About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Four reflections on public service innovation

Many principles inform our work here at Nesta, for example:

  • Get the question right by challenging assumptions;
  • A mindset of grounded optimism helps by being clear about the here and now, yet ambitious about what’s possible;
  • Incorporate new perspectives, particularly from citizens and frontline staff;
  • Use experimental methods to get a rigorous understanding of what works in real world conditions; and so on.

Reflecting on my time here at Nesta, here are four questions which may help to further improve how innovation happens in public systems.

Innovation is a social process

Yes, it’s also technical, but it’s easy to underestimate the influence of fear, status and risk and indeed belonging, connection and recognition on whether a person tries something new or not. So focusing on processes and policies will only get us so far. We need as much focus on the quality of relationships and mindset as on the quality of data and infrastructure. Both are vital engines of change. What more can we do to incorporate psychological, behavioural and social understandings into innovation?

Context matters - but how much?

Mainstream innovation often assumes that a solution that works in one place should spread as far as possible. So a model developed in Birmingham is taken to Brighton, the Borders and Barnstaple. But what if - for this particular innovation - context accounts for, say, 80% of the initial success rather than 8%? That would put local factors - like culture, history and leadership - in pole position. It could also boost alternative models of scaling such as mass localism - large numbers of locally developed, owned and accountable solutions which add up to large scale change. How can we better understand when context matters, how much and what that means for innovation?

Public systems need intermediaries

Private markets don’t assume new products and services will reach customers by themselves. Instead much is invested in intermediary infrastructure like brand and marketing, distribution channels and knowledge and relationship brokerage. There have been recent additions to the equivalent infrastructure in public systems, such as the What Works network and cross-sector collaborations like the Academic Health Science Networks. But is there enough? What more can public systems do to provide incentives and mechanisms for spread and adaptation? And how can these incorporate social and behavioural factors and the role of local context?

De-risking the future

Some innovation experts call for more failure. But in public systems responsible for issues like housing and care, failure is often unacceptable. So it’s more helpful to focus on how innovation methods, like early stage testing, reduce failure by tackling current problems and establishing what works at a small scale with safeguards. Innovation isn’t a blank cheque to failure. In fact, it's a way to de-risk the present and the future. This shifts focus away from increasing failure and towards reducing risk (both current and future) through action and learning.


Halima Khan

Halima Khan

Halima Khan

Executive Director, Health, People and Impact

Halima was the Executive Director of the Health, People and Impact. She led Nesta’s work in health and also oversaw people (human resources) and impact for the organisation.

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