Social Innovation Labs: A Neoliberal Austerity Driven Process or Democratic Intervention?


  • Meghan Joy
  • John Shields
  • Siu Mee Cheng


Social Innovation, Austerity, Neoliberalism, New Public Management, Social Impact Bonds


Social Innovation Labs (SILs) are a recent policymaking development that are spreading rapidly in many different countries. SILs are said to address difficult and complex social policy problems that have been resistant to solutions. To date, there has been limited scholarly analysis of SIL development, with many questions in need of critical policy assessment. This paper seeks to conceptualize SILs in the Canadian context by mapping the sector and exploring how these labs fit within the broader ecosystem of policy innovation. We consider why SILs have become so popular in this particular socio-political moment. We contend that the SIL trend speaks to a dual and contradictory desire on the part of governments for more participatory policymaking and cost saving. Thus, while SILs may create opportunities for the democratization of social policy, they are also motivated by efforts to do more with less in an environment shaped by austerity and neoliberalism. This suggests that SILs could equally result in the marketization and depoliticization of social policy. This paper highlights these tensions conceptually with the purpose of guiding empirical studies that explore how these contradictions may manifest in policy practice and perhaps offer openings for policy that addresses both the roots and symptoms of complex social policy problems.




How to Cite

Joy, M., Shields, J. ., & Cheng, S. M. (2019). Social Innovation Labs: A Neoliberal Austerity Driven Process or Democratic Intervention?. Alternate Routes: A Journal of Critical Social Research, 30(2). Retrieved from