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Public and social labs as an innovation method

Innovation labs come in a variety of formats - they are sometimes called innovation teams, units or funds. While they may differ in size and in the types of tools and resources they have access to, they typically use experimental methods to tackle both social and public issues.

The basic way any innovation lab works usually includes:

  • Scanning for and identifying key issues, priorities and tasks
  • Developing ideas that impact on these areas
  • Testing and prototyping solutions
  • Creating new entry points or routes to drive systems change or have a greater impact

As an innovation method, there is a growing body of evidence and experience on the types of lab methods and approaches that are more likely to work in certain contexts over others.

Nesta's work on public and social labs

Nesta has a lot of experience in public and social innovation, both research-driven and practical in the form of running labs.

Through our research, we have studied them around the world, seeking to understand the methods they use to create change and improve an organisation’s innovative capabilities.

In 2010, we co-authored The Open Book of Social Innovation (2010) with The Young Foundation. Part of a wider series, the report was a first step towards developing the knowledge base about the ways to design and grow innovation. Subsequently, in 2014, we partnered with Bloomberg Philanthropies to create the i-teams report. This global study told the story of 20 government teams and units charged with making innovation happen and explored their impact.

In the early 2000s, we set up Futurelab to deliver and develop innovative approaches to education. We also partnered with the Cabinet Office to set up the Behavioural Insights Team in 2014. One of the UK government’s most successful innovation labs, it uses behavioural tools to make better policy. Later in 2015, we partnered with Cardiff University to launch Y Lab, a public services innovation lab for Wales that works with Welsh policymakers and practitioners.

We have also sought to collaborate with other labs around the world to share learnings. We are part of the Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) and, in 2015, Nesta hosted the first Labworks - this global gathering brought together the growing network of teams driving forward public service innovation to meet face-to-face, sharing knowledge, experience and forming relationships.

In 2017, we also initiated States of Change to bring together the energies of Nesta and our fellow public innovation lab peers. This new global collective aims to develop and support public innovation learning.

As part of our ongoing work in this area, Nesta’s Innovation Skills team also provides direct, practical support to government labs and teams to further their development. We have provided both advisory and skills training to the national innovation labs of Chile, Colombia, Portugal and the UAE. We have also supported the United Nations Development Programme’s regional innovation teams in Asia Pacific, Europe and Central Asia.

We will continue to explore the key role innovation labs and teams have to play in building the capability and culture of governments, companies, not-for-profits and others, to practically deal with the complex problems they face.

Case studies

Digital Makers Fund / Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund

From 2009 to 2017, Nesta’s own internal Innovation Lab supported people to develop ideas to solve social challenges using a range of approaches, such as grant funding, challenge prizes and practical programmes combined with wider policy and systems change. This has included the launch of the Digital Makers Fund, a programme that backed ideas to get young people involved in digital activities like coding, and the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund, a £14 million fund to support the growth of innovations that mobilise people’s energy and talents to help each other, working alongside public services.


The impact of innovation teams from Spain, South Africa and Columbia make up some of the twenty case studies in the 2014 i-teams report by Nesta and Bloomberg Philanthropies. One example here is Chile’s Laboratorio de Gobierno. Since 2015, Nesta has supported the Laboratorio de Gobierno, Chile’s first national government innovation lab. This has included helping to set up the lab, providing staff inductions and initial training in innovation methods, ongoing advice and mentoring on their programme of work, and contributing to a benchmarking study of the Chilean Public Sector’s innovation capacity. We also reviewed their innovation capacity building programme for civil servants, Experimenta, concluding that it is an example of a high quality innovation learning programme that we can all learn from.

States of Change

At the end of 2017 we launched States of Change - a new global collective to bring together government innovators and support public innovation learning. Central to our mission is helping governments build their skills to practically deal with the complex problems they face, and as part of this we have developed a foundational learning programme on public innovation. This 9-12 month programme will run with teams of civil servants in two governments - the Victorian State Government in Australia and the Privy Council in Canada’s federal government.

Nesta tools and resources

Other useful reading material