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Innovation prototyping as an innovation method

Prototyping is a way of working which allows people to experiment, evaluate, learn, refine and adapt an idea. As an innovation method, prototyping funds are designed to support innovators to take a structured approach to testing their new ideas.

When testing a particular idea, a low-cost, low-risk and ongoing approach to experimentation is encouraged. It typically starts with a piece of paper which might then become a cardboard model of the idea. This is then tested with real people to understand if it works. Compared to a pilot, prototyping does not require a lot of resources and can be done within short to medium timescales.

Historically, prototyping had been an innovation method most commonly used by engineers, designers and web developers rather than the public sector. Today, however, there continues to be great interest in how this approach could be adopted for the public sector.

Nesta's work on innovation prototyping

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

Our story began in 2011 with the creation of a research report Prototyping 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 in practice how prototyping could be used as a method 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 (2013), for example, presents a simple checklist and a visual map to guide the reader.

At about the same time, Nesta launched Creative Councils - a prototyping fund which invited councils to submit ideas for tackling long-term challenges that mattered to their communities. The 17 councils selected to participate used the innovation method to design radical solutions for public service issues they struggled with. Insights from this programme were shared with our partners Bloomberg Philanthropies, helping inform the design of the Mayors Challenge in the USA and Europe.

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. 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 their ideas, with some like Pennies (the digital charity box) entering the mainstream. Others were tested but proved flawed, showing the usefulness of prototyping as an innovation method.

As part of our ongoing work, we continue to run a large number of prototyping funds, which feature a combination of small amounts of grants coupled with practical support - such as Rethinking Parks, Click Connect Learn, ShareLab. We also offer training and advice on different prototyping tools - for example, our DIY toolkit, launched in 2014, shares practical tools to trigger and support social innovation. We continue to use it when working with innovators today.

Case studies

Innovation in Giving Fund

Through the Innovation in Giving Fund (2011-2014) - set up to support innovations that increased the number of people who give to charity - Pennies was created. 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. The fund was supported by the Cabinet Office and delivered by Nesta.

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 - a startup that trains refugees as foreign language tutors and connects them with students and professionals across the UK.

Digital R&D Fund for the Arts

The Digital R&D Fund for the Arts (2015) 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, the Arts Council England and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). 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.

DIY Toolkit

Developed by Nesta in 2014, this practical toolkit sets out 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 and a range of case studies. The website is available in six languages and the tools have been downloaded 240,000 times.

Nesta tools and resources