It is a striking feature of every humanitarian crisis that when people are faced with scarcity and the most severe constraints, they innovate. When there is no script to follow, there is no choice but to improvise.
Today, as COVID-19 spreads across the globe, health staff are having to respond to unprecedented need and find ways of rapidly ramping up capacity. Scientists are collaborating internationally in a more open way than was done with Ebola and other pandemics. Companies and public services are moving online in days, when previous plans for digitalisation would have taken months or years. Citizens are finding new ways to tackle isolation and boredom, or support their most vulnerable neighbours.
The crisis is also forcing every organisation to question what it does and how it can make a difference, and that is certainly true of Nesta. When I arrived three months ago, I started the process of developing a new strategy - with the aim of focusing all our capabilities, resources and networks on the defining challenges facing the country. Right now that means doing everything we can to help those responding to the COVID-19 crisis. And beyond the lockdown, almost every issue we face - from tackling weak productivity to addressing misinformation - will be seen through a new prism created by this pandemic.
Our immediate priority has been to offer as much practical help as possible. We are supporting our grantees to redirect their programmes - offering everything from HR help to support new approaches to volunteering to tech advice to help organisations move face-to-face services online. Many of the innovators that Nesta has supported over the past decade are playing a critical role in the response:
Alongside shoring up the efforts of our grantees, we are now looking at how we might play a bigger role in responding to the crisis. Some of the challenges for which we can harness our existing work and knowledge include:
'In the midst of any crisis, the first casualty is our capacity to think beyond the immediate hours and days but we are trying to carve out the space for longer-term thinking'
In all of these areas, we are looking at what Nesta can provide - whether that’s the particular capabilities of our staff in managing change in health care, running challenge prizes that stimulate new ideas and help existing innovators to scale, or using our grant funding and investments to support critical frontline organisations.
In the midst of any crisis, the first casualty is our capacity to think beyond the immediate hours and days, but we are trying to carve out the space for longer-term thinking. Last week, I interviewed the epidemiologist, Adam Kucharski (planned well before the coronavirus outbreak) about his eerily-timed new book ‘The rules of contagion - why things spread and why they stop’. My main takeaway from our conversation was that, if we are to avoid either a prolonged or intermittent lockdown, it will be vital to rapidly create the kind of contact tracing app that we’ve seen in Singapore and China, alongside mass testing. Trying to maintain changes in behaviour when we lift the most severe restrictions after the lockdown will also be critical - something I know the Behavioural Insights Team, which Nesta part-owns, will be grappling with in the coming months.
When I joined Nesta from the International Rescue Committee, the last thing I imagined was having to return to the question of how to respond to a humanitarian crisis. My abiding impression from talking to colleagues on the frontline of responses to conflicts, pandemics and natural disasters is that the most extreme circumstances bring out so many qualities that we attempt to contrive when we innovate - bravery, persistence, ingenuity, the ability to take risks, experiment and cut through institutional inertia. We’ll need all of those qualities in the coming months and at Nesta we will do whatever we can to support those people and organisations saving and improving lives.