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.

Prototyping as habit

Wouldn’t it be good if our public and social organisations were in the habit of prototyping?

In our previous blog, we have how prototyping – small scale testing exploring the viability of a new product or service – might help public and social sector leaders to design radically different ways of doing things and solve some of our biggest challenges.

Nesta has worked with councils, charities and community organisations that have seen the benefits of working with service designers to prototype and develop new services. A council might expect to work closely with a service designer through all aspects of the design process, from defining the problem, developing ideas and testing their viability, to implementing a refined and improved service.

Partnerships between services designers and public and social organisations are stimulating a real interest in prototyping across these sectors. Many organisations that have participated in prototyping are keen to apply the approach to new and different problems. A council in this position could continue to commission the professionals to help them develop and test their ideas, but they might also skill up their own staff to do this work in-house. 

Embedding prototyping practice within a council sounds like an ambitious project, but this is exactly what the Local Authority of Barnet is currently working towards.

Building capacity

In a project called Prototype Barnet, Nesta is supporting the council to build its internal capability to prototype new services. The council’s interest in the approach and what it can offer sprang from real dissatisfaction with their current way of developing services, which didn’t consistently demonstrate returns on investment. They were looking for a new way to create and improve services and make the most of public resources, and they believed prototyping could help.

Nesta helped to commission service design agency thinkpublic to work with Barnet Council to support staff and the wider community to learn about prototyping and to apply its methods in their work. The council has appointed prototyping champions within the organisation to mentor colleagues, and they are also trialling a prototyping framework that will help staff to plan for small scale testing and support them to facilitate activities whenever they want to develop and test a new idea.

The council’s first prototyping project has been to develop a new support service for families facing multiple deprivations. This has resulted in trials involving staff and the wider community of a new community coaching service.

Lessons and insights

Barnet’s experience can help other organisations who are interested in building the capacity of their staff to use prototyping methods and to lead processes of small scale testing, reflection and improvement for themselves. Staff are enthused by the project and participation has been strong, but there have been real challenges along the way. Big issues include the difficulty of securing strategic buy-in, embedding prototyping in project management, ensuring that the right people remain involved from within the organisation and beyond, and developing appropriate systems of support and reward for citizens who contribute to work for their community. 

We are learning through Barnet Council, and from the broader work we are doing with public and social sector organisations, that prototyping requires a particular attitude and approach to project planning, one that front loads effort and commits to more research and development before a service option is selected and significant investment is made.

Challenging fixed assumptions

Prototyping requires project leaders to be open to having fundamental assumptions challenged and the shape of the service changed, possibly radically during the process (as insights from service users, staff and the wider community deepen understanding and shift thinking). Working in this way would be highly challenging for many public sector organisations, but councils like Barnet are learning to prototype because they believe it will help them to create better value for the community.

Design professionals will always offer a valuable service to public bodies, but we also think that there are some design approaches that staff in organisations which commission and deliver services would do well to learn how to lead themselves.

Developing new solutions and improving the way we work is not something we need to do once – our public bodies should always be thinking and working in this way, with us and on our behalf. If the vision is to develop resilient public bodies, aware of and able to respond to new challenges and changing needs, the challenge to embed a culture and practice of prototyping within the organisation seems well worth the effort.

What are the benefits of prototyping?


What issues are our partners facing? Watch this video to learn more about the practical challenges of prototyping. 


What top tips can our partners share? Watch this video for advice from our partners on doing prototyping well.

Nesta gratefully acknowledges its learning and delivery partners this work: Innovation Unit, nonon, thinkpublic, Warwick University, GoddardPayne and Julie Temperley Research.


Perrie Ballantyne

Perrie Ballantyne

Perrie Ballantyne

Learning Manager

Perrie led on the development of curriculum for innovation and learning design and worked with various strategic partners to develop offerings.

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Rosie Farrer

Rosie Farrer

Rosie Farrer

Spice, Head of Programmes - England

Rosie leads Spice’s programme design and delivery in England. She works with public, community and voluntary sector partners to building strong and sustainable communities, supporting …

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