Change is exciting at the beginning. People throw money at pioneering prospects, watching intently as they make if off the ground – but then they’re on to the next thing before seeing any real impact. “Everyone can point to an interesting pilot,” says Nesta CEO Ravi Gurumurthy, who points out that, more often than not, they stay very small scale. “One of the biggest challenges with innovation for social good is it doesn’t get to nationwide roll out,” he says. Nesta is pushing against that. For the next ten years, the non-profit will be fully immersing itself in three of the biggest challenges facing the UK today, looking for solutions that will drive real, big change for those who need it most.
Scaling up innovation isn’t easy. The three missions Nesta has chosen to focus on over the next decade are proof of that. Following months of extensive research and collaboration with sector experts, it set goals of a fairer start for every child; a healthy life for all; and a sustainable future where the economy works better for people and the planet – all inherent issues that companies, charities and whole countries have been striving to fix for decades.
“These are age-old questions,” says Gurumurthy. And the answers won’t be easy to come by. Nesta’s missions represent the biggest challenges the UK faces right now, from climate change and sustainability to the inequality in both life chances and life expectancy, and it has set moon-shot targets for each one. By 2030, Nesta wants to have eliminated the school-readiness gap, which puts children at a disadvantage before they’re even five years old; halve the prevalence of obesity, which would add two years on to ten million Britons’ lives; and reduce the UK’s household carbon emissions by 28 per cent from 2019 levels, which will involve a dramatic shift in how we heat and insulate our homes.
“It’s risky and difficult, but that’s exactly why we feel Nesta should be embracing these areas,” he says. The foundation is approaching these problems from a new direction – multiple directions, in fact – starting with why things usually go wrong.
“We tried to figure out the reasons why innovations die,” says Gurumurthy. Time is a big one. “People don’t have the time and space to just go and immerse themselves in the context, understand the issue and design a solution from scratch,” he says. GPs, teachers and others on the frontline have the seconds they need to improvise everyday workarounds, but that’s it. There’s no break in the day for studying, thinking about different ways of doing things, and prototyping various options.
Nesta’s new mission-focuses will see the agency take on three roles to tackle these intractable challenges, each aimed at overcoming a specific barrier to change. The first role is Innovation Partner, which is where Nesta will be working to change incumbent institutions at the frontline to design and test solutions. Nesta’s teams will not only have the time to gain a deep understanding of the problems these organisations face, they will also be able to really sit with each issue and consider new strategies.
“Nesta’s focus on addressing the knowledge gap on what works is vitally important,” a spokesperson from The National Food Strategy says. “There is still so much we don’t know about successful interventions… This is a grand challenge which needs industry, government and civil society working together.”
After learning all there is to know about these public sector organisations from the people who work within them, Nesta will build prototype solutions and test them in real-life contexts. “Even when you do have good ideas, it’s pretty rare that those are rigorously evaluated,” says Gurumurthy. “We want to have the sort of evidence and confidence that something works that you’d see in pharmaceutical trials, when they conduct randomised experiments.”
These trials will happen through partnerships with anchor institutions such as multi-academy trusts, but the products being tested will be built alongside entrepreneurs, as part of a second role that Nesta is calling Venture Builder. Nesta will not only continue to fund early-stage ventures, it will also be developing ideas from scratch, then assembling teams to build them.
Even the most innovative solutions can’t scale if there are barriers built into the system. That’s why Nesta is also positioning itself as a System Shaper, so it can push against the procurement rules and other regulatory obstacles that get in the way and give out-of-the-box ideas a chance to work.
“Right now, there are some companies that are trying to make money not by selling you more electricity or gas, but by helping you use less energy or use it at different times of the day,” says Gurumurthy. “That’s a totally different business model that is quite difficult to make work in the current regulatory environment.” By using its cross-sector sway, fostering co-creation and collaboration across industry, the wider private sector, academia, charities, government and the public sector, Nesta could make sure good ideas don’t fail just because we aren’t equipped to handle them yet.
The concentration on each of these roles will vary across each mission. For example, the climate change agenda already has huge political backing, whereas, as Felicity Gillespie, director of child development charity Kindred2, points out, the government still focuses its resources and efforts on school-age children, ignoring life-changing early years. “The links between, for instance, development at 22-months and education attainment at 26 years are not well-understood or driving any party’s agenda,” she says. “The forensic approach to innovation offered by Nesta will be a welcome and a much-needed contribution to streamlining access for all families.”
When it comes to figuring out concrete solutions, it ultimately comes back to understanding people – what people want, and what people will actually do. And it’s a learning process. We don’t have complete control over our actions; cognitive biases unconsciously push us one way or the other. Fifty per cent of the choices we make are out of habit because we like ease and simplicity. But so often, change is pushed on to the individual; we shame parents for not giving their kids enough resources, we blame obese people for eating too much, we guilt-trip people for not switching to a renewable energy provider. Nesta’s strategy takes the opposite approach.
“What we need to do is make it easy for people to live a healthy life and change the environment so that that becomes almost second nature,” says Gurumurthy. He points to the sugar tax. “That didn’t work by just taxing people so much that they changed their behaviour,” he says. People still drink sugary drinks; it was the corporations who changed, they reduced the sugar in their products to duck under the levy. “That’s exactly the type of solution we want more of, create nudges that drive the reformulation of foods or the changing of menus so that it becomes super easy to make a healthy choice.”
We have the assets we need to drive this kind of change. As a society, and across public services, we are “massively rich in data,” says Gurumurthy, “and we know a lot more about how to mobilise people power.” Blending the two creates a breeding ground for innovation, which is why Nesta is looking to collaborate as much as possible. “Together, we’ve got a unique combination of practical experience, data science and technical knowledge,” Mike Thornton, CEO of Energy Savings Trust, says of its partnership with Nesta. “So, we’re well placed to shed some light on how to face the national challenge of radically reducing carbon emissions from homes.”
All three of Nesta’s missions will fuse the public sector’s depth of knowledge with the fresh perspectives of startup entrepreneurs and the insights of behavioural scientists, data scientists and designers. It’s a promising starting point. But it isn’t going to be easy, Gurumurthy says: “It’s going to be anything but.”
“Innovation is often seen as the story of heroic individuals, with flashes of brilliance and daring,” explains Gurumurthy. “In fact, it’s probably more about trial-and error, unusual coalitions, and lots of patience.”
–If you’re part of an organisation with deep knowledge of any one of these mission areas, Nesta wants to work with you. If you work at an institution open to being part of this change, Nesta needs you as a partner. And if you’re an entrepreneur looking to develop policy-shaping solutions, see how you can get involved by visiting nesta.org.uk