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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Civil society and the fourth industrial revolution

A fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is sweeping the world, with rapid advances in AI, mobility and advanced manufacturing. But civil society is playing little role in this revolution, whether as a user of technologies, a shaper or an influencer.

This detachment is becoming increasingly problematic. On the one hand, big opportunities are being missed out: digital fabrication, drones and robotics in development and humanitarian contexts; AI for supporting collective intelligence to make better, quicker decisions; big data to understand the world in more depth, in real time; use of new online tools to engage people and raise funds.

On the other hand, there are also big threats: misinformation, harassment, unethical uses of AI, pervasive digital surveillance and massive job destruction not matched by job creation.

So what’s happening and what’s needed? How could civil society be more than a bystander, and what are the current trends that can be built on? Here we summarise some of the key parts of the answer and suggest how a more concerted action could be taken to enable civil society to help shape this unfolding revolution.

Upskilling civil society for the 4IR

A mundane but significant challenge is simply that most NGOs lack the people, investment or knowledge to use existing digital tools internally or externally, let alone emerging tools.

Although we have seen an encouraging increase in the use of some tools, like platforms for fundraising, there is plenty of evidence that charities, trade unions, community groups and the social economy are being left behind.

Fortunately several organisations are now working to tackle this skills deficit – from TechSoup in the US to cibervoluntarias in Spain to CAST in the UK. DataKind helps civil society to make better use of their own, and others’ data, while Seoul is home to the civil society-focused Big Data Academy. Other examples include the Mobilisation Lab, which began within Greenpeace International and works with campaigning organisations to help bring them into the twenty-first century.

These initiatives remain quite fragmented and are not reaching the great majority of civil society organisations. That points to the probable need for more shared services which reduce the need for digital skills in NGOs, and for a step change in training support, using the best online tools (from text to video), backed up by networks of coaches and face-to-face support.

Growing digital social innovation

A second priority is accelerating the use of digital tools to address social needs. We’ve been exploring the digital social innovation (DSI) field in Europe for five years now, mapping and supporting the growing community of several thousand charities, social enterprises and grassroots groups using DSI across Europe, providing practical support to many through our grant funding and challenge prizes, and making policy proposals.

While a lot of DSI uses established technologies such as platforms, crowdsourcing and GIS/GPS, a growing number of initiatives are making use of 4IR technologies. Digital fabrication tools are applied in many different fields, from customised prosthetics to low-cost everyday tools to open-source wheelchairs. Open Bionics is harnessing the power of robotics to create open-source, affordable, lightweight, modular, adaptive robot hands and prosthetic devices, which can be easily reproduced using off-the-shelf materials and rapid prototyping techniques.

MeshPoint produces devices for creating peer-to-peer internet networks in disaster areas and refugees camps. The much-hyped blockchain is being used by projects like DECODE (which Nesta is involved in), developing open-source privacy-aware tools to give citizens more control of their personal data, and Provenance, which uses the technology to make supply chains more transparent. Globally there is no shortage of imaginative digital social innovation underway, such as UNDP’s blockchain experiments, the use of chatbots for everything from voter registration to workplace harassment, and Field Ready’s use of digital fabrication in disaster zones. But we have a long way to go yet.

Most of these struggle to get to scale (partly a consequence of the lack of any sources of capital remotely comparable to those available for commercial digital innovations) and there has been little influence so far on older NGOs, charities, mutual, trade unions and social enterprises (though engagement with the European Social Innovation Community and the imminent declaration on priorities for the future will help).

Some programmes aim to fill these gaps – like Nesta’s ShareLab Fund which supports civil society organisations in Britain to seize the opportunity of digital platforms. But there is still surprisingly little systematic financial support for digital social innovation initiatives, and in particular to help them move from interesting pilots to sustainability.

Opening up R&D and innovation to civil society

Open innovation methods offer one of the most promising routes to more engagement in 4IR from civil society. These offer funding to anyone who can demonstrate a capacity to generate workable solutions, rather than restricting funding to established universities, research bodies or business. Horizon 2020, the EU’s largest Research & Innovation programme, is making modest steps towards opening up innovation in this way through funding on issues like ageing and carbon reduction.

On a smaller scale Nesta’s Challenge Prize work runs open innovation competitions that incentivise social innovators to focus on typically overlooked societal problems – from alternatives to wheelchairs to food waste, data-driven farming to integration for refugees. These methods are powerful in that they tap into a much wider range of sources of ideas, and back the best that can demonstrate effectiveness. There are also many other social innovation challenges around the world (although too many are not well structured).

But the vast majority of R&D funding still involves grants to universities and business, and the powerful pull of vested interests. Our recent study on the biomedical field highlighted the huge skew of resources towards traditional approaches, despite strong evidence of declining effectiveness, and the meagre investment in social, behavioural and digital tools by comparison.

The role of philanthropy

Philanthropy has vast resources at its disposal, estimated at $1.5trn. The new wealth associated with the 4IR has added new major players such as Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, and helped swell the resources of existing foundations. But so far, the philanthropic sector has struggled to find a clear voice and role.

A recent SIX survey, commissioned by Nesta and others shows what is being done, and how a few foundations are working with governments and businesses to use 4IR tools to address social challenges. But it also confirms how thin capacity is; and how little systematic learning there is about what to do.

One exception is that big foundations are now taking systematic action to counter misinformation - and there is lots of good activity now supported by Hewlett, Knight and others to tackle fake news and threats to democracy.

But philanthropy has struggled to articulate a more proactive approach to using new tools to answer social needs. We would advocate, at a minimum, a coalition of leading foundations to commit to joint work to experiment and learn about how best to use these tools in their work, and support light touch observatories simply to track, assess and share the most important and promising examples in fields like digital democracy, data collaboratives or skills.

There are promising examples - such as the RWJF collaboration with Nesta using new data tools to map global innovations in health, and ambitious projects in Saskatchewan and Allegheny. But as our paper last year on use of AI in foundations showed, the sector as a whole, including the wealthiest foundations, is far behind where it could be in its own use of technologies, including new ways to use data to reduce the often huge reporting burden imposed on NGOs.

Shifting power: data as a battleground

A crucial issue for the next decade is how to shift the underlying structures of power in the 4IR. A key battleground is control over data: will it be controlled by big businesses and the state or by citizens? Nesta is a partner in the Horizon 2020 funded DECODE project which aims to help provide an answer. This three-year programme is developing new technology to put people in control of their personal data. One ambition is that by enabling people to share their data in privacy-aware ways we can create a family of data commons.

We conceive of data commons as a new form of public good, as essential to the fourth industrial revolution as sanitation, roads and public housing were in response to the upheavals of the industrial revolution. It will be a collective resource of data which anyone can access. Over time, this will become an important resource for civil society to develop AI and machine learning-based solutions to social challenges.

Engaging the public in shaping the 4IR

So far the public have mainly been observers rather than shapers of the 4IR. But over the next few years new rules will be set for AI, AVs, drones and other technologies. Anticipatory regulation is fast developing as a field, and is now receiving significant government funding in the UK. But regulators need more help to engage the public and civil society.

At Nesta, we’ve shown how this can be done in various regulatory fields. We’re experimenting with different ways to engage the public – from public dialogues on the ethical and social issues related to the use of AI in healthcare, where we asked members of the public to consider what data algorithms should have access to and what decisions should be delegated to them. Through our ‘everyone makes innovation policy’ grants programme we have funded experiments which use creative approaches to engaging the public in discussions about emerging technologies, like Community Action MK, who use storytelling to understand the needs of disabled people and how the design of driverless cars needs to change to reflect this.

Data collaboratives

Many organisations are now working to create a new family of structures that can organise, curate and use data for social good.

GovLab has mapped out much of the thinking and examples like Open North in Montreal are demonstrating how these can work in practice at a city level. Nesta’s Open Jobs programme is working in a very similar space. The emergence of commercial attempts to organise cities data ecosystems – such as Google’s Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto – is bringing these issues to the fore, and showing, as in other fields, the limits of purely proprietary models of data governance.

Influencing emerging technologies

Civil society is little involved in the cutting edge of 4IR technologies, but some foundations are now experimenting with new roles where they get directly involved in influencing the direction of change. The Knight Foundation’s work on driverless cars is a good example, linking several cities in the US and trying to ensure ethical use of data and public engagement. Nesta’s Flying High programme for drones is in a similar space, linking government, cities and the industry to discover public benefit uses, and then to involve the public in shaping a new set of rules and regulations.

Collective intelligence as an emerging model

We have long argued that the most positive future for the 4IR will involve the emergence of new collective intelligence approaches to issues like air quality, healthcare, democracy and education. Building on past work, and my book Big Mind, we recently launched a Centre for Collective Intelligence Design which will demonstrate what these ideas mean in practice, in fields like jobs. We’re also working with the UNDP and other partners who recognise the potential for radically different models of development that mobilise data and citizen input both to understand the world and also to shape responses.

AI for good

There is lots of activity around AI for good at the moment, which we recently surveyed. This is a welcome corrective to the traditional dominance of the military and big business in AI. But civil society is still more comfortable challenging AI, critiquing problems of bias or abuse, than generating positive alternatives, let alone developing AI tools that directly empower citizens.

Where next?

The 4IR is happening, albeit unevenly, and often with a big gap between hype and reality. Civil society has much to gain and much to lose. Within the big foundations and big NGOs there are huge resources available to shape this revolution. But the sector has been very unstrategic in thinking through how, together, to influence the many dimensions of this challenge. We urgently need new institutions, collaborations and action to put this right.

Appendix: All Nesta 4IR & civil society activity log


  1. Mobility Unlimited Challenge - AI wheelchairs and exoskeletons for people living with lower limb paralysis (funded by Toyota Mobility Foundation)
  2. Data Driven Farming Prize - tools and approaches that source, analyse and translate data into actionable, timely and context-specific information for smallholder farmers to improve value from agricultural productivity (US Aid funded)
  3. Smart Ageing Prize - smart tech for improving social lives of ageing population (EU funded)
  4. Inclusive Technology Prize - using innovative technology to make a real difference to the lives of disabled people (Innovate UK & Office for Disability Issues funded)
  5. Flying High Challenge - shaping the future of urban drone use in the UK to meet local needs (Innovate UK funded)
  6. Fall Armyworm Tech Prize - digital tools and approaches that provide timely, context-specific information that enable smallholder farmers and those who support them to identify, treat, and track incidence of fall armyworm in Africa (USAid funded)
  7. Open Up Challenge - helping small businesses save time and money, find better services, reduce stress and discover the intelligence in their financial data (funded by eight banks)
  8. Longitude Prize - using innovative technologies to develop a point-of-care diagnostic test that will conserve antibiotics for future generations and revolutionise the delivery of global healthcare (Nesta & Innovate UK funded)


  1. DSI4EU - Highlighting, mapping and supporting digital social innovation across Europe
  2. Centre for Collective Intelligence Design - exploring how human and machine intelligence can be combined to make the most of our collective knowledge and develop innovative and effective solutions to social challenges.
  3. DECODE - creating new technology to put people in control of their personal data. Sharing personal data in privacy-aware ways to create a data commons - a new form of public good in the fourth industrial revolution, which if successful will be essential to helping civil society develop AI and machine learning-based solutions to social challenges
  4. ENGINEROOM - part of the EC’s Next Generation Internet project. How do we create a people-centric internet to compete with America’s corporate-powered version and China’s authoritarian approach?
  5. ShareLab - deploying sharing economy platforms for social benefit
  6. CSA Innovation Fund - a £14m fund to support the growth of innovations that mobilise people's energy and talents to help each other, working alongside public services.


Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan was Chief Executive of Nesta from 2011-2019.

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Kate Adams

Kate Adams

Kate Adams

Director of Operations & Special Projects

Kate led cross-team functions for Nesta Challenges.

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Matt Stokes

Matt Stokes

Matt Stokes

Senior Researcher, Government Innovation

Matt was a senior researcher working on the collaborative economy and digital social innovation.

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