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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 should labs do now? Reflections on Istanbul Innovation Days

150 people from 50 countries came together in Istanbul for UNDP and Nesta’s Istanbul Innovation Days – a mixture of public sector innovation labs, development mutants, government representative, and UN colleagues. Over two days, we took stock and critically reflect on current lab practice and the impact labs create, and considered what future directions might look like.

Context: Five provocations

We tried to get straight to the heart of the matter and kickstart the discussions with the following provocations:

  • If our purpose is to fight evil, that evil is less likely to look like Darth Vader and more likely to be inertia: doing more of the same is not going to work.
  • Do we expect the world to be ambiguous or predictable? We’ve spent human history creating institutions that expect a predictable world and learning to manage risk, but they’re terrible at identifying and managing uncertainty.
  • Our challenges are no longer resolvable by MVPs (minimal viable products): the NHS wasn’t an MVP. The resources and capacities of governments are best deployed driving radical new futures to the table.
  • The best changes might – in fact, probably will – appear to be boring. Administrative disruption can create these radical new futures.
  • We’re very good at the processes side of the equation on the matrix below, but we don’t really know how to affect the right side, which is about organisations and the enabling environment.

Over two days the participants mapped themselves and their journeys, and examined strategies for working, improving and bringing about a better world. Four themes emerged from the workshops which we think can serve as provocations, lessons and questions.

Are we creating new silos?

A concern emerged early on that innovation labs and practitioners may be creating new silos – from use of jargon and methods, to which groups are allowed to work on innovation projects. Some ways to address this include:

  • We need a shift in thinking from the left side to the right side of the matrix above: focusing more on impacts and outputs in our work rather than focusing on methods.
  • To have less focus on quick fixes – to the point above on MVPs, made by Indy Johar – and consider more how governments can navigate major issues.
  • And never to forget the importance of significantly investing in relationships and networks, not to mention how much time this will take.

Working inside of the fishbowl

Government innovation by necessity works in a publicly facing way: innovation labs make use of public resources, are often very visible and can also be politically driven. There was a sense that some government innovation labs may lack a deep understanding of the shifting winds of politics, and that more successful labs are often led or championed by those with strong political connections who can provide and protect the space for lab staff to experiment.

Additionally, labs that are more transparent to the public and maintain a focus on citizens may get additional political capital.

Financial innovation

There is tremendous financial innovation happening – from mobile banking and cross-border solutions, to impact bonds and new types of financial instruments. But it’s unclear whether and how labs are working with new financial technologies, or even that we understand how close the assets (and the decision-making around those assets) are to the problems they’re meant to address.

New technologies more generally could enable a greater focus closer to the problem. Take, for instance, Poverty Stoplight - a measurement tool and coaching methodology that is designed to help poor families make sense and navigate their way out of poverty.Whereas previously we would have focused on broad-brush causes to tackle an issue such as reducing infant mortality in a community, this new approach allows each family to understand and address its own risks, which is likely to bring better outcomes.

Rise of the anti establishment

Our instinct in a world dominated by Brexit, Trump and what feels like the resurgence of nationalism is to turn away from it: but this hasn’t worked. How can we move towards, rather than away from, the people who seek an isolated world?

One way that this is happening is investing in relationships between host and refugee communities. This can then create ways to see refugees as assets to communities rather than a drain on their resources, as Field Ready does, employing Syrian engineers to create their products in the field, as close as they can to the action.

What now?

Labs have a significant role to play in balancing the needs of political actors, citizens and the private sector. In order to remain relevant, we need to maintain our focus on end users while also being aware of political contexts. But we also need to start to shift the organisations that we’re trying to disrupt, and look beyond just innovation methods to changing cultures.


Glen Mehn

Glen Mehn

Glen Mehn

Head of Development Innovation

Glen was the Head of Development Innovation.

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