Community Innovation Labs

Using the arts to foster trust among stakeholders from different sectors and collaboratively develop responses to a complex social challenge.

Why do we need Community Innovation Labs?

In this time of rapid change, our country faces deep divisions and unprecedented cultural challenges. Despite our best intentions, we’re getting it wrong so often these days – still applying military metaphors (targets, precision, efficiency) to situations that are complex and fluid, unknowable and ambiguous. We’re holding ourselves back by relying on best practices and linear strategic planning, which limit our ability to discover the next practices of the future, or tackle anything other than symptoms.

The Community Innovation Labs are our response to what we see today. They are an unconventional approach to helping community stakeholders from multiple sectors work together in to address to an urgent and specific social challenge. The Labs use artistic processes to build trust, explore new possibilities, and advance arts-based strategies for systemic change. If we can do this, it seems to us, our communities will make real progress toward justice, equity and creative vitality.

To learn more about Community Innovation Labs, contact Liz Dreyer at

Program Impact

  • More than 80 stakeholders engaged across sectors in the Winston-Salem and Providence pilot Labs
  • Deep relationships cultivated among participants with people who they otherwise wouldn't have met
  • Small experiments designed and tested with 500+ residents to explore change strategies
Introducing the Community Innovation Labs

The Community Innovation Labs are a 15 to 24 month program that uses the arts to bring together diverse, cross-sector groups of stakeholders in a city or neighborhood in order to take on a self-determined community challenge. Participants include city agencies, community organizers, business leaders, artists, cultural organizations, and nonprofit service providers.

The four key principles of the Labs are:
  1. a focus on building dense, cross-sector networks
  2. a willingness to slow down in order to see systems as a whole
  3. an ability to harvest the unique contributions of artists and cultural workers
  4. a willingness to let go of linear planning in favor of experimental learning
Program Framework

Phase 1:  Initiating a Lab (6 months)
  • EmcArts works with local Conveners to customize the Lab design to the local context, clarify the focus, engage local artists, recruit local Champions, and enroll larger groups of Lab Members. Research is conducted to gather perspectives from local stakeholders.
Phase 2:  Unfreezing the Status Quo (6 months)
  • EmcArts facilitates a series of carefully crafted Intensive Workshops for a core group of 30-40 Lab participants, as well as a series of additional community gatherings to engage a larger cross-section of local stakeholders and influencers. Workshops are richly interwoven with artistic facilitation techniques and move participants towards transformative, arts-based strategies for change.
Phase 3:  Accelerating Innovation (4 - 8 months)
  • Up to three cross-sector working groups that emerge from can opt in to further facilitation support from an EmcArts team member to foster an emerging arts-based strategies, maintaining momentum and pivoting towards testing strategies in action.

You can read about our learnings from the Community Innovation Lab Pilots and the revised framework for Round 2 here. You can also read here about the learning that led to our articulation of five capabilities that we believe are critical to both the artistic process and to community change.

At its core, the Winston-Salem Community Innovation Lab is a social-capital building initiative that has created safe spaces for brave, healthy, and challenging dialogue and meaningful connections between diverse members of our community.

Jonathan Halsey, Director of Community Engagement, The Winston-Salem Foundation
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Current Labs
In 2015, we began piloting the Lab program in Winston-Salem, NC and Providence, RI. The pilot Labs are addressing these core questions:
  • Winston-Salem, NC: How can we create a more equitable and abundant Winston-Salem? How can we move systems of race, class and power to do so? How can we, as a community, build enough trust to enable transformative change to happen?
  • Providence, RI: How can we develop and test creative approaches to improving community safety, cultural life and well-being in Trinity Square?
Round One Labs have since concluded.
To learn about the story behind the Community Innovation Labs, read our blog series on ArtsFwd, which captures the journey of the Labs from origins to design through piloting. Also, check out the photo essays we commissioned from local artists.

In late 2016, Dallas, TX kicked off round two of the Community Innovation Lab program. The following core question is being addressed:
  • Dallas, TX: How can we work collectively to ensure equitable access to healthy food and nourishment for and with all the citizens of Dallas, using arts, creativity, and food itself as catalysts?
You can read the full announcement and check back for any updates on Round Two Labs here. The Dallas Lab is currently in Phase 3 of their program.

In 2017, Community Innovation Lab | Inclusive Economies launched in Indianapolis. The Inclusive Economies Lab is currently in Phase 1 of their program.

Photos from Winston-Salem and Providence pilot Labs
Program Funders
Community Innovation Labs are funded by the Kresge Foundation and MetLife Foundation.