About Nesta

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.

Entertainment for change

It is mid May and The Guardian has just lifted the lid on 195 planned fossil fuel projects. These projects will result in “at least a billion tonnes of CO2 emissions over their lifetime” and the impact of these “carbon bombs” on our planet will be irreversible and devastating.

Thanks to this incredible piece of investigative journalism the facts are very clear and very disturbing. But what can be done about it?

Many of you may remember the BBC’s Blue Planet II series. It was the most watched television programme of 2017. 37 million people tuned in to watch the devastating effects of plastic pollution in our oceans. Following the final episode, 62% of those surveyed by the BBC pledged to make changes to their daily lives. As a result, the BBC launched Plastics Watch, an online hub to help enable the public to reduce plastic pollution. The societal impact of Blue Planet II since then has been wide-reaching – with plastics becoming both a national and political talking point.

Could the power of entertainment media also help us turn the tide and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels in the same way as we’ve done with single-use plastics?

Challenging the status quo

Mainstream entertainment has an undeniable power to reach large audiences. When entertainment media drives progressive social change, it’s often referred to as social impact entertainment (or SIE). Good examples of SIE in action include theatre productions such as The Vagina Monologues which led to a global movement to end violence against women and girls, and blockbusters such as Don’t Look Up, which raised awareness of climate change.

Yes, we need data, evidence and policy to create change but we also need the arts to offer a fresh perspective, to challenge the status quo and to inspire us to think and act differently.

How stories affect the brain

Paul J Zak’s studies explore how stories change the brain and describe the “hero’s journey”, a storytelling technique that captures our attention and creates connection and empathy with the central characters. When done well this kind of emotional transportation causes oxytocin release which in turn can result in positive changes in behaviour.

I recently took a trip down memory lane – prompted by the fourth instalment of The Matrix movie franchise, Matrix Resurrections – and thought back to when The Matrix was first released in 1999. The internet had not taken off yet, mobile phones were the size of house bricks, Facebook, Amazon and Twitter didn’t exist and the iPod was still just a concept in development. The Matrix adopts a hero’s journey format which has resulted in strong connections between the film and its audience (not just because of the film’s big-budget visual effects and engaging sci-fi aesthetic, which were cutting edge at the time).

The reach of mainstream media

Many of us considered the existential themes The Matrix provoked. What does it mean to have free will? Can machines ever truly replicate humans? Are long black leather trench coats cool….? Little did any of us imagine the 20-year cultural phenomenon that would follow.

Through a combination of intelligent storytelling, technologically advanced special effects and a lot of movie magic, The Matrix captured our collective imagination and continues to be referenced in TV shows, films and fashion. Arguably, many of the themes the film explores are as relevant today as they were in 1999 (perhaps even more so).

The Matrix might not be considered social impact entertainment, yet it shows the impact that great storytelling can have on our collective consciousness.

Social impact entertainment

The model and the potential of social impact entertainment is in its ability to combine expert storytelling as identified by Paul J Zak and in The Matrix with a strategic, purpose-led approach to creating social change. It is an emerging field but one with enormous possibilities for organisations such as Nesta to explore (and that you can read more about in our first exploration into social impact entertainment).

Art guides us, inspires us, provokes and unites us. It has been said that artists often act as weathervanes of our time. And, as we face the challenges of the climate crisis (as well as the challenges posed by the prevalence of obesity and the outcome gap for children growing up in poverty), we need our artists, writers, filmmakers, creative technologists, designers and animators, now more than ever. Collectively helping to create a world that works for people and the planet.


Deborah Fox

Deborah Fox

Deborah Fox

Director of Creative Innovation

Deborah leads Nesta's Arts practice.

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