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Public innovation learning: what's next?

Across the globe we’re seeing a growing trend for innovation capacity-building programmes in government, but what are the best approaches to embed effective innovation practice? In this blog Nesta’s Jesper Christiansen, Brenton Caffin and Bas Leurs explore the importance of moving beyond pure methods and tools to focus on the craft of innovation, and introduce our new States of Change initiative (formerly i-school) that sets out to contribute to the next generation of public innovation learning.

In our previous work at the Danish government innovation unit MindLab and The Australian Centre for Social Innovation respectively, we often used to say that “we have a loyalty and respect for how the system works, but we also have the obligation to challenge it”. We spent a lot of time reframing tasks – such as reframing citizen engagement as spending actual time in the everyday contexts of people’s lives or co-designing new ideas with them. Or reframing policy implementation as an experimental process – remaking policy-making as a craft of testing and adapting a series of hypotheses.

The bigger picture here is that the ability to innovate ultimately becomes about how governments improve the way they serve the public. As economic, social and environmental challenges are becoming increasingly complex, governments are struggling to effectively solve the problems they are facing with their traditional instruments and toolkits. Government innovation, then, is about finding better approaches to deal with public problems. This means improving the capability to:

  • Understand. Capturing everyday experiences of citizens, unpacking the causes and consequences of public problems, and analysing their dimensions and implications.
  • Imagine. Expanding the scope and options for creatively identifying or generating new ideas (through new forms of user-involvement, foresight, collaboration, solution mapping, etc.).
  • Synthesise. Prioritising ideas by drawing upon the right evidence, experiences and expertise and shaping the initiative, its enabling conditions and decision-making process.
  • Experiment. Testing how the initiative will work in practice and enabling iterative learning and adjustment in light of unexpected consequences and opportunities.
  • Operationalise. Turning the initiative to a new, consistent practice by creating an effective and appropriate dynamic between intervention, implementation and learning/feedback.

Innovation should be seen as only a means to an end and should be valued in terms of improving the ability of governments and public administrations to deal with public problems effectively. Real value comes when innovative ideas or innovation methods become mechanisms for strategic change: transforming core government operations (like public policy, procurement, knowledge management, governance models, etc.); building the institutional capacity and culture of decision making to create governments innovation leaders (not labs or units); and reframing and reshaping the core tasks of government with the ultimate aim of improving outcomes for citizens.

A global capacity revolution?

An increasing number of governments around the world are currently invested in improving their innovation capacity in one of three ways:

  1. Strategic innovation agendas. One trend is to launch strategic (branded) innovation agendas that initiate a large range of activities under an overall heading. These for example include the Seoul government reinventing citizen engagement practices under headings of being a ‘Sharing City’. In Estonia, E-Estonia is enabling a large innovation project portfolio focused on creating new digital systems in health, education, public safety and business growth. And the Finnish government’s experimental government initiative has created different policy and democratic innovations enabling better trials of new ideas, increased public participation and people-driven legislation.
  2. Leading by example. A second trend is governments investing in dedicated innovation units, labs or programmes. They are leading by example – building government capacity by showcasing how things can be done differently. In the UK (and now also beyond), the Behavioural Insights Team has been pioneering how to use behavioural science to achieve public savings and more efficient service delivery in areas such as tax, employment and health. Denmark’s MindLab has for many years been introducing design-led innovation methods to government policy and service development. In Canada, Alberta Co-Lab works with the regional government to radically redesign public service systems across various policy areas. And Mexico City’s Lab de la Ciudad is pioneering how to mediate conflicts and opposing views to enable positive outcomes in complex urban environments.
  3. Capacity-building programmes. A third trend is that an increasing range of initiatives are specifically targeting the expertise, roles, skills, behaviours and professional development of government servants. For example, ChangeSA in South Australia focuses on creating a culture that speeds up the decision-making process and celebrates innovation and creativity. In Chile, the Laboratorio de Gobierno is facilitating a government-wide, practice-focused learning process to embed new innovation capabilities among selected public servants. Similarly, in Singapore, PS21 was initiated to reward the knowledge and creative potential in public officers. And through programmes like La Transfo in France and SALAR’s capacity-building programme in Sweden, capacity-building is being orchestrated through distributed support and peer-to-peer learning.

These examples are illustrations of a wider global capacity-focused movement in government. In terms of making governments better innovation leaders and improving their ability to deal with public problems, what we really need to see is the systematic combination of all three approaches: 1) strategic government innovation agendas, 2) the ongoing support of dedicated units leading by example and 3) a systematic focus on skills development and capacity-building. Not least because better problem-solving is dependent on learning innovation craft – how to successfully apply, embed and extend innovation approaches in government – rather than merely learning about the methods themselves.

Innovation learning beyond methods and tools

The frequent underestimation of what it actually takes to enable the useful uptake of innovation approaches in government has been a significant barrier for some time. The widespread focus on methods, tools and cognitive learning has left government innovators lonely in their endeavours without capacity and support to extend and scale up their innovation practice. Innovation projects become small islands in the larger landscape of government policies, regulations and procurement plans, often failing to position and leverage innovation approaches within the development of political intentions and strategic planning.

We need to more fully embrace how learning actually happens when building innovation capacity. While there is still plenty of need for DIY toolkits and online resources that democratise innovation learning, there is also a need for advancing innovation learning beyond methods and toolkits. This is at the centre of our current exploration within the Nesta Skills Team. Below we share some of our reflections on what we would like to see more of in innovation learning. It is not an exhaustive list, but it is rather a first prompt and an invitation to a wider community of practice to collectively explore what the next stages of innovation learning should look like:

  1. Focus on relevancy and actual challenges. Innovation methods take their shape and meaning through application. Organisations need to invest in learning formats that are relevant to their work and particular challenges that can support systematic reflection on how innovation methods affect the current way of doing things (for example like La 27e Region's La Transfo Programme in France, LabGob’s Experimenta programme in Chile, UN Global Pulse Lab’s experimentation with data approaches or MindLab’s work with the Danish Ministry of Employment).
  2. Prioritise learning in practice (rather than only ‘about practice’). Public innovation involves a complex set of skills that requires the ability to respond with agility and reflexivity to failures and unpredictable consequences of earlier decisions – drawing on various disciplines and fields of expertise. We need to invest in learning formats that builds on immersive learning and ‘learning by doing’ combined with different variations of coaching and mentoring (for example in line with the Public Policy Lab’s fellowship programme, fellowships at the Finance Innovation Lab or InWithForward’s residency programme).
  3. Focus on unlearning. A main challenge in embedding innovation in government is dealing with organisational inertia. Consequently, innovation learning needs to emphasise things we need to unlearn – combining a focus on individual behaviour change with ‘changing the default’ at an organisational level. This could, for example, be by recalibrating the design principles of an organisation (similar to Vanguard’s ‘thinking things’ focusing on traditions to be questioned) or setting up specific unlearning objectives for changing existing mindsets and routines (much like Strategyzer’s approach to learning an experimental approach).
  4. Enable social and peer-to-peer learning. The kind of expertise needed to support public innovation practice is multi-faceted, contextual and experiential. We need to invest in learning formats that ensure collective sense-making and coaching – both among peers and within teams with shared tasks and responsibilities. This could be similar to the GovLab’s Academy at NYU and their network of innovators-approach, Quicksand’s Unbox approach, IDEO.org’s Design Kit with +Acumen or the approach of the Peer Academy.
  5. Ensure timely use, adaptation and reinvention of tools. Much too often, innovation methods and tools are applied rigidly and without proper timing. We need to invest in a more customisable approach to innovation learning; knowing when to 1) apply existing tools at the right time in the process (similar to OECD’s recommendations on taking an ‘innovation lifecycle approach’ or the US Public Participation Playbook), 2) adapt existing tools to fit new use-situations (much like the multiple different use-versions of the Business Model Canvas) and 3) create new tools to be applied in open-ended design processes.
  6. Create ongoing learning experiences (beyond training modules). Supporting the innovation mandate requires more than a one-off training session. We need to invest in learning formats that support a learning journey and enable cognitive, emotional and social engagement. This means creating ‘teachable moments’ (such as InWithForward’s approach to teaching ethnography), ‘learning experiences’ (similar to In/Out’s Rough Guide to Practice) and viewing learning as events (as described by M. Zaheer in ‘innovating innovation’) and situations that address how to put new approaches into practice.
  7. Enabling reflection spaces. An overarching element of the above is to systematically create space for reflection. We need to ensure that learning experiences are supported by reflexive sharing and sense-making. This point goes beyond building networks and is similar to building ‘communities of practice’ – but grounding it in in-practice experience and personal development (for example in line with learning platforms like Innoweave and/or tools like Alberta CoLab’s Field Guide for Systemic Design or ‘Spredningsguiden’ by the Danish Centre for Public Innovation).

In our experience, it is through the intelligent combination of these different learning formats that innovation approaches become real game-changers; fundamentally influencing how governments are dealing with problems and enabling the possibility of governments becoming innovation leaders rather than isolating innovation resources within labs and units.

States of Change: innovation learning for public impact

We realise that there is no one right way of doing this, but that we rather need to learn from and with the many government innovation practitioners around the world. That ethos lies the core of our new initiative States of Change which focuses on innovation learning for public impact. We want to work with the world’s leading public innovation practitioners to support governments and public organisations who have a mandate to innovate. This means exploring and understanding the craft of dealing with public problems in terms of:

  • Innovation as driver of cultural change in government. Learning about and supporting the skills, capacities and cultures that enable the most successful ways of embedding effective public innovation approaches in core approaches of public decision-making.
  • A new public innovation curriculum. Developing the quality, coherence and reach of public innovation learning based on the approaches and skillsets needed to create effective change.
  • An environment for accelerated learning and R&D. Understanding, curating, elevating and building on how people and organisations practically create successes in their innovation work.

We are already working with a number of ambitious countries, regions and cities around the world on elements like impact assessment for cultural change, embedding experimental mindsets, organisational readiness and strategic innovation resourcing.

So please do connect with us if you have relevant ideas or experiences that might prompt useful reflections or new opportunities.


Jesper Christiansen

Jesper Christiansen

Jesper Christiansen

Head of Strategy and Development

Jesper was Head of Strategy and Development in the Innovation Skills team, contributing to Nesta's work to help people and organisations get better at innovating for the public good.

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Brenton Caffin

Brenton Caffin

Brenton Caffin

Executive Director, Global Innovation Partnerships

Brenton was Nesta’s Executive Director, Global Innovation Partnerships, leading Nesta's work globally to help people and organisations get better at innovating for the common good.

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Bas Leurs

Bas Leurs

Bas Leurs

Head of Learning Experience Design

Bas was the Head of Learning Experience Design in the Innovation Skills team.

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