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.

What is prototyping?

Public sector transformation can be speeded up if services are first tested out on a small scale.

What is prototyping?

Most people are familiar with prototyping as a method for developing new products, but Nesta believes that practice might have a role to play in public sector transformation.

Prototyping is a way of testing ideas and concepts for new products and services. A prototype is a small scale mock-up of a product, or a test run of a service, created to explore its viability as part of a research and development process. During prototyping, an idea is developed, tested, improved and refined.

Prototyping can involve a range of activities. At an early stage, it could mean story-boarding the features of a service and or mapping out the customer journey. It might include role plays or tests in simulated environments that you invite people to use, or you might run a short trial of a service in a real setting to see how well it works. Reflection and improvement of the idea, based on the outcomes of the tests, are a key part of the process.

Why prototype?

Nesta is interested in prototyping because we think that a discipline of small scale testing could help public and social sector leaders to design radically different ways of doing things and to tackle some of our biggest challenges. Prototyping can open up thinking and support leaders to explore and test different options, which make it a useful tool in situations where there are no ready solutions to a problem.

In several Nesta programmes, we are currently supporting public and social sector leaders to learn how to prototype and to apply the method to problems they are trying to solve.

In Nesta’s Age Unlimited programme, we are working with a group of social entrepreneurs who are developing enterprises that aim to ready people for retirement and increase the well-being and resilience of older people. The reality of our ageing society presents a huge challenge, and the right public response is not at all obvious.

Entrepreneurs in this programme have been using prototyping to develop and test new models of support for people nearing retirement age. Prototyping is enabling them to test all aspects of a service prior to a full-scale trial, including the functionality and cost effectiveness of the service, and its appeal to potential purchasers and customers.

Similarly in Nesta’s Transforming Early Years programme, we are challenging staff at six Children’s Centres in England to reconfigure the shape of provision so that it could deliver better outcomes, for less money. These are high ambitions, so we’ve introduced leaders to a range of social innovation tools to help find and develop solutions.

Each group is prototyping different service options with local families who would ultimately use the services. Promising ideas are being strengthened, while others are discarded. By the end of the programme, each will have developed a service blueprint for their strongest ‘better, cheaper’ idea to be taken to pilot.

We are finding through this work that a key benefit to prototyping is that it helps to expose flaws and limitations in an approach before significant investment has been made. We can all point to costly pilots that didn’t work, or services that don’t make the difference they were designed to make.

We think prototyping could help strategic leaders and commissioners to manage the risks involved with trying something different or new. Ultimately we think it could help us to develop better products and services (our long-term evaluations at Nesta are focussed on tracking whether this will be the case – stay tuned for more on this).

We have heard it argued that prototyping is an expensive development practice – an ‘add on’ – currently unrealistic for most public and social sector leaders to consider trying. In reality, many prototyping activities are small scale and inexpensive with the bulk of costs relating to staff time.

Nesta programmes are experimenting with simple, practical activities that are easy for people to engage with and learn. Far from being a luxury, we believe that testing things out early and learning from failure in a managed way will help us to develop services that achieve what they set out to do. Small scale testing leads to breakthroughs in thinking and is, as we know, part of the story of almost all innovations. The challenge for us is learning how to do it well.

Watch this case study to see how one council is putting prototyping into action:

Next week we’ll be blogging about prototyping as a habit and building the skills and capabilities needed to prototype.

Nesta gratefully acknowledges its learning and delivery partners in this work: Innovation Unit, nonon, Think Public, 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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