Designing London’s Recovery — a retrospective on open innovation

Chief Digital Officer for London
9 min readJun 13, 2023


At City Hall we understand that innovation is a key component supporting London’s growth. Through the Mayor’s commitment to expand open innovation calls we’ve been given the opportunity to test new ways of working at City Hall to foster that growth. And with Designing London’s Recovery we’ve been able to take this approach to new levels. As the pioneering programme has recently ended, we spoke to our programme partners and participants about their experience and what we plan to do next.

Theo Blackwell, Chief Digital Officer for London

Can you tell us about City Hall’s approach to open innovation and why you launched Designing London’s Recovery?

Our Challenge LDN program has already supported dozens of startups and SME’s scale up across the city, helping them access funding, develop new products and services and create jobs. This is important for us at City Hall because it forces us as the public sector to start defining problems in a way that the market can respond to. That’s not always been a strength of local government. It’s also city Hall’s role work at different levels of the city government hierarchy to ensure that innovation is embedded in what we do. Crucial to this is breaking down silos and encouraging collaboration — and collaboration in a very complex city like London is hard, but it’s necessary. And so, the benefit of the open innovation approach goes both ways.

We know that innovation can’t just be about technology, it’s about people and testing new ways in which we work together to create the best future for everyone. That’s why we partnered with the Design Council and UCL CUSSH to launch Designing London’s Recovery in response to the pressures of the pandemic. Our goal was to create a much more inclusive ecosystem where we can solve London’s most pressing problems, both big and small by leveraging the innovation that exists across our city. We trialed somewhat of a novel approach to city government that embeds design and systems thinking into the innovation process.

The framework in which the programme operated on were the Recovery missions, which were devised by City Hall with partners and a lot of public engagement during the pandemic. Then, through the open call, we brought innovators across sectors and a diverse range of backgrounds together, forging connections that might not otherwise have been made if city government had just remained within its silos.

And while one result of the programme was the solutions developed by the innovation teams, another important outcome is the embedding of learning. So when city officials walk away from this, they walk away with more knowledge about innovation and experience of delivering innovation than before, and innovators from outside of public sector walls learn more about engaging with public sector bodies and create networks and contacts they can use in the future. This is what helps us foster a culture of innovation in collaboration. We hope that we’ve created a model for scaling up this way of working across London to build a more connected and inclusive city, where everyone has the opportunity to contribute to our shared future, which is the prize set to us by the Mayor of London.

Frederik Weissenborn, Programme Lead, Design Council

As partners that co-designed Designing London’s Recovery with City Hall, can you tell us what was different about this approach? Reflecting on the programme, which aspects of its design were most important?

Typically with an innovation accelerator you work with a few ideas. Innovators largely work independently and in competition with each other to secure a prize at the end. Instead, we decided to work with a portfolio of ideas, supporting teams to come together as an ecosystem and provided opportunities to learn from each other and collectively explore ways to shift the wider systems in which their innovations sit, rather than just focusing on their idea. We worked on overcoming silos both within local government but also in communities. We helped community designers and innovators with opportunities develop supportive peer networks that they can learn from and move forward with purpose, and identifed opportunities for further innovations to take place.

For this Challenge, we took the London Recovery Programme, which consisted of nine missions, and selected three (one was a combination of two missions) to run an open call. One of the things we learned in the process is the importance of defining a bold but pragmatic and time-bound mission or set of missions — that can mobilize design teams and stimulate innovation. It’s important that these are missions that can engage designers and provide them with the impetus to participate and to share ideas.

We also found that it’s important to design actively for spillover effects and you can do that by letting teams co-evolve their designs through collaboration by facilitating peer learning.

Finally, we found great importance in prototyping ideas, putting them out in a public realm to get feedback, because that enables further development of the innovation of the design, it supports fast tracking of that innovation, and it helps challenge assumptions about what a design does in a particular situation.

We captured these learnings and recommendations in our final report, which we wrote particularly with the local authority audience in mind. We hope this helps other local government bodies that might be thinking about using mission led innovation to learn tactics and insights about how they might deliver a similar program in their local area.

Julie McLaren and Gemma Moore, UCL Complex Urban Systems for Sustainability and Health (CUSSH)

As our learning and evaluation partner how did you go about embedding learning and reflection throughout this programme, which in a sense, was itself a prototype looking to scale?

In our role as a research and learning partner we brought expertise in systems thinking, innovation policy and participatory approaches to evaluation, and embedding that approach into the delivery of the programme. We recognised that this wasn’t a standard innovation accelerator, it wasn’t primarily looking to just drive economic growth. So we were challenged to think at the systemic layer about how we evaluate a program that is far upstream from the change that it wants to see happen.

The programme didn’t try and predetermine what the innovators were going to do — while the teams came on board with an idea, they were encouraged to evolve that idea and engage with the others. So what was going to be delivered couldn’t have really been fully known at the outset. The public sector role was different too — encouraging experimentation, coordinating, embedding learning. And most importantly, we wanted to understand what was the experience of the innovators and the value they took from participating.

One of the first things we did was to co-develop a Theory of Change through participatory workshops with the programme team and from research, to try to describe the underlying logic of the programme, thinking about outcomes at different levels. Given the programme was ‘non standard’, where the outcomes were not fully predefined, we needed a flexible approach, one that integrates learning and identifies a spectrum of potential transformative outcomes. We used the Theory of Change as a tool to embed that learning and reflection into the programme throughout its lifecycle. So rather than just evaluating at fixed points, we keep coming back to the changes as they are happening.

In terms of the innovation teams, one reflection we’ve had is that all those innovation teams were doing such different things. They had different starting points, and different needs. The programme was really challenged in trying to meet that in more nuanced ways.

We’d end with a provocation to City Hall: how can these ways of working — including collaborative design and delivery of programmes with embedded reflection and learning — influence your broader role as an enabler of innovation?

Dr. Robin Hutchinson, Community Brain

Can you tell us about your project, and share your experience working with City Hall in this programme as an innovator?

Our projects spanned two areas, one was the High Street, one was community. We were looking at the ever-increasing evidence that events and social gathering has a massively beneficial effect on the way people feel about themselves and their place, particularly when that’s done at a community level. But the processes, the licensing regulations are hard to navigate. We wanted to look at why there were such discrepancies in licensing across London, and how we could make them easy and more accessible. So if I was standing in a public space and thought to myself I’d like to put on an event here, I’d be able, via technology, to find out what permissions already existed and what I need to do.

I think the challenge concept was fantastic. But I’m going to be absolutely honest — two meetings in, we had a meeting ourselves to say, do we want to carry on with this? Because we found it quite difficult. The programme felt very passive, with things just being presented to us. But after that there were conversations about how people were feeling about the support and the way of engagement, and both Design Council and the GLA were instantly reflective and able to realise that people needed to navigate the programme in a different way. The programme was piloting, trying and testing — actually going through the same process we were. And what that revealed was the incredible resource, talents, energy and knowledge within all of the participants — mutual support and understanding really began to blossom. Whole networks of support have developed, which we’re finding beneficial in a whole host of other areas of our work.

We’re not at the end of our journey — dealing with 32 individual London boroughs to try and find out what they’re doing doesn’t go down in the highlights of my life! We want to see London become the greatest playground in the world. A place where people who want to do things, have permission, have recognition of the value, have the support to do so. But I think the biggest bit was the confidence of the GLA in letting go. And that’s a really big deal. As they say, projects run at the speed of trust — that was what gave us the biggest confidence.

Vanessa Robinson, Principal Policy Officer, Skills, Greater London Authority

As a GLA officer managing the Helping Londoners into Good Work challenge, how has your experience influenced the way you work in your current role at City Hall’s Skills team?

My background and passion is all about creativity and using technology to help inclusion and diversity. When I joined this programme I was working on two Mayoral programs — the Digital Talent Programme and No Wrong Door. Working with the GLA’s innovation team, Design Council and the innovators was vital for me to see my programmes and my role from a very different perspective. I believe in innovation in the public sector, and I think this is underestimated a lot of the time and experiences like this demonstrate the essential role of the public sector to support disruptive ideas that can promote and increase diversity, inclusion, equality and equity.

The programme was a fantastic opportunity to demystify our role as civil servants and work in the open. It was also a chance for us to work on active listening and being responsive, to understand how we can improve our relationship with civil society and adapt our programmes to their needs — which is often quite hard for governments to do. I really enjoyed working so closely with the innovators, helping them refine and improve their ideas. It was a learning journey and the feedback from the innovators was really important to us, which I took back to my colleagues in the Skills unit so we could improve our own programmes.

This experience was truly multidisciplinary, and I had the chance to work with academics, independent researchers, the innovators, the Design Council, colleagues from different teams at City Hall, which I don’t get to do quite as much in our day-to-day work. I’d like to explore more opportunities like this where we can experiment and have the chance to “fail” and iterate in order to build something that is more agile and attuned to the needs of Londoners.

What’s next?

The results and case studies from Designing London’s Recovery will be published in a report which will be launched at London Tech Week on Tuesday June 13th. You can find out more about Designing London’s Recovery at Design Council’s dedicated page.

To find out more about Challenge LDN, visit the Mayor’s Open Innovation Hub or contact us at



Chief Digital Officer for London

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