What is the Smart CSOs Lab?


The Smart CSOs Lab is an international network of civil society leaders*, researchers** and funders aiming to develop and put into practice strategies that embrace the cultural and systemic root causes lying behind the social and environmental crises of our times.

We believe civil society organisations (CSOs) have a crucial role to play in catalysing transformative social and economic change, yet new ideas and strategies are needed to address the challenges we face. Our current focus on single issues and short-term goals means that while we may win many battles, we are losing the war.

Our shared vision is to embrace the journey ahead of us as a Great Transition to sustainability similar in its dimension to the Industrial Revolution. This journey will require reinventing or fundamentally transforming many of our current political, economic and cultural institutions. It demands overcoming the dominant paradigm of economic growth as well as shifting from today’s dominant culture of consumerism and nationalism towards a culture of wellbeing with simpler living and a sense of planetary solidarity and identity.

For more information about the Smart CSOs Lab please view our short brochure.


* Civil society leaders from environmental and developmental NGOs, community groups, trade unions, social movements, faith-based organisations etc.

** Researchers and academics from diverse backgrounds: Psychology, sociology, economics, systems thinking, innovation studies etc.


Mission and Objectives


The Smart CSOs Lab fosters a growing learning network of civil society organisation (CSO) leaders, funders and researchers aiming to build effective CSO strategies for the Great Transition.

The Smart CSOs Lab pursues its mission through the following objectives:

  • Support CSO leaders and change agents in CSOs to develop cohesive strategies for CSO campaigns and projects for the Great Transition.
  • Develop and test capacity building programmes that support and enable the new strategies.
  • Catalyse strategically important research to increase understanding how CSOs can more effectively influence the social and political systems towards the Great Transition.
  • Involve a growing number of CSO leaders across the globe in the conversation about effective CSO strategies for the Great Transition 


The opportunity


The Smart CSOs Lab emerged from the EU funded project Action Town during 2010/2011. In this project a space was created for a strategic debate involving leaders from civil society organisations, academics and funders to discuss insights from theory and practice and explore how CSOs can become stronger change agents towards solving the global social and environmental crises. The focus of this work was on gaining a better understanding of how change happens and how CSOs can more effectively intervene in the social and political systems. The Smart CSOs Report laid out the foundation for this work that now has to move towards developing and testing new approaches (campaigns, capacity building, organisational change).

The key conclusion from our analysis is that civil society is currently not focussing sufficiently on a deeper systemic change and that it has not yet developed sufficient capacity to be able to work effectively towards such a vision. The Smart CSOs Lab provides a space for multi disciplinary learning where change agents but also academics and researchers (etc.) come together to learn and test new approaches for Great Transition strategies.


The action experiment philosophy


Developing and putting into practice effective CSOs strategies for the Great Transition involves dealing with uncertainty at all levels:

  • We need to experiment with new process approaches in the lab (the design of the learning process, the people involved, the working model of the lab etc.).
  • Change agents in organisations need to experiment with approaches to change the organisations and their campaigns.
  • And finally, organisations need to fundamentally shift to be fit for dealing with complexity and uncertainty and to become effective change agents.

Embedding action experiments as a principle for work is a response to dealing with complexity and the inadequateness of linear approaches to wicked (or systemic) problems.


The Lab philosophy


In addition, Smart CSOs operates under a ‘Lab’ philosophy. This means that it is an open place where people come together to learn, develop and test ideas and ways to transform civil society organisations and their projects and campaigns, as long as these are aligned with the mission of the lab: the development of effective CSO strategies for the Great Transition.


Three levels of learning


The lab supports change agents on three levels:

  • Personal: Providing learning programmes that support and empower change agents (help them on their personal journey)
  • Organisational: By supporting change agents in their organisational change efforts
  • Societal: By developing and testing ideas for more effective strategies for social and political change