Filed under: Development Governance Social innovation

Man holding up a model/prototype, and the word solution is projected on the wall behind him.

Prototyping new ideas and testing them out before making any big investments

This spring I got chance to visit NESTA, the UK’s innovation foundation, to learn about their work on radical efficiency and improving the delivery of public services.

Now they have synthesized some lessons and observations from their work in several countries in a new publication: Getting Ready for Radical Efficiency (pdf). The context is interesting because the UK is in the midst of a transformation as it decentralizes decision-making power to communities and local government and tries to put communities in charge of planning and let people know how their money is spent.

The NESTA publication gets it right from the very fundamentals: begin by getting new perspectives from community members on the nature of local challenges.

In other words, there’s no use coming up with solutions to one set of problems, when there are other issues which are more important, according to those who actually live in the community.

They also suggest incorporating ideas from “new thinkers” working in other sectors that bring a different perspective (See: How can nonprofits work with those who will never want to work for them?)

One of the methods they use for getting new perspectives on community challenges is ethnography, a big word meaning observing people to understand the dynamics of their life.

You can see how this would produce much richer results than a traditional survey that typically uses closed-ended questions. In fact, it fills the gap between anecdotes and mind-numbing statistics.

This turned out to be useful for service providers to better understand the life challenges of the service users, instead of seeing them in a very narrow context.

Interestingly, it also convinced some service providers that families could find their own solutions. This reinforces another element of social innovation – focusing on people’s assets instead of their needs.

They suggest creating a service blueprint that maps the whole picture of the service.

Frank conversations about how to spend funds were also useful for identifying waste and pushing innovation. The cost analysis was getting to “where money is spent, on what, and getting a sense of its impact.” Remember this is radical efficiency, so it’s not looking about saving a bit here and there, but a fundamental shift in the way that services are delivered, which means big changes in how money is spent.

Once ideas are generated, it’s time for prototyping, first with “exploratory prototyping,” which tests ideas on paper with the people who will be affected by new policies or procedures. This is a great way to get their feedback early on before there’s investment in a particular approach. Then, more prototyping by trying out these ideas on a small scale. (See: Can we explore community-led prototypes?)

As they stress, innovation comes from experimentation and prototyping is a process that allows for experimentation – and failure.

The search for better use of resources will be an iterative process through prototyping. Better use of resources includes environmentally sustainable processes such as reduce, reuse, recycle and utilizing digital technologies. It also means uncovering existing resources so far overlooked in the community.

One last note on how to scale up innovation to become practice and procedure. They see the key in setting clear expectations, from senior staff and politicians, to service professionals involved in the work.

We hope to incorporate some of these fundamentals in our development work for radical – and step by step – improvements in how we design and implement our development programmes and projects.

  • Nili Majumder

    Thanks NESTA,really innovative idea really helpful for sustainable development work.