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A Lab For Solving The World's Most Pressing Problems

Insight Labs convenes groups of problem-solvers from all industries to tackle issues about education, social investment, and design.

On Wednesday afternoon last week, Jeff Leitner paced the halls of Mass General Hospital—a high temple of centralized health care delivery—thinking about a problem at the heart of the health care system: how to make it easier to bring medicine to people who need it as opposed to the status quo, where hospitals and clinics are the norm?

Leitner isn’t a doctor, or hospital administrator, or a medical student: he’s a corporate organizational strategist turned consultant for social good. As the founder of the Chicago-based Insight Labs, it’s his job to collaborate with the "smartest people we can find from around the country" to solve the world’s most pressing challenges. It’s a nearly three-year-old project that turned into a full-time job and an official foundation last summer. In that short time, Leitner and his co-founder Howell J. Malham Jr. have already worked with organizations and companies like NASA, Ashoka, and Starbucks, to tackle problems within education, social investment, and design.

Through their work, they’re creating a new model for social impact innovation, cherry-picking from the most effective methods of corporate and creative culture, and tapping the potential of smart people—plucked from boardrooms and cubicles—to collaborate on solutions to global challenges by applying fresh eyes to a problem. On their website, they describe themselves as a "love child of a think tank and a flash mob for good."

Insight Labs is best known for its half-day-long workshops, or Labs. An organization provides a problem, and Labs figures out who the best people to invite to a problem-solving session are. "We don’t pull together subject matter experts. We pull together people that are successful in other fields," says Leitner, "with the belief that if they solved complex problems in their world, then they can be useful in solving it here."

In the case of and The Family Van, a mobile health care delivery for low-income Bostonians, that meant inviting folks from MIT and the Interaction Institute for Social Change. (Leitner says they don’t reveal who attended until after the event.)

In his initial research for the project, Leitner found out that there’s a "real tension between" mobile and fixed site clinics, even though they’re both working to the same goal of keeping people healthy. "Fixed site clinics think that mobile health clinics are taking resources," he says. A goal of the Lab will be to "sketch out a paradigm where they can coexist peacefully and even appreciate the other," according to Leitner.

"We have some ground rules for how these sessions work that allows us to get as much done in a few hours as possible," Leitner explains. One rule is the technique for generating ideas, eschewing the process of brainstorming for a more singular approach: "We iterate on one idea. We push it as hard and as fast as we can." It’s part of their philosophy that "one shared vision is more meaningful and more powerful than an ocean of good ideas, even if the shared vision isn’t perfect," according to their website.

Another has to do with managing egos when you bring a bunch of high-performing people into a confined space for hours. "We frown on posturing," Leitner says. "We say, ‘We’ve only got three hours to save the world. If you feel like getting famous and making a speech, you’ll have to do so outside here.’ "