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How does prototyping work?

Prototyping enables innovators to experiment, evaluate, learn, and adapt an idea, so they can refine it into something even better. Prototyping grants are designed to support innovators to take a structured and iterative approach to testing their new ideas and developing them as they go.

This approach involves creating a prototype, or simple version of an idea, whether a simple cardboard model or wireframe. This is then tested with users of the ultimate product or service to understand if it works. Compared to a pilot, prototyping does not require a lot of resources and can be done within short timescales.

Historically, prototyping was an innovation method most commonly used by engineers, designers and web developers rather than the public sector. Today, however, there is a growing interest in how this approach could be adopted for the public sector and service design.

Prototyping is not an alternative to piloting. Rather, it helps build a better specification for what a pilot might be. It may even help to see that an idea isn’t going to work and save the time and cost of a pilot.

Nesta's work on innovation prototyping

Nesta was an early adopter of using prototyping as a method to help innovators in the public and third sectors to design new services and products.

Our story began in 2011 with the creation of a research report Prototyping in Public Services, exploring how the practice can be used in the development of new public services. In the same year, we partnered with Barnet Council in North London to use prototyping as a method to build and test a proposed new service called ‘Community Coaches’. The explicit intention behind the project was to see how prototyping could be used in practice, as a way of stimulating innovation in the public sector.

In collaboration with partners including the Innovation Unit, thinkpublic and The Young Foundation, Nesta also produced several reports and practice guides to promote the use of prototyping for the public sector – outlining what it was and how it could be used. The Prototyping Framework, for example, presents a simple checklist and a visual map to guide the reader through this process.

Over the last seven years prototyping programmes have become a mainstay of our practical programmes as a foundation. The most common form of these is an R&D fund or prototyping fund, which combines grant finance for developing a new idea (building paper prototypes or minimum viable products), with expert methodological support to trial and test it in context. Grants are awarded to social ventures or to public servants trying a new method out in-house, with ample opportunity for awardees to share lessons learnt as a cohort. We set out the principles of how Nesta runs prototyping funds and awards associated grants in 2018’s Funding Innovation: a practice guide.

For example, between 2011–2014, Nesta set out to find and support innovations that increased the number of people who volunteer their time, money, resources or skills for good causes. The Innovation in Giving Fund, a £10 million fund supported by the Cabinet Office, prototyped 50 new ideas that made imaginative use of digital technologies.

The most promising ideas were given additional funds and support to grow them, with some like Pennies entering the mainstream. The electronic charity box encourages consumers to give micro-donations to charity (from 1p to 99p) when making online or card payments with a growing bank of retailers like Sainsburys. Others were tested but proved flawed, showing the usefulness of prototyping as an innovation method.

We have also published practical toolkits on how to invent, adapt or adopt ideas to deliver better results. The DIY Toolkit was primarily designed for busy people working in development. It includes 30 tried and tested social innovation tools including 20 on ideation and prototyping, alongside a range of case studies. The website is available in six languages and the tools have been downloaded 240,000 times.

Case studies

ShareLab Fund

Launched in 2017, Nesta’s ShareLab Fund supports and funds ideas that use collaborative digital platforms and innovative business models to make a real social impact. Eight organisations were funded in the first cohort, including Chatterbox who were initially focused on partnering with universities to offer conversational practice to language students using a model of draw-down credits.

However, it quickly became apparent that the platform afforded the opportunity to expand its offer into different markets. We helped Chatterbox prototype a new model, matching individual learners with a refugee tutor for direct one-to-one tuition via its video conferencing feature, as well as business-focused conversational practice for corporate clients.

Digital R&D Fund for the Arts

The Digital R&D Fund for the Arts supported ideas that use digital technology to build new business models and enhance audience reach, within arts and cultural organisations. It was a partnership between Nesta, Arts Council England and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and led to sister funds in Scotland and Wales with Creative Scotland and Arts Council of Wales.

One case study from the fund is the Clapping Music app – here the London Sinfonietta and its partners developed an iOS game to engage a wider audience in the music of a contemporary composer and to help the user improve their musical skills.

In Wales, Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru (the Welsh language National Theatre of Wales) developed Sibrwd – a companion app that allowed non-Welsh speakers to be guided and supported through Welsh language productions by whispering contextual information in their ear while a performance is in progress. The R&D fund allowed them to test different types of support – pace, regularity and types of content – to ensure people could follow productions effectively.

Creative Councils

The Creative Councils programme was a prototyping fund that invited councils to submit ideas for tackling long-term challenges that mattered to their communities. The 17 councils selected to participate used prototyping to design and then implement radical solutions for public service issues they struggled with. These ranged from ‘The Deal’ in Wigan, which looked at how it might create a new economic model for social care by harnessing untapped resources in the local community, to work in Stoke, which aimed to make the city energy self-sufficient by moving towards local ownership of energy supply.

As a result, we learned about the approaches, skills and capabilities needed to successfully innovate in local government and shared these in our end of programme report. We also shared the learning from the Creative Councils programme with our partners at Bloomberg Philanthropies, who subsequently launched the Mayors Challenge in the United States and then across Europe using a similar approach.

Over 300 cities participated in the US programme, with the winner of the Mayors Grand Prize for Innovation, Providence, Rhode Island, receiving a $5 million implementation award for its cutting-edge early education initiative. The European competition was won by Barcelona, which received €5 million toward its proposal to create a digital and community ‘trust network’ for at-risk older residents

Further resources