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Innovation in the UK

All posts tagged: council

The Risky Business of Innovation

10 April, 2013 Posted by: -

Nesta, together with the Local Government Association, is supporting innovators in local government across England and Wales through its Creative Councils programme. In the final blog of the short series, Greg Wilkinson, Director of Infinite Light Productions Ltd and Expert Adviser to the Creative Councils programme, discusses how to overcome the gravitational pull of the status quo.


The challenge of understanding and managing risk is heightened when an initiative is genuinely innovative: by definition, doing something new and different makes it harder accurately to assess probability and impact of future events. Faced with these difficulties, and all too aware of the likelihood that others (opposition politicians, the press, etc) will be swift to exercise 20-20 hindsight in judging harshly any future ‘failures’, it is easy to see how officers and members may struggle to overcome the pull of the status quo when attempting to establish innovative practice. 


Recently, I spent a couple of hours at one of Nesta’s six Creative Councils with a group of senior officers who were attempting to counter these ‘G-forces’. Three things seemed to help:


1)     Keeping the end in mind. It’s not possible to think rigorously about risk without considering the potential upside; and it’s not possible to consider the upside unless you’re clear about what it is that you’re trying to achieve. An authority exploring the energy agenda might want to focus on the alignment of local capacity and use, on increasing the share of local energy generated from renewables, a means of generating income  - or all three.  Which of these it wants to do – and, if there’s more than one, the priority order – will be critical in determining the action that should be taken.


2)     Being clear about what you bring to the party. (Hint: it’s not always money.) The more complex and demanding the potential innovation, the more likely it is that any local authority will need partners to pull it off. In the field of energy, for example, authorities are unlikely to have the ability to understand and manage technical risk – and, depending on the scale of the envisaged projects, they probably wont have all (or any!) of the cash necessary for taking the financial risk. But authorities might have capabilities that are central to the understanding and management of the implementation risk – for example, around planning policy frameworks, or around community consultation and engagement. Clarity around 'gots' and 'wants' for the successful management of defined risks – and around what each party’s contribution is worth in terms of a share of the potential upside – helps position you for success.


3)     Being aware of your biases. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow is a goldmine of insights into how our mental quirks, habits, norms and biases mean that we aren’t always as rational as we think when it comes to assessing and managing risk. If he’d been in the room, he might have asked two killer questions: ‘what’s the biggest loss you’d be willing to tolerate?’ and ‘what would cause you to regret what you’ve chosen?’ These sorts of enquiry illuminate some of our murky psychological depths around risk appetite and loss aversion. The clearer we are about these matters, the better our decision-making will be.


Over the coming months, Nesta and the LGA will be continuing to look in-depth at how best councils can innovate, building on what we’ve learned so far through the programme. If you would like any further information please visit or email


The local energy programme of Stoke-on-Trent

5 April, 2013 Posted by: -

Nesta, together with the Local Government Association, is supporting innovators in local government across England and Wales through its Creative Councils programme.  In the second blog of the series looking at the latest stages of the progammes, Hywell Lloyd, advisor to energy self-sufficient Stoke-on-Trent,  looks at how Stoke-on-Trent council is revisiting an area where local government was once pioneers to deal with the tough challenges that they currently face. 

Stoke-on-Trent is a working city, with a significant ceramics industry, that is both important to the local economy and successful internationally.  Gas is their primary energy source and forms a significant part of their cost base.  With one reporting a bill increase of 55% in just 12 months we can see their energy costs change much more dramatically than any other cost. Other local authorities will have their industries and their local economies facing a similar dilemma.

Our analysis suggests that through appropriate technology, a different approach to the use of resources (such as waste, or expelled heat) and local authority leadership it is possible to have a meaningful impact on local energy demand and supply, and through that to improve the bottom line for energy users in the city

Local government has a history of leadership in the energy sector, with authorities such as Birmingham in the 19th century leading the way in the creation of gas and electricity companies to serve their residents.  Our work is showing that there is local approval and significant scope for local government to revisit this role, to have a positive impact locally as well as making new resources available to support wider ambitions for any  city and its residents. 

That said, what we are trying to do isn’t necessarily what has been, or is, expected of local government, nor allowed for in the way legislation, regulation and practice for local government and other sectors (for example energy markets), have developed in the last twenty years. 

In reopening the question of ‘what is the role of the local authority?’ we are exploring, testing and validating solutions that willl work for us, e.g. legal structures, revenue generation, appropriate financing, effective governance, and offering examples that other local authorities can and have said they want to learn from.

While some of our innovations are quite specific (not every authority has a significant ceramics or heat based employment sector) other learning will be applicable to any local authority where they want to take a strategic approach to local jobs, where they see opportunities to take a different, more holistic, view of local resources, and where they need legal or revenue generating  structures to support their ambitions.

We have a powerful local ambition – The Mandate for Change – to be a Great Working City.  Our work on local energy demand, and supply, with a view towards energy self-sufficiency by 2030 will deliver significant local impact – helping support the employment of over 20,000 people; and provide the support and challenge to other authorities that want to have a greater impact on their local potential – every place could benefit from some local ownership of energy supply, every place would benefit from needing less energy to be productive and grow, every place should benefit from local authority leadership that seeks to make the most of their abilities to facilitate, broker, and of course lead.

The LGA / Nesta Creative Councils Programme has helped us make good progress on the challenges we face, it has provided specific support, and we look forward to sharing that learning more widely.  If you are interested in our work please drop us a line at

Learning by taking risks…

3 April, 2013 Posted by: -

Nesta, together with the Local Government Association, is supporting innovators in local government across England and Wales through its Creative Councils programme. As the programme approaches its latter stages, Melani Oliver, Director for Local Government Innovation in Nesta's Innovation Lab, kicks off our short series and discusses the bold ideas that are beginning to generate significant learning for the wider sector. 

In the coming fiscal year Local Government will continue to face the challenges. Of reduced budgets and Whitehall's relentless focus on efficiency means that Councils once again need to do 'more for less'. There are examples emerging of how councils are addressing this fiscal challenge including shared services, new forms of business models and new governance arrangements.  The new London joint procurement board is one example, among many, of how this is being achieved. But at Nesta, we're interested in a broader concept of value which encompasses both social value and "value for money”.

In discussions about Local Government efficiency, comparisons are often made with the private sector. Companies may primarily focus on the financial value of their work. Is the product easy to use? Is it cheap to produce? Most importantly, does it generate a profit? In the public sector, and at Local Authority level, this can be much more difficult to measure, something that may be ‘cheap to produce’ could be damaging in the long term.

We think that councils should have a relentless focus on the broader social value of their work. Are they delivering services that have a tangible, positive impact on the people they serve. Are they investing in a strategic way to generate cost saving over the longer term? Can they reimagine the way that they work with residents and businesses to better meet their needs and free up savings?

Through our Creative Councils programme, we have begun to see how this can be achieved. Derbyshire's Creative Councils project is investing in children in care now to achieve both financial outcomes (reducing cost savings through avoiding welfare payments, demand on social housing, teenage pregnancy etc) and social outcomes (children with positive aspirations lead better, more fulfilled lives). In the next blog Stoke-on-Trent council will discuss how they are rethinking local energy, revisiting a role that has been shown to have a positive local impact. The potential to secure jobs for Stoke, whilst addressing fuel poverty and support local business are all drivers for their work.  With a view to being energy self-sufficient by 2030, Stoke have set themselves an ambitious target but what they are learning along the way is beneficial not just to them but to all local councils grappling with huge challenges.

That is the role of the Creative Councils programme. Not to promise to bring scalable solutions to all local authorities challenges but to share what we have  learnt from the creative councils for the benefit of the wider sector.  To help the wider sector use innovation to address their challenges. Local challenges and solutions vary across the country, what we need to know is what went wrong and what worked, it is through this approach that we can make progress on the challenges that are up ahead.

Uni-fi - improving outcomes for children in care

4 September, 2012 Posted by: -

Nesta, together with the Local Government Association, is supporting innovators in local government across England and Wales through its Creative Councils programme. In the fifth blog of the Creative Councils series, Nicole Chavaudra, Children’s Transformation Programme Manager, Derbyshire County Council tells us why adults don’t always know best when it comes to young people in care.

Uni-fi - improving outcomes for children in care

There are few councils that would argue that improving outcomes for children in care is neither a priority, nor a challenge for them - indeed there is no more fundamental a role for councils than that of being the corporate parent for the children and young people they look after.  And yet sluggish, if any, progress has been made in closing the gap in outcomes between looked after young people and their peers.

Children in care are five times less likely to achieve 5 good GCSEs when compared to their peers and this trend of poor performance continues as they become adults, with these children more likely to end up unemployed or in prison. There is also more chance of children in care becoming parents to children subject to care orders, thus perpetuating a cycle of generations of ‘troubled families’ that suffer poor outcomes. The imperatives for all of us to do something different are both moral and financial.    

One thing that has become clear as we’ve been on the first few adventures along the Creative Councils road is the importance of wearing our listening ears when identifying and testing innovation.  A sharing of power and influence with young people is an under-pinning principle of ‘Uni-fi’, our programme of work which aims to develop aspiration amongst young people in care. 

We now know that our children in the care system think that some of the best ideas that we paid officers and elected members come up with are total garbage.  A challenge not unfamiliar to parent/child relationships across the world! Take our initial aim of increasing the number of care leavers going to university for example.  This was greeted with, ‘not everyone wants to go to university, what we need are more apprenticeships’, by the young people we asked.

Providing the kind of nurturing, love and guidance that great parents provide to their children always involves compromise, sharing of decision making and making mistakes - corporate parenting in a family of 700 children, more than 70 elected members and countless officers and partners certainly increases the complexity of the relationship.

Actively wearing our listening ears has been painful at times.  The learning from some ethnographic research undertaken in Derbyshire smarted somewhat; clearly we are not as ambitious for our young people as we thought we were.  But we are increasingly learning that exposure to provocative criticism and continuous reflection is an unavoidable, and invaluable, element of the learning journey. 

There has been a shift in the thinking of many locally, overturning assumptions that the only valuable feedback and insight is from experts in a particular field. 

Increasingly, the opportunity to expose our own local, very-UK focused doctrine about supporting vulnerable young people to varied systems, approaches and practices from across the world has opened our eyes to vast possibilities.  Exchange visits with partners in Sweden, Germany, Denmark and Ireland enables the extraction of the most promising aspects of both theory and practice from each, creating compelling cases for change to practice, expectations and statute. 

Achieving change on this scale is the key challenge for us, and we look forward to further developing the collaboration with other councils that will be such a key element of the journey over the next year.

Your county your way

9 August, 2012 Posted by: -

Nesta, together with the Local Government Association, is supporting innovators in local government across England and Wales through its Creative Councils programme. In the second blog of our series on our Creative Councils programme, David O’Leary from Monmouthshire County Council discusses how the ability to ‘fail fast fail forward’ has been the best route to innovative new ideas. 

I became involved in the Creative Councils programme, run by Nesta and the LGA, one busy afternoon, when asked if I wanted to help with a video that was being put together as a submission to a competition. I went to a room that would become a ‘lab’ and tried to help.  Did I? No, not much but trying has opened a new world.

This was my introduction into something different. A more radical and aware organisation than I had realised I was part of. Local government and society are on ever diverging paths and basically we have to find a way to get them running parallel. There was already an answer; we just had to change the culture…

In Monmouthshire we are in the midst of what is entitled ‘Your County Your Way’ - less of a programme of work and more a mind-set.  It is implemented via five key interventions. These are the seeds from which we hope our new culture will grow. They did not come in one grand eureka moment, they arose through reflecting on our work with Nesta, what we were doing already, what we needed to achieve in the future, and identifying what the key ingredients were:

  • Establishing effective listening tools such as ‘open space technology’ that allow us to take part in more meaningful community-led engagement
  • An agile and networked organisation that sees the right people working on the right things at the right time, taking down walls, real and metaphorical,  to create a fully agile working environment
  • Promoting the spread of systems thinking and doing because our experience tells us operating in silos doesn’t deliver and things work best when we understand whole systems
  • An Intrapreneurship School that provides mixed cohorts of officers with the innovation tools, techniques and training to engage in developing the creative solutions needed to transform key areas of our business
  • Encouraging our people to ‘go find, come play’and seek out global best practice in order to develop next practice through developing new networks and working more collaboratively

You can take a look in detail at ‘Your County Your Way’.

One way we are introducing the interventions to the workforce is via our Intrapreneurship School.  I was part of thefirst cohort. It was a testing time, during and after the course. Intrapreneurship opened me up to not thinking like a local government worker. Not to be bound by what has been before, but to innovate. This creates freedom and just as quickly removes your safety net. We were told we have permission, to Fail Fast, Fail Forward, to iterate, to make mistakes – “the best way to have a good idea? Have lots of them”. When it feels like you are breaking new ground there’s elation and a real sense of being able to make things happen. Often followed, just as powerfully, by feeling you don’t know what you are doing, you are out of your depth.  Going back into the workforce maintaining the energy, passing the baton, answering challenge and opposition has been hard and rewarding work. We have gone about some things in the wrong way, but we Fail Fast and Fail Forward. We are always learning and despite the difficulties, more often than not enjoying it, and actually having fun.

One thing that has become very clear, innovation needs to be a constant in our organisation if we are to achieve the culture we need; there will be more highs and lows and a lot more work to do, it’s a long journey ahead and I wouldn’t want to be working anywhere else.

David O’ Leary, project support officer, Monmouthshire County Council

For more info please visit:

Graft and craft – how innovation happens

3 August, 2012 Posted by: -

Nesta, together with the Local Government Association, is supporting innovators in local government across England and Wales through its Creative Councils programme. Nesta’s Philip Colligan introduces the first of a blog series exploring how local authorities can develop and implement radical innovations.


What we’re learning from our work with seventeen Creative Councils

One of the many brilliant things about Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony was the way it showcased Great Britain’s history of creating innovations that literally changed the world. 

From Abraham Darby’s smelter, which catalysed the industrial revolution; to the world’s first organised system for delivering healthcare to a whole population, which created a new paradigm for universal public services; and the World Wide Web, the platform on which a new hyper-connected future is being built.  We have a lot to be proud of.

We know that innovation generates enormous value.  Economists agree on little, but even amongst that notoriously argumentative group there seems to be consensus that the vast majority of economic growth comes from the creation and adoption of new ideas. The same is true of public services and civil society – progress comes from innovation.

And yet, so much of what is written and said about innovation fails to explain how it happens.  Often it’s described as an almost magical process. 

Countless innovation experts are paid to tell compelling stories of historic breakthroughs, but they don’t provide an account of how they came about.  Innovation is rarely simple or predictable. It involves false starts and failures; setbacks as well as triumphs.

Some people and organisations have learned how to manage innovation well, and to increase their ability to generate ideas and then to turn them into value, whether economic or social.  What from a distance looks like a radical leap, close up, nearly always turns out to have been made up of much more incremental steps.

Although innovation does involve moments of sudden insight and creative breakthroughs, much of it is about getting lots of smaller things right.

It’s become one of our obsessions at Nesta – generating useful, practical insights and tools that can help organisations and entrepreneurs bring great ideas to life. 

That’s been at the heart of Creative Councils, a new type of innovation programme which has been supporting seventeen local authorities as they try to generate radical new solutions to the huge challenges facing their local communities.

Together with these pioneers and our partners at the Local Government Association, we’ve been applying our knowledge about effective innovation management, focusing on the hard “graft and craft” that underpins any major breakthrough.

We’ve tested how specific tools from the field of design can be used to get better ideas, including what is probably the world’s biggest experiment with ethnography in public services.  We’ve used techniques to balance the need for creative, expansive phases, when ideas multiply, and phases where ideas are crystallised, simplified and honed down.  We’ve harnessed the power of peer support and challenge, external stimulus, coaching and feedback to iterate and improve ideas, but more importantly to help innovation teams with the incredibly tough job of taking their organisations with them.

Already we’ve generated a huge amount of learning and we know there is more to come.  In the autumn 2012, we’ll be publishing the world’s first curriculum for innovation skills, which will draw on the experiences of the Creative Councils alongside those of many other innovators from different fields. 

In the meantime, we’re publishing a series of blogs with the LGC and over the next few weeks you’ll get some insights into the “graft and craft” from the people who are leading innovation at the front line of public services. 

As ever, we’d welcome your views. 

Philip Colligan, Executive Director, The Public Services Lab



Going local

24 March, 2011 Posted by: -

Is data dull? The answer to this question is a resounding NO! In August 2010 NESTA launched a programme called Make it Local. The aim of the programme is to help show local authorities how to make the most of opening their data and working with digital developers to provide useful web-based services for their communities. 

I’m definitely not a data expert, however I’ve been truly inspired by the people and the organisations involved in this programme and the services they are creating. Through working on the programme I’ve also been inspired by the enormous amount of cool stuff that’s out there, using open data. As individuals we can now find out how our taxes are spent via Where does my money go, gain a bird’s eye view of London’s underground system with transport maps and even make more informed decisions about the restaurants we want to eat in with Scores on the Doors.

I find it captivating that there are people out there willing to create more of these services because they believe in transparent politics, a fairer society or simply because they want to create something fun. But should it stop there?  Why should it just be one developer and a laptop working autonomously for the greater good? Isn’t the role of a local authority to run efficient services that benefit their community and enhance a person’s wellbeing?

Each of the projects involved in the Make it Local programme have created something new and exciting; partnerships have grown between councils and developers; and individuals within the communities are engaged and empowered by the new services being created. You can read more about each of the projects on our Make it Local blog.

I believe we might be on the cusp of data revolution. It’s great to see lots of councils publishing their data online and inviting developers to work their magic. But why not go a step further and build strategic partnerships with developers, digital agencies and the community. Creating something meaningful, helping to drive a thriving local economy and creating services which enhance our lives; surely that’s the end game?

You may or may not agree with everything I’ve said here; you may have some ideas on what should happen next or some thoughts about data in general so I’d like to give you an opportunity to come along to an event we’re holding here at NESTA, the Make it Local showcase. You’ll hear more about each of the projects involved in the programme, have an opportunity to debate some of the issues, challenge your thinking and hopefully be inspired by the possibilities ahead. Join us on 14 April and have your say in what you believe should happen next.

By Deborah Fox, Creative Economy Programme Manager, NESTA

Nesta is the UK’s innovation foundation. We help people and organisations bring great ideas to life by providing investments, grants and mobilising research, networks and skills. We are an independent charity and our work is enabled by an endowment from the National Lottery.

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