Digital Nesta

Digital technologies are pervasive; they disintermediate and disrupt. They are a powerful driver of innovation in multiple sectors, settings and disciplines. So it’s hardly surprising that Nesta are deeply immersed in this space and supporting innovation in a number of different ways and with different intentions. We’ve made a deliberate decision to focus primarily on more effective use of digital technologies in the areas where the market and state are not - and where there is the greatest scope for added public benefit.

So as the year draws to a close and we look back over the last twelve months, I wanted to reflect on some of our practical work in this space…

Making the Invisible Visible

2013 saw Nesta win a dozen EU projects, one of which included a project to map digital social innovations across Europe, both to build a community of innovators but also better understand some of the technology trends and how to better support their growth and evolution. Civic Exchange has followed a similar line, building a platform to make visible and share apps that have been developed (and tested) that can help government work better; whether that be through mapping transport congestion, creating more transparent governance or safeguarding vulnerable children. The ambition is now to work with a major global institution to build a global commons platform and community. Mapping is an obvious and helpful starting point, particularly if we want to reduce the amount of time, resources and money that is wasted in duplicating ideas; simply through lack of knowledge about what’s ‘already out there’. Which is quite a bit it seems.

Tackling Under-exploitation

Nesta’s long-standing work to harness the power of digital technologies to address some of our most complex social and environmental challenges is well evidenced and programmes like Re-boot Britain - which specifically took digital innovation into the arena of high-cost, high anxiety public services like children’s safeguarding - have been built on steadily over the last two years.

In 2013 we’ve seen significant funding and support for exploiting digital technologies and have continued to deliver two key funds, the Digital Arts R&D and Innovation in Giving – both specifically structured to support organisations to experiment in ways to yield value from digital technologies. The use of digital technology in archiving, distribution, marketing, improving operations – these things are hugely important for arts and cultural organisations to exploit, but the potential for digital technologies to also develop new artforms like Blast Theory’s I’d Hide You and forge new relationships between audiences and artists through that we see in Extant and Qualia, is an exciting area that will continue to expand into 2014.

Apps for Europe also seeks to tackle this challenge of under-exploitation by providing scaling opportunities for apps generated in hack events across Europe by brokering connections with potential customers, investors and other sources of support such as mentoring.

Innovation in Giving fund has supported over seventy organisations to trial new ways for people to give time, assets, money to the causes and people they care about, reaching over six million people in total; and yet while we have seen some great innovations coming from within the charitable and voluntary sector, the more radical and imaginative ideas are almost all coming from new entrants into the sector; sensing an opportunity to exploit digital technology and moving into it.

Crowdfunder, Solar Schools, Just Giving Projects and Buzzbnk are growing crowdfunding for social and environmental benefit, and it’s clear that digital technology contains the power to transform volunteering as well as charitable giving with organisations like Women Like Us, We Will Gather, Give What You’re Good At and Re:Act all exploring how to use digital technology connect people to causes and taking action. The entrance of many new ideas into a well-established sector can create turbulence and that’s why we structured the Open Innovation Programme to support more collaboration between digital innovators and existing charities; work that we hope to continue into the future.

Inclusive Economic Growth

Over the last twelve months, our support of – and interest in – the Collaborative Economy has grown. The steep rise of platforms and technology solutions that seek to make much more efficient use of the many unused and unwanted resources and latent skills and assets that surround us has not been surprising; and we are thick within a period of experimentation and innovation. This year, we have not only supported a number of UK ventures focused on asset-sharing, e.g. Streetbank, skills-sharing, e.g. The Amazings, peer to peer trading, e.g. Ecomodo, and timebanking, e.g. Spice, we have also made more strategic interventions to support global resource and knowledge sharing about the Collaborative Economy and continue to convene and connect people from across the sectors and within government. There is an emerging case for the collaborative economy to support mass micro-entrepreneurship and exciting prospects for how this intersects with a rise in local production of things like energy, food and open manufacturing.

The winning of the EU project D-Cent - part of which involves the development of a digital social currency to support the growth of the sharing economy - presents hugely exciting opportunities in this area and builds on a long-standing interest in the potential of complimentary currencies and new kinds of value exchanges.

Digital Making & Education

The dominant stream of work in the field of Digital Education has been Digital Makers, a programme to encourage and enable a generation of young people to create, rather than simply consume, technology. Building on the momentum generated by Nesta’s Next Gen report we have worked closely with a consortium of 40 partners to launch the Make Things Do Stuff campaign, highlighting the benefits of learning web programming and other technical skills. This has been driven forward through the creation of – a platform to share advice, resources and tools for digital making; whether that’s a website, a game an app or a 3D robot. In partnership with Nominet Trust, we have also funded ideas to significantly increase the number of young people who participate in digital making and backing volunteer-led clubs for young people to learn to code like CodeClub and CoderDojo. Through our Scottish office, we’re also working to support teachers to build their skills and passion for teaching kids how to make digital ‘stuff’. There are clear connections between digital education, supporting younger people to get involved in digital making and the growth of the collaborative and creative economies and aligning our grant funding, programmes, research and investing in these areas feels like an important step to be making.

Lifting the Lid on Data

Nesta has undertaken a huge about of work and research into the field of open and big data over the last twelve months, everything from using open data for understanding economic dynamics to working on Code for Europe. Our most recent practical work focuses on the Open Data Challenge Series, a series of seven challenge prizes to SMEs and start-ups to work with data providers, industry experts and business leaders to develop new ways to better understand how to reuse available data sets in ways which create business opportunities and generate public value in fields such as crime and justice, energy and the environment and welfare. Maintaining a focus on solving a particular challenge or by meeting a pre-identified need will, we hope, result in the opening up of many more datasets and result in genuine demand for what gets developed. Can Data Save the World? asked our very own Olly Arber and unsurprisingly the answer is no, but “as long as there are people and companies and governments who want to make data accessible for the best reasons, then there is a chance that we can start using our data to deliver social good”.

Enacting what we Espouse

And finally, you’ll see that we’ve launched this shiny new website; a deliberate breakaway from the brochure-ware world, to one where Nesta’s digital boundaries are porous, where comment and conversation is invited; and we can give voice to the diverse and inspiring views of our people, partners and friends.

Watch out for the next post on this subject which will set out what we aim to achieve in 2014.

Image credit: Digital Person, © Embe2006,


Helen Goulden

Helen Goulden

Helen Goulden

Executive Director, Innovation Lab

Helen was an Executive Director at Nesta and lead our Innovation Lab. The Lab’s mission is to support and scale innovation for the public good; working with partners to run innovation …

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