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Tech4Labs Issue 4: 'Canvassing' the value proposition of your public lab project

'This world is but a canvas to our imagination' 
- Henry David Thoreau

We keep hearing or reading that government can learn a lot from startups, e.g. here and here. Some recent initiatives have tried to replicate a startup environment inside government, like GDS in the UK or 18F in the US with a focus on user-centric design, lean methodology, agile development and data-driven decision making.

In this column, we will look at those tools known as 'canvases' for use in project planning. Borrowed from the entrepreneurship world, canvasses can help team members and other stakeholders to articulate, develop and present the value proposition for a project, including the creation and evolution of a lab. In this piece, we outline several different types of canvas and how to use them.

The importance of this type of strategic planning cannot be overstated, and reflects the first step for anyone thinking of setting up their own public innovation lab in Nesta’s Innovation Labs Practice Guide; ‘Clarifying your aims and assessing capabilities’. 

Your project 'journey' 

One top reason why startups fail is because they are not trying hard enough to solve a real problem and build a product that people want, as Paul Graham, co-founder of the Y Combinator, reminds us. The same is true for the civic projects you want to start inside your lab.

'Most startups fail because they don't make something people want, and the reason most don't is that they don't try hard enough.'
- Paul Graham

Source: The 18 Mistakes That Kill Startups

Focusing on the right problem and finding a corresponding solution is not a one-time process. This is more like a journey. You start with some assumptions (based on your intuition and/or some user research), you build a first solution (aka Minimal Viable Product or MVP), you validate your solution by putting it in front of end users and you iterate. At each iteration, you validate some of your assumptions and create new ones. You learn even more about your users, your cost structure, your potential revenue streams; you also identify some key metrics for success.

  • How do you keep track of all these learnings within your team along the journey?
  • How do you present clearly and succinctly the key elements of your project?
  • How do you compare multiple projects addressing the same issue and measure success?

The original canvas

The Business Model Canvas was introduced in 2008. It is a template to capture a business in a single and simple diagram.

The original canvas consists of 9 areas describing the various elements of a business model: problem, solution, unique value proposition, unfair advantage, customer segments, channels, key metrics, cost structure and revenue streams. See figure below:









Credit: www.businessmodelgeneration.com under CC license

The canvas is really good for structured conversations, idea generation and group discussions. Because of it simplicity and agreed upon vocabulary, its provides a complete overview of a business model and enables everyone to be on the same page.

Lean Canvas

Multiple variations on the canvas idea have emerged. The Lean Canvas is a simplified version of the original canvas with a focus on uncertainty, learning and fast iteration, following the Lean Startup methodology.

'Capture your business model in a portable 1-page diagram. The Lean Canvas is the perfect format for brainstorming possible business models, prioritizing where to start, and tracking ongoing learning.'

Source: Leanstack

For a given project, the first version of the canvas is supposed to be sketched quickly and it is ok to leave some sections blank. The canvas is not meant to be a rigid document but rather a work in progress to be filled out, revised, and evolved. Some people even advocate to never write directly on the canvas but rather use post-it notes to make changes easy.


A canvas for social enterprises

Canvases have been widely used by companies and entrepreneurs, but not so much by non-profits or social actors, maybe because they do not always capture well the challenges of social and public ventures.

Nonprofits usually need to deal with two kinds of customers: donors funding their projects and customers receiving their services.

Also, the concept of revenue stream is not directly applicable; rather, sustainability is the key issue. Finally, a key element is impact, which is totally absent from both Business Model Canvas and Lean Canvas.

Here is a revised version of the canvas, from Social Lean Canvas:  


The GovLab Public Projects Canvas

Working on public interest projects also requires iterative planning and thoughtful consideration of the problem to be solved. But in contrast to developing the business plan for a for-profit product, public projects demand consideration of key issues not captured by any of these canvasses.

Based on our experience teaching civic innovators, the GovLab developed the Public Projects Canvas, a worksheet to help those working on civic projects for the common good become more impactful. This canvas (fillable and printable version) includes the following set of questions divided into five categories:


1. What is the problem? [need]
2. Who is impacted? [users]
3. What are the causes of the problem? [causes]


4. What is the evidence? Who can you interview? What experiment can you run? [evidence]

Point of View 

5. How can the problem be tackled? [big idea]
6. What is the mechanism of beneficial change? [theory of change]
7. Key metrics? [metrics]
8. Who is most likely to be supportive? [champions]
9. Who is most likely to be opposed? [foes]


10. How will the solution work? [user experience]
11. Who has to do what to make it happen? [partners, competitors]
12. With whom can I collaborate and partner? [partners]
13. Why do this now? [precipitating events]
14. Who else is in the field? [partners, competitors]
15. Why is this project still needed? What’s missing? [gap analysis] 
16. Physical, human and intellectual resources needed? [resources] 

Prototype and Test

17. Strategy? [Next steps]
18. Cost Structure? Financial Sustainability? Revenue Streams? [cost]
19. How might this go wrong? [risks]
20. How will I promote adoption? [champions] 

These questions can also be captured in the same format. Here is a possible 'canvas for public problems' that encapsulates these questions into a canvas form:


Canvassing Tools

Various tools exist to start using a canvas ranging from printable PDF versions of a fixed template to sophisticated cloud-based electronic canvasses. 

When choosing a canvas, keep in mind the following considerations:

  • What is the nature of the problem and the project?
  • Who is the user: your team? your clients? 
  • Which canvas do you want to use? How do you want to adjust it to fit your needs?
  • Do you want a digital canvas or a paper and pencil canvas?
  • Should people be able collaborate on the same canvas as the same time?
  • Do you need to keep track of the various versions of the your canvas over time?

In its simplest form, a canvas can be a simple PDF document you print and share inside your team. There are lots of options on the web for various flavours of the canvas. With some minimal skills, you can also easily create your own. Here are free PDF templates for the three canvas we mentioned previously.

There are also some on-line solutions where the canvas is a web application you can fill (like a form) and share with your team. Most solutions provide various templates you can choose from.

 Of course you can also use more generic tools like mindmaps (e.g. Mindjet, Coggle) or even GoogleDocs to create, update and share your canvas. 


A canvas is really a checklist. It tries to help you stay focused on the important parts of your project, keep track of progress, and communicate easily inside and outside the team. Each project is different but you should be able to find a canvas that fits your needs. And if you don't, you can always create your own canvas. It’s totally up to you whether you opt for a printed paper option with post-its or a fancy diagram you edit on your tablet. 

At GovLab, we are using canvas for our internal projects and also for the coaching of 'students' in the context of the GovLab Academy. A canvas is a good way to bootstrap a brand new project. It can be also very useful for existing projects or even past projects. 

So, happy canvassing! 

Continue the conversation on Twitter using #Tech4Labs or on Discourse

Special thanks to Andrew Young for comments and feedback on early versions of this column. 

Additional Resources