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Turning a Growing Network Into a Thriving Network

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August 23rd, 2023

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One of the most frequently asked questions about the Flying Labs Network is, "How many Flying Labs are there in the Network?" This is an essential question as the actual size of the Network influences its growth on multiple levels, such as local representation, diversity of experiences and approaches, and collective learning, to name a few obvious ones.

One fact we appreciate most about the "size" growth in the Flying Labs Network is that it is all organic growth. This signifies that existing local organizations reach out to us to either create a new Flying Lab in their country or, if there's an existing one, join them instead. This also implies that it's not WeRobotics that influences where and how the Network grows in size, but rather the genuine local demand, as expressed by local experts. As needs change, so does the Network map, with both new Flying Labs joining the Network and existing ones departing. It depends on the need and the local partners' ability to transform that local need into a sustainable and viable Flying Lab.

Over the past five years, we have seen a constant net growth of 4 – 8 Flying Labs per year, accounting for both the ones joining the Network and those leaving. Since each Flying Lab operates on an entirely self-funded and self-financed basis, having the option to leave is important and healthy for the overall growth and sustainability of the Network. This has brought the Network in the summer of 2023 to bring together 40 Flying Labs.

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Growth, however, is not solely tied to size. Growth in strength is equally important, if not more important now, as the Network is entering a more mature state (we introduced the social franchise approach in early 2018). Over time, we have learned that impact and sustainability are key elements influencing the long-term success of Flying Labs. Likewise, sharing and collaboration, the two fundamental values of the Flying Labs Network, also play a significant role.

While we at WeRobotics do not influence the growth in size, our key focus lies in contributing to the growth in strength. This is the rationale behind the majority of our team's efforts being dedicated to the qualitative growth of the Network. From the early stages of our journey in co-creating and facilitating the Network, we learned that effectively contributing to and supporting Flying Labs' qualitative growth requires a shared understanding of what such growth means and clear criteria for its measurement. This need gave birth to the governance model of the Flying Labs Network in 2020—a fully co-created model by Flying Labs and WeRobotics. Through this governance model, we collectively understand that, in our context, "growth in strength" essentially translates into eight key objectives: collaboration, sharing, impact, sustainability, ethics, expertise, professionalism, and partnerships. Prioritizing these elements will allow the growing Network to thrive to its full potential.

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Since launching this Network governance framework with Flying Labs in 2020, the insights gained from evaluations have significantly contributed to strengthening the global Network and ensuring that Flying Labs derive the best membership value from the Network. We have learned that while Flying Labs share common interests, their strengths vary. Therefore, in areas where we observe substantial knowledge or expertise gaps, we have initiated programs to bridge these gaps.

For instance, the outcomes of the global evaluations carried out in 2021 indicated that many Flying Labs were interested in building and strengthening the sustainability level of their local hubs. In response, we launched an internal online training course designed to cater to the growing demand for sustainability practices within social enterprises. This course equips participating Flying Labs with tools and resources to develop customized strategies. Furthermore, in 2021, we introduced the "Turning Data into Action" program as a direct outcome of learnings made on Flying Labs' needs concerning impact, expertise, and ethics.

As each individual Flying Labs and the Network as a whole constantly evolve, so does our work at WeRobotics—especially as there is no recipe or best practice to follow for successful qualitative growth of a global Network that is entirely locally driven. Hence, turning a growing Network into a thriving one is a fascinating long-term learning journey for all of us. This journey comprises numerous small and targeted activities requiring daily attention, dedication, and commitment to continuous learning.

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This long-term learning journey sometimes feels very tedious. No shortcuts are available, and we neither can nor adopt a "one solution fits all" approach. In our work with Flying Labs, the concept of "standards" does not exist, as the significant aspect of the Network's success is the global diversity created by hundreds of local experts. It is also an enriching journey, especially when Flying Labs share their individual success and impact stories, both with us and within the Network. The true reward lies in witnessing individual Flying Labs, and consequently, the entire Network, thrive in many different ways.

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