Lab office series, episode 1: Discovery Tour

June 13, 2017 | Natalie Frei | Change Stories, Methods & Tools |


Rating: 4.7 out of 5

quadraticIn May, a delegation of SDC’s Knowledge-Learning-Culture division went on an expedition to discover new forms of office design and collaboration. Excited about the prospect of reorganizing our division, we set out to seek inspiration in the global lab trend. We visited five organizations with laboratory aspects in the international cooperation field and took notes.

By Natalie Frei, SDC

More than a year after being scattered across different buildings and floors, the Knowledge-Learning-Culture Division (KLC) will move into new offices later in 2017. As we’re constantly encouraging our colleagues to use creative tools and to think outside the box, it seems fitting to create our new office accordingly. We went to Bonn and Geneva to talk to organizations that have either installed their offices as labs or work in a similar area as KLC; information, knowledge and network management.

UNSSC Knowledge Center for Sustainable Development, Bonn


Situated in a beautiful castle overlooking the Rhine, the Center has a natural comparative advantage. When entering the castle, it’s immediatley visible that the interior of the Center shares the lab philosophy: open, transparent, inviting, collaborative, creative . “Office Setup has tremendous impact on work. We wanted to get inspired by Google but the UN interfered”, says Patrick van Weerelt (Head of the Center). Nevertheless, the office turned out to be quite open spaced, colorful and tech savvy. The colors correspond with the SDGs, the furniture is very adjustable and the rooms promote informality.

It started in 2015 with the goal to provide training for the Agenda 2030 for UN staff and other stakeholders (member states, civil society, private sector). Their fifteen staff members operate in very loose hierarchy. “Everyone does what they want but it works”, says van Weerelt. They consider their lab still in a development phase: “You have to say yes to everything at first and then figure out what works and what doesn’t”.


UNSSC's offices offer open spaces, gathering areas and meeting rooms with mobile furtniture.

UNSSC’s offices offer open spaces, gathering areas and meeting rooms with mobile furtniture (By profim).


 Academy for International Cooperation by GiZ, Bonn


The Acadamy was developed out of a functional reoganisation and offers about 1700 courses in language, travel preparation, management and others every year. Unfortunately, as they say, they operate from ordinary offices without any “lab facilites”. It’s the way they are structured that ensures innovation. The Academy isn’t granted with an annual budget but they have to refinance themselves with training programme fees paid by their students. On the one hand, this guarantees the Academy’s freedom in their course design and on the other hand forces them to stay creative, customer oriented and competitive.


SDG Lab, Geneva


The 5-head-operation that means to strenghten the eco-System in Geneva to implement the Agenda 2030 is without any physical facilites for now. They usually meet in UN spaces, which they say is counterproductive. They wish for facilities that promote informality and force people to think outside silos. They see their main task in four areas:

Convene: To create opportunities for people to meet across silos to form relationships and collect new insight from different perspectives

Connect: Offer opportunities for Networking between different stakeholders

Amplify: Tell stories about success and failure in various context for others to learn from

Innovate: Provide space for testing solutions, to be experimental


The Knowledge-Learning-Culture delegation on discovery tour in Geneva.

The Knowledge-Learning-Culture delegation on discovery tour in Geneva.


Diplo Foundation, Geneva

Diplo was founded to support and train diplomats from developing countries and evolved into a hub that caters information and capacity development “just in time” for complex subjects that are difficult to stay up to date with. They still offer courses – many of them in a nearby park – and operate the Geneva Internet Platform to publish information, for example on cyber policy, and news from around the world. They operate similar to a global media corporation and employ information curators – alias foreign correspondents – around the world. In their lab in Geneva, which is an ordinary office for now, they filter all the information and publish news in the “Digital Watch” section of their platform and organize a monthly lunch briefing that is livestreamed on the internet.




The United Nations Institute for Training and Research was established in 1963 to train the many emerging nations at the time and their diplomats. UNOSAT is based in Geneva and their core business is satelite imagery and analysis. We visited them to get some input on technology. For instance, they are experimenting with virtual or augmented reality to “put people on the ground” for training purposes, e.g. into a disaster situation. For smaller productions like videos, they recommend to use a 360° camera to create a comparable effect. In UNOSAT’s experience, people associate social media with leisure and email with work. Therefore, to boost social interaction and informal knowledge sharing, they use Workplace by Facebook, which works the same way as Facebook but isn’t public. Our division is currently testing it and we really like it so far.


The next episodes of this trilogy will be published weekly.

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