority, you probably don’t need to spin-off a new startup — but you might have to be just as entrepreneurial.”

The pair explained that they looked to innovation tools being used in the private sector, such as Adobe’s Kickbox, and are reimagining these tools for a public sector context.

“We thought that adapting such a kickbox, and thereby identifying exactly the differences between public and private sector innovation we’re thinking about, is the perfect challenge for the staatslabor,” Bonnard said.

“Innovation is a creative process,” said Stern. That approach is clear when you look inside the box. “By using tools, it is much easier to take a new perspective on the issue at hand. It doesn’t come as a surprise that Lego is a huge success in corporate innovation processes, they call it ‘serious play.’ What we want to look at in the staatsBox is, what mix of tools and manuals you need to innovate in the public sector? Perhaps there will be modeling clay or a process diagram, probably both. It will be a matter of testing to find out what works in the end.”

An International Approach

The staatslabor is also seeking international collaborators for the project, to expand the scope of ideas contained within.

“Challenges such as designing citizen-centered public services or bringing down departmental silo thinking are similar everywhere,” said Stern. “International collaboration is a key to bring public sector innovation to a new level, because it enables learning and cross-fertilization. We frequently share Swiss experiences and cases with people and organizations internationally, but we are also very keen to learn more about success stories from abroad.”

staatslabor is uniquely positioned to consider this approach as a non-profit organization that works with administrative units at the municipal, cantonal, and federal levels of Switzerland. 

Alenka Bonnard

Alenka Bonnard, staatslabor

“We help them improve their services and processes by using new approaches such as user-centered design, agile working or randomized control trials,” said Bonnard. “Apart from doing hands-on projects and consulting them in strategic innovation matters, we organize the public innovation community in Switzerland by curating events and information channels. Here, our aim is to share know-how and best practices from Switzerland and abroad, as well as to foster the exchange between civil servants, experts, and the wider society. This is why we appreciate partnering with swissnex San Francisco, who are always helpful in establishing links between best practices abroad and in Switzerland.”

The two encouraged anyone interested in an exchange of ideas to reach them at

Header photo: staatsbox, courtesy of staatslabor.