Rapid and iterative developing, testing and improving on an idea. This approach is key to solving complex problems.
The following sections have been contributed by Roya Damabi at Alberta CoLab.
Complexity can seem like a road with many options, all going nowhere and somewhere at the same time. It’s tricky for innovators to know which road will be the most useful to take at any stage of an innovation process, especially when it comes time to start honing in on a potential solution.
If a complex challenge is one where there is both a low level of agreement about what the problem is and how to solve it, it follows that any attempt to tackle these challenges comes with great uncertainty. Innovators cannot eliminate this uncertainty, but they can work with it, learn from it, and approach it with the right mindset – a prototyping mindset.
Someone with a prototyping mindset is comfortable (enough) with uncertainty, willing to be challenged, experimental and open to trying things, and able to let go. Along with a mindset, we’ll see that it also helps to approach prototyping with a willing set of hands and feet – to make your ideas tangible and hit the ground running!

What is a Prototype?

A prototype is a preliminary version of something. It is a design that is repeatedly tested and improved upon. A prototype can be an idea, product, service, or model – really, a prototype can take any form.
A good prototype is cheap, quick, and generative. It helps people start learning as quickly and cheaply as possible.
  • Cheap & Quick: particularly in early iterations where there is less certainty about what might work, prototypes should require a minimal investment of time and resources.
  • Generative: a good prototype brings about learning – it helps innovators and users generate insights about people, contexts, and needs. When creating a prototype, innovators should ask themselves: what can I learn from this?
In social innovation labs, prototyping is a key approach to developing, testing and improving on an idea at an early stage before many resources are committed to implementation. It allows us to test and build on that idea in new forms, learning from it and further refining it. This is critical because social innovation is often about novel solutions that have no precedence, and therefore very little existing evidence, knowledge or information about them.
Prototypes can also be used to help us learn about and understand the problem we are tackling. A rough prototype can help us to answer questions about what the problem really is, so we can learn about it.
A prototype is not an alternative to a pilot, but rather helps you to improve on and iterate your design idea before bringing it to the pilot stage.

Key Considerations

Prototype designs should:
  • Be relevant: they answer key questions and address learning goals
  • Be credible: they are considered legitimate to people using the data
  • Focus: on critical assumptions and uncertainties, e.g. on 20% of the functions used 80% of the time
  • Have appropriate increasing ‘burden of proof’ at each iteration - concepts can be "validated" by gut reactions from a few key users; a live prototype would need to pass specific tests; pilots need to demonstrate success with rigorous and robust evidence
  • Produce timely data: made available in real time, as soon as possible, to advance learning
Considerations for a prototype plan:
  • What do you really need? Where? When? What permissions do you need to obtain, from whom?
  • Who needs to be there to run the prototype, experience it and observe what happens?
  • How many iterations and variations are there on potential outcomes?
  • What are the sources of data? Can you build it into the prototype?
  • Who will use the resulting data? When and how will the data be used?
  • How can the data be presented to be most useful?

Key Resources

Nesta & ThinkPublic. (2013). Prototyping Framework: A Guide to Prototyping New Ideas :
Nesta. (2011). Prototyping Public Services: An introduction to using prototyping in the development of public services :
Redesign Healthcare. Prototyping Tools for Redesigning the Neonatal ICU :
Rodrigues, A.C., Cubista, J. et Simonsen, R. (2014). Prototyping Our Future: Social Labs for a Sustainable, Regenerative & Thriving Future :