Using design principles to foster innovation policy

Nesta’s collaborative executive development programme for innovation policymakers, the Global Innovation Policy Accelerator, is reaching an exciting period: three cohorts in three different parts of the world, each at different stages of the programme. They are all working towards designing testable innovation policy solutions to challenges they face in their respective countries or regions: India, South East Asia, and more recently Brazil.

It’s a unique opportunity to reflect on some of the choices we have made in terms of programme design, and what it has meant in practice for our participants. In this blog we outline three key programme design approaches with examples from our cohorts.

1. Triple diamonds

What type of thinking is required in order to be successful when developing innovation policy? One could argue a spontaneous and free-flowing approach (divergent thinking) will result in fresh and innovative ideas. Conversely, a more grounded, analytical and deductive approach (convergent thinking) might be better.

It is increasingly being shown that such an opposition is unhelpful and that the two needn’t be mutually exclusive. Indeed, policymakers need to be able to draw on different mindsets and approaches in order to be successful.

The approach on The Global Innovation Policy Accelerator is iterative, based on the premise that the best ideas are produced as a result of embracing both divergent and convergent thinking, but in a conscious way. Switching between the two needs to be done methodically; trying to do both at the same time can result in bad ideas.

The ‘double diamond’ process - benchmarked internationally by the Design Council - sees participants repeatedly ‘opening up’ and exploring a wide range of possibilities for their work; followed by phases of ‘focusing in’ and narrowing down their ideas and making decisions. For the Global Innovation Policy Accelerator, forming new teams to tackle policy challenges meant we felt a third ‘diamond’ was required. We considered the journey of our participants on the programme and their needs; the triple diamond structure being the result of this.

Putting ideas into action and linking policy vision to implementation through a ‘triple-diamond’

Putting ideas into action and linking policy vision to implementation through a ‘triple-diamond’

The first phase of the programme is called ‘Dialogue’. Participants explore ways of working best together in their country teams, and spend time gaining insights into policy challenges they might want to address; however, no firm decisions are made until enough exploration has taken place. During the subsequent ‘Diagnose’ phase they focus on firming up the policy challenge they want to address, and finalising team roles; all based on the insights from the previous phase. Although the wider programme is structured in this way, even individual tasks are carefully designed to maximise both divergent and convergent thinking.

For example, earlier this year our India cohort met in teams to choose an innovation policy challenge to address in their respective departments. The process began in a divergent manner: they could come up with any challenges they thought were worthy of addressing in a silent ideation session. Soon, the facilitator asked them why it was worthy of addressing They would respond with more detail and reasoning. They were then asked why again... the reply developed further into something more elaborate and specific... why again.

Five times in total. The idea being that by asking ‘why’ in a successive structured way narrows down the scope to help get to the root of a problem. It’s simple, but pushing for The Five Whys of questioning uncovers assumptions, deeper motivations, and helps crystallise the problem you are seeking to address.

The 5 Whys

A worked example from one of our workshops, using the 5 Whys to focus in on the heart of a challenge.

Meanwhile, our South East Asia participants - further along the triple diamond - are choosing testable solutions to address their respective policy challenge. Once again, they were iterating between divergent and convergent thinking in a structured, conscious way.

Starting with a broad range of proposed solutions, these were promptly whittled down by applying three key criteria: was the solution pioneering? Was it practical? How about productive? Only those solutions that scored highly across all three became viable candidates worthy of pursuing, and converging on. Our PPP filter was adapted from 100%Open’s, who we worked with to develop innovation tools tailored to the accelerator.

PPP Filter

An example of a PPP filter taken from 100%Open’s toolkit

Whilst consciously choosing to converge or diverge at the right time is useful, our participants have also been encouraged to put end-users at the heart of their approach.

2. Human-centred design

When developing a policy it can be tempting to think you understand who the end beneficiary is. Of course, it is essential to think about who they are; their attitudes, political leanings; socioeconomic status; what keeps them up at night? Generating such personas can help uncover unmet needs, but it is a largely hypothetical exercise based on assumptions we make about others.

User Persona

Generating User Personas with one of our teams

Policymakers often rely on intermediaries to understand who the beneficiaries are of their work, but this is of course different to actually talking to them. Indeed, human-centred design has been fairly slow to inform innovation policy making processes so far. On the accelerator we are supporting our teams to be more innovative in their policymaking, including adopting a human-centred approach. By immersing oneself in the stakeholder’s journey there are insights that can be gained that the policy cycle simply won’t provide.

This is why after creating user journeys and personas, teams on the Policy Accelerator approach stakeholders they’ve identified. They test their assumptions and build on the personas and journeys they initially imagined, populating and refining them with insights gained from first hand interactions.

Planning Stakeholder Engagement

Identifying where in the design process to approach stakeholders, in order to test the personas. Our teams then carry out the engagement activities at the respective stage.

For example, our Philippines team are developing an online portal for researchers and grant providers in the agricultural sector. To inform their approach, they recently delivered a personas/storyboarding workshop. They invited over 20 representatives from research institutions and funding agencies, to test whether the personas and journeys they created were accurate reflections of potential users. Key feedback included adding private sector personas and technology transfer officers.

Whether it’s stakeholder interviews, surveys, or shadowing; teams choose approaches that are compatible with their political systems and structures. We’ve seen a movement towards this user-centred approach in government through initiatives such as Policy Lab.

Collecting the most useful insights also requires strategic questioning. For example, our participants use laddered questioning; where you start with broad, open questions and then methodically increase the specificity in a bid to get to the heart of an issue. We find such an approach - which chimes with the double-diamond approach - often results in the most honest and useful answers.

None of these approaches can be successful unless our teams are aware of their respective relative strengths during their public problem solving work. For this reason we place a major focus on nurturing the skills and attitudes necessary for successful public problem solving.

3. Nurturing skills and attitudes

Nesta - in collaboration with governments and other organisation - has defined the key skills, attitudes and behaviours that are necessary to successfully solve public problems. This has been done through a competency framework aimed at public sector innovators specifically. There are many ways such a framework can be used; to develop HR policy; for evaluation purposes; defining team roles; and much more.

Nesta PPS competency framework

We embed the competency framework into all our activities

One key way we’ve used it to is to better define programme objectives and the activities to achieve these. We want to ensure the programme presents an opportunity to develop the skills and attitudes defined by the framework.

For example, ‘Prototyping and Iterating’ is one of the key skills, which is why teams work towards testing a policy idea at the end of the programme. Policymakers also need to be able to articulate why their problem matters, and demonstrate the value of their solution; which is why there are are sessions focused on compelling storytelling.

Defining our learning objectives around these also means we can easier evaluate the progress of teams; match them more effectively to mentors depending on areas they need support in; and to support them in effectively defining team roles through regular team coaching support.

Next steps

As a team we are also embracing these approaches internally. Iterating continuously, shaping our programme to our participants’ needs, and evaluating our own skills and attitudes ensures we can effectively support our participants. As the programme expands into Brazil and potentially other regions we look forward to sharing further insights.


Juan Casasbuenas

Juan Casasbuenas

Juan Casasbuenas

Curriculum and Content Manager

Juan was a Curriculum and Content Manager supporting the Digital Frontrunners and Global Innovation Policy Accelerator programmes.

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