Social Innovation Lab Kent

In 2007 Emma Barrett Palmer was in the founding team at Social Innovation Lab Kent, a groundbreaking partnership between Engine Service Design and Kent County Council to "do policy differently".

SILK was the first Lab of its kind in UK government and is recognised globally for its unique Starting With People Methodology.


Emma led the programme at SILK from 2009 - 2016, taking a whole system approach to transformational change, facilitating productive collaborations between people with professional and lived experiences, in strategic, operational and community settings. The aim of SILK was to embed design thinking into Kent County Council through real life projects - an introductory report can be read here. 

It is an exciting time in the emerging global labs movement and I am thoroughly committed to a way of working that cuts across discipline, sector and cultural boundaries, while keeping people at the very heart
— Emma Barrett Palmer
SILK Methodology and Method Deck

SILK Methodology and Method Deck

Dementia Checklist Prototype

Dementia Checklist Prototype

You did a great job at SILK, I have always been impressed by your commitment and the quality of your work
— Stéphane Vincent, Délégué Général, 27ème Région, France
SILK is the conscience of the organisation
— Debra Exall, Strategic Relationships Advisor, Kent County Council
SILK entered onto my radar as a designer when Kent established a relationship with Engine Service Design. It was the first time I heard about a social innovation lab within a UK government setting. At that time, service design and its theoretical and methodological approach was gaining importance in the design field. And still more: the idea that a service design approach could be embedded in a government setting was starting to spread. I started to cite SILK as an example of good practice in my course and activities. SILK was influential over the years, not only for service design students, but also for future developments in the field
— Professor Carla Cipolla, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Houses as Homes - improved accommodation to reduce levels of re-offending

Houses as Homes - improved accommodation to reduce levels of re-offending

The SILK approach

In every SILK project we aimed to push the boundaries of current practice, gathering real life experiences about "wicked issues" from citizens and front-line workers to inform decision-makers. We collaborated with disciplines not traditionally seen within a government setting - anthropologists and ethnographers, film-makers, artists and animators, community chefs and architects. 

My particular commitment was ensuring that citizens were genuinely involved. People with lived experience were invited to participate in every aspect of project decision making as part of the extended SILK team - from reviewing existing practice, generating ideas, prototyping new concepts, refining blueprints and commissioning new service models. 

The SILK approach was successfully implemented within strategic, service design and community settings, working horizontally across the traditional hierarchies and silos of government systems. This required versatility, adaptability, persistence and patience. At SILK, we were able to create a space where citizens could work alongside professionals in a genuinely collaborative way, as equals. 

A full portfolio of our diverse programme at SILK can be found here.

R Shop Bulk Buy

A participatory film showing how a group of residents worked alongside SILK to set up a community shopping scheme, R Shop, in Parkwood, Maidstone