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.

Tech tools and tips to help your public innovation lab generate ideas

'A pile of rocks ceases to be a rock when somebody contemplates it with the idea of a cathedral in mind.' 

- Antoine de St Exupery

It’s often been said that hierarchical bureaucracies are better designed for killing ideas than nurturing them. Yet being able to inject creativity into the heart of public services and projects is precisely what sets public labs apart. Ideation is, therefore, a critical process for the public innovation lab; MindLab – a public innovation lab – based in Denmark, counts ideation as a key part of its overall process. Likewise, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Innovation Delivery Model – used to help city mayors effectively tackle some of the thorniest issues faced by cities – relies centrally on an ideation-driven process to help amass possible public innovation solutions.

In our last column, we looked at the use of canvasses, especially the Public Projects Canvas, for defining the problem one is solving.  Where the canvas is one tool to help with idea generation, in this column, we focus on a series of different tools and methods for brainstorming, ideation, and thinking differently about how to solve a problem your public lab may face. Below we outline four key lessons and a number of tools to help your public innovation lab generate great ideas.

Image: Drew Coffman via Flickr, CC by 2:0

1. Create the conditions for creativity

Nesta has written elsewhere on the importance of creating an environment where public sector staff are incentivised and empowered to think of the best new solutions.  Aside from creating the right environment so that staff are motivated, a prerequisite for idea generation is to allow for the right conditions for creativity to happen.

In a lecture given in 1991, John Cleese – of Monty Python fame – identifies two modes of operations when creativity is involved. In the open mode, we 'take a wide-angle, abstract view of the problem and allow the mind to ponder possible solutions'. In the closed mode, we 'zero in on implementing a specific solution with narrow precision'.

'Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.'

-  John Cleese (videotranscript)

Space is an important factor when creating a creative environment. Ideally, ideation should happen in a location as remote from the distraction of your office desk as possible, e.g. the cafeteria, a remote conference room,  or even better, off-site. This is why visiting a customer (rather than having them visit you) not only allows you to gain greater insight into user painpoints and experiences, but also increases the likelihood of your lab generating good ideas.

Cleese identifies five elements that can make us be more creative and allow us to switch from the closed mode to the open mode:  (1) space, (2) time, (3) more time, (4) confidence and (5) humour.

In such environments, lab members should:

  • Allocate enough time, far away from current time pressures.

  • Also give people sufficient time to come up with good ideas.

  • Ensure that people understand that 'whatever happens, it's ok'. Defer judgement; and finally,

  • Make sure all of this is conducted with a smile.

2. Think outside the box to generate good ideas

Ideation isn’t just about creating the right conditions, it also requires you to explore an issue in novel or different ways. The literature on ideation is full of tricks to help trigger your inner ‘ideation machine’ [1,3]. We present a few that have worked for both GovLab and Nesta.

Paul Graham, in his 'How to get startup ideas' essay, suggests you project yourself in the future and look for what is missing. Wired magazine had an excellent series of Artifacts from the Future. Another good source of ideas is science fiction. A recent piece that I have found extremely inspiring for civic issues is the British TV show Black Mirror.

Looking for what's redundant or not working effectively can be helpful: in the civic space, there are lots of things we could drastically improve such as long queues to access certain public services, impossible to understand parking signs, hard to read and unactionable building permits, difficulty with business industry codes, etc.

Whether you are tackling a clearly defined problem you need to address, or a more complex, horizontal challenge, it’s important you set aside some time to think about how the issue has or might be framed. Nesta’s Fast Idea Generator  is a useful tool to help framing problems in different ways when thinking about generating ideas .  Whilst this tool is designed to help groups of managers, frontline staff or users to quickly develop new options for civic and public challenges, another fun way to generate ideas  can also be look to someone else's idea for inspiration.  

A website like ProductHunt can be a great resource, with the latest batch of ideas from ‘wannabe entrepreneurs’ – some of which could be re-used or adapted to your needs.There are also a lot of sites poking fun at startup ideas by putting together random buzzwords to form a the next billion dollar mission statement. Don't be fooled. These sites can be another excellent source of ideas, e.g. Nonstartr.com or Itsthisforthat.com. The goal here is to explore ideas at the semantic level by recombining parts of different ideas. You can think of it like DNA crossing-over, for ideas. You might actually want to create such a tool targeted at civic issues and civic buzzwords.

For some people, ideas are triggered based on visual stimuli. Google Image Search (or your favorite web-based equivalent) can be extremely rich source of ideas. Just type some elements of the problem and see what happens. Refine your search or follow some suggestions and links.

There are lots of other tools and techniques for generating ideas. See website CreatingMinds [5] for a good overview.

3. Effectively capture your lab’s ideas

Image: Dave Gray​ via Flickr, CC by 2:0

Ideas can pop up in even the most unlikely of settings. In a typical office environment, paper and pencil, post-it notes and whiteboards are the usual suspects. Snapping a picture of the board is usually the best way to capture the content digitally. Just make sure the resolution is high enough and that you can decipher people's handwriting.

In a group setting, collaborative mind mapping tools (e.g. MindJet, Coggle, FreeMind) or simply a shared document (e.g. GoogleDocs or Etherpad) projected on the screen (e.g. via ChromeCast) might serve you well.

There are some higher-end software solutions for electronic (or digital) whiteboarding, but they are the exception rather than the rule, e.g. SMART, we-inspire. Also, they might be expensive and participants need to get used to them.

There are of course more ubiquitous, easy  to access ideation tools. For instance, people on the go can make use of standard notebooks, whilst those with a greater affinity for digital content can use Evernote (and its clones) which capture ideas with location and timestamp, and allow easy sharing of them. A simpler option is to send an email to yourself. Voice memos or pictures can also be a powerful way to capture an idea. With smart phones, these captures are usually one click away.

4. Build on each other's ideas and pick the best ones

Building on each other's ideas is more like a thinking discipline, where judgement is postponed in favour of enrichment. Some people like to compare it to "improv" [4]. The tools mentioned above can be used effectively for that purpose.

There are various ways to reach a consensus about the best ideas. If you started ideation the paper-and-pencil way, dot voting is an obvious choice.

Image: Dave Gray​ via Flickr, CC by 2:0

For a more digital approach, tools like Loomio, Google Moderator or regular forms (see Forms: co-creation's unsung heroes) should work well for collaborative modes of ideation. There are also various voting apps that you can use to vote on ideas, e.g. Tricider or Stormboard. These tools let you separate the wheat from the chaff.


Idea generation is an important part of the  problem solving process for any public lab.  Creativity or the ability to generate ideas is like a muscle. Don't forget to train it, for instance by forcing yourself to generate 10 ideas every day as suggested  in [1]. Don't wait for a problem before you encourage your team to come up with possible ideas. Ideally, organise regular ideation meetings on topics related (or not) to your lab's interests. Remember John Cleese's wise words and make sure your work environment is a fertile soil for creativity. Ideas can emerge in unexpected places and moments. Be ready to capture  your best ideas before you start to think about testing the most viable of them.

In this column, we have suggested some tools to help you with ideation: experiment with them and find out which one works best for you and your lab. In our next edition we’ll consider how you can tap into user insights to help generate new ideas.

To continue the conversation, and to offer feedback and suggestions on the tools above:

  • Share your comments

  • On Twitter using #Tech4Labs

Special thanks to David Sangokoya for comments on early versions of this piece.


Additional Resources

  1. How to become an idea machine, 2015

  2. How to be creative, by John Cleese, 1991  [video] [transcript]

  3. http://www.gamestorming.com/

  4. Improv Wisdom: Don't Prepare, Just Show Up; Patricia Ryan Madson, 2005

  5. http://creatingminds.org/

  6. http://www.tricider.com/

  7. http://ideationcards.com/

  8. https://stormboard.com/

  9. Nesta’s Fast Idea Generator