Building a project incubator at OPSI

Written by , Analyst on 1 April 2020

We’re building an incubator at OPSI and we’d like to share the current thinking, hear your thoughts, and put out an preliminary call for interest for the (free) alpha version of the model.

Typically, incubators provide start-up or scale-up private and social sector organizations with office space, administrative services, financing, coaching, and networks to help them build and scale rapidly. This will be inspired by a similar value proposition, but customized to support and develop new and novel public sector initiatives, and based on where OPSI can provide value: support, structures, and convening a network around common goals.


We developed the idea of an incubator jointly with the European Commission through the Horizon 2020 project to maximize the spread of learning and knowledge from initiatives to a larger ecosystem of actors. At the same time, our hypothesis is that an OPSI-convened incubator can connect experts and practitioners to provide insights and validation of transformative work, reduce duplication, and streamline replication efforts. All of that said: the primary goal of an alpha version is to learn, evaluate, and improve.

Model elements

Here’s a sketch of what we’re envisioning, though the model will be – and has to be – highly customized to the needs of any organisation and initiative going through it.

  • The model starts with navigational tools and workshops: assessments of the initiative status, how the organisation is structured to deliver, and what the biggest complements would be (e.g., user research support for a team without that skillset)
  • It’s designed for ongoing support: the earlier in an initiative’s lifecycle the better, and the nature and benefits of the incubator will change in lockstep with the initiative’s maturity to support different phases
  • Based on needs assessments and phases, we’ll provide access to a network of uncommon skills, expertise and advice: the core team at OPSI will be responsible for working with the initiative proponent to continuously identify gaps and activate the OECD’s network in support

Intake criteria

This is our early thinking on what will make a good candidate initiative. The ideal would be cohorts that complement each other, which would add another contextual dimension to the below:

  • Shareable: Likely to provide lessons learned across international contexts
  • Sprintable: likely to benefit from targeted and time-bound injections of support
  • Supportable: aligned with the host organisations’ priorities
  • Achievable: mapped to the available skills ecosystem
  • Changeable: the earlier in the initiatives’ lifecycle, the better

Because it’s an EC-funded initiative, this is also currently limited to EU countries.

What it’ll look like

What the incubator looks like will depend on your feedback to this post, what initiatives apply and are selected, and what gaps and needs emerge. However, we envision a few core parts of the experience.


  • A self-assessment of the initiative and its supporting environment and gap areas
  • A kick-off workshop to establish relationships, working patterns, the state of the problem definition, and to validate the needs assessment
  • Weekly community catalyst calls to check in, create a regular heartbeat and challenge function, and determine which modular elements to incorporate
  • Field exchanges to peer or leader organizations and countries
  • Build sprints in the initiative’s key locations with the proponents, the OPSI team, and skills and expertise partners
  • Initiative and incubator evaluation and knowledge mobilization in lockstep, exploring and sharing lessons learned about the project, the incubator, and the intersection between them

A timeline for the model, starting with intake and problem definition in fall 2020, moving to a larger block around a customized programme from fall 2020 to spring/summer 2021, then project wrap-up in fall 2021.

Beyond those core elements, OPSI will work with proponents to deliver some combination of high-value modules.

Potential modules

  • Workshop to teach foundational innovation concepts
  • Design support: problem definition, research, ideation, prototyping, and testing
  • Advice and input from similar pathfinder projects
  • Access to relevant leading experts
  • Curated learning and toolkit pathways
  • Specialised skills (e.g., behavioural insights, user research, digital design, data science, foresight, emerging technologies)
  • Peer support and collaboration

Overview of the different roles within the incubator model, from highest time investment and benefits to lowest. At the highest, the OPSI core team, then project partners, then support partners, then the wider OECD public sector network. The idea is that we'll pull more people, but more lightly, in the latter end of that spectrum.

Next steps

We’re looking for three things.

One, we’d like to talk to you if you have an early-stage or prospective initiative that you’d consider running through the alpha version of the incubator starting in fall 2020.

Two, we’d like to hear if you’d be willing to – subject to timing and capacity – support the pilot with occasional support with skills and expertise as part of our partner ecosystem and advise on the development of the model.

Three, we’d welcome any feedback, particularly if you’ve tried an incubator-like model in the public sector before. The above is a lightweight treatment, trying to keep this to blog length. So we’re happy to set up a call if you’d like to discuss further, and otherwise we’d love an email to [email protected]. What are your biggest needs to support innovation projects and initiatives? Where do you think are the opportunity spaces for increased international collaboration and knowledge mobilization? Do you have any other general suggestions or comments?

Based on these steps, we’ll formalize and communicate more details on the timeline and intake process. Looking forward to working with you!



This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 870913.


  1. Hi,
    I’m in charge of a Strategy and Innovation Unit at the European Parliament. Our Directorate-General is responsible for organising events, meetings, conferences with all kinds of services, including interpretation in up to 24 languages. The current COVID-19 situation has forced a big rethink for us to be able to keep core Parliamentary business going. This is a huge project, but one that so many big organisations must be going through now. Do we have a way of pooling ideas and information? This project incubator could serve that purpose…

    • Hi Tom,

      That’s definitely a problem that I’m sure many public sector organizations are facing – really interesting. I’m available at your convenience next week if you want to have a quick discussion to see if there’s a potential fit. Email inbound, and have a nice weekend.


  2. Dear Mr Aitken et al.,

    thank you for this information.

    Indeed I would be interested to get further information on a potential co-operation.

    Best regards,

    • Hi Sharon,
      That rules out the role of project proponent, but I can connect back when we have a pilot identified in case the project, process, or skills complement is of interest; the goal and model centers around bringing interested parties together to maximize cross-pollination of ideas and learnings.

  3. Hi Kent!
    I really like the concept of a project incubator. It is in line with similar ideas we’ve had at my group at the research institute I am working at in Sweden. Our intent was to better increase the possibility of system change through our innovation projects, but we have so far been unsuccessful in making this happen.
    What are your ideas regarding the post-projects phase?
    The reason why we been trying is also that many innovation projects we’ve been involved in die out after the projects are completed or never amount to any real system change. Often the system is not ready for the project results and new policies, behaviors, or relationships and business models needs to mature before the results can be implemented. Since there is no post-project process with competences and funding it is very hard to keep the process alive.
    Feel free to make contact if you want to brainstorm about this!

    • Hi Albin, I would be happy to discuss, that sounds great. One of our structures to hopefully mitigate that concern is only accepting projects that have institutional commitment and a lifecycle planned, but with the design and implementation details requiring a process, exploration, and additional development. Feel free to contact me at [email protected] and we can set up a time to chat next week, perhaps?

  4. Kent
    Presumably, not working in the public sector debars those with valuable inovations to offer? This would apply to our own case, although the project will be of immeasurable value, not just to the public sector, but also to private and professional sectors too.
    Briefly, it is an innovative methodology for decision-making, which always (sic!) makes the best choice, whether alone or jointly with others. It enables, even encourages participation (both active and passive) and makes the whole process transparent through a universal understandable ‘language’. As result, we can have real, meaningful accountability. And, it is to be available free of charge, and forever, on a website devoid of commercial influences, ensuring it is beyond reproach. Altogether, this will restore and rebuild trust in any system where choices are to be made.
    Procurement, recruitment, financial services, corporate governance, even medicine are all areas which stand to benefit from this innovation. Transparency is a pervading, all-powerful yet benign governor and is also discrimination-blind, non-partisan and egalitarian.
    The opportunity to present it to you (Zoom?) would be most welcome. Either way, your response will be appreciated, even if it’s “thanks, but no thanks” – we don’t really mind, so long as we know.

    • Hi Michael,

      Yes, you’re right that it has to be a public sector host for the project or organisation. If, even if the incubator is not an open avenue, you’d still like to present the methodology and project, feel free to let me know at [email protected]. Best – Kent

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