Starting the open innovation conversation in city government teams, and beyond…


Designing a new tool to support experimentation, collaboration and learning by Julie McLaren (UCL), Sandy Tung (GLA), Ahmad Bismillah (GLA), Almira Lardizabel Hussain (GLA), Sem Lee (OURI Labs) and Gemma Moore (UCL)

Researchers at UCL have been collaborating with policy makers at City Hall over the past couple of years as they test new ways of working using open innovation as part of wider efforts to create a culture of innovation across local government teams. This blog sets out the journey we took on our most recent project exploring innovation in policy making and its role in the creation of value. We used a combination of desk and user research to co-create a deck of conversation cards for supporting discussions within the Greater London Authority and with its partners, about experimentation, collaboration and values in policy making.

While the cards were designed for use by the GLA and partners, we hope they will have wider utility. More details about accessing and using the cards is available at the end of this blog.

Innovation in policy

Open innovation uses design-thinking to scope a specific problem-to-solve which is critical to achieving organisational outcomes and invites outside bodies and innovators to use rapid prototyping and iteration.

Open innovation is useful because it allows teams to ‘look outside of the silo’ and engage capabilities they might not otherwise possess internally, sandbox ideas, and stimulate innovators to address areas of previous market failure. This is vital in the public sector which is increasingly needing to respond to multiple and complex crises in agile ways, aiming to shift existing processes, infrastructures, and systems towards more sustainable and socially just goals.

A significant challenge local and regional governments face is how to promote and make space for experimentation in the design and operationalising of policy and services. This requires an approach that embraces ambiguity and drives collaboration across functional silos. New local capabilities are needed to bridge the knowledge and capacities of different actors — including policy makers, business, researchers, and communities themselves — and to share learning in the open.

City Hall has been experimenting with open innovation approaches since 2018 to enable the public sector to practice defining problems in a way that the market can respond to, and to support experimentation and testing multiple solutions at once. This allows policymakers to bring the most challenging problem they are working on directly to the market through a series of challenge-based innovation programmes as part of Challenge LDN. Recent Challenges include: the Designing London’s Recovery Programme (2021–22) a in collaboration with the Design Council and UCL CUSSH, and the Poverty Prevention Challenge in 2022–23.

This is the space in which this project operated — thinking through what policy officers needed to support them in experimenting and to introduce new conversations about the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of policy making in their day-to-day work.

What we did

We began with research on open innovation and value creation and by exploring how the GLA currently support and deliver open innovation. Together we mapped out previous challenge programmes, outlining the stakeholders involved, the processes used and how value was thought about and created.

We reflected on some of this early work with the Advisory Board we had established, including senior managers within the GLA and CUSSH, and decided to focus on creating a set of conversation cards that would offer practical support to teams as they navigate solving complex problems in new and innovative ways.

We deepened our understanding of the needs of different teams via interviews with GLA officers at different levels, observing GLA-run workshops and revisiting insights from earlier work with the GLA, for example, workshops on the role of values in collaborative civic innovation. From this we created a prototype of the cards and tested out which worked well or less well with a team developing a current live challenge-led programme.

The Conversation Cards

The cards are currently being designed and published. Examples of the final design are set out below.

We hope the cards will be used to support a variety of conversations at different starting points. We also know that that policy officers don’t always get to work on a project from conception to conclusion, and so we need to provide space to talk about innovation (where possible) at different points along a project development cycle. Some teams may be thinking about experimentation and embedding innovation in their work during project delivery, others may be designing a programme and considering whether open innovation might be the right approach. The cards are developed to be intuitive and flexible enough for the players to decide how best they might be used.

The draft deck can be found here.

If this sounds like something you’d be interested to try, please let us know! Get in touch with the team (, to explore how we can help you.

Credits and further information

This project was delivered by researchers and practitioners based with the Complex Urban Systems for Sustainability and Health (CUSSH) Project at UCL, the Economic Development Team at the Greater London Authority, and from OURI Labs.

We are grateful to colleagues at UCL CUSSH and the GLA who participated in this project, and to our Advisory Group Members.

This project was kindly supported by UCL Public Policy and EPSRC IAA funding.



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