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Harnessing social innovation to tackle the climate emergency

The UN says we could have just 10 years left to limit a climate catastrophe by keeping the global temperature rise under 1.5C. This 10 day collaborative project, between futures experts in Natural England and Nesta identified three opportunities, three gaps and one disruptor for how social innovation can help tackle the climate emergency.

Extreme weather events, school strikes, Extinction Rebellion protests and dire warnings from scientists have made climate change a defining social and political issue. Politicians are responding with talk of green new deals and targets for net zero carbon emissions.

Technology alone will not save us. The scale of this global emergency requires us to promote diverse innovations - social practices, business models and technologies to facilitate systems level transitions - that can trigger new ways of living and thinking. Social innovation and people power is vital to help communities adapt to the consequences of climate change and move towards net zero lifestyles.

To help understand the role of social innovation in tackling the climate emergency we conducted an horizon scan, systematically gathering evidence of change to identify future trends. The trends were prioritised and analysed to identify three opportunities, three gaps and one disruptor as directions for further exploration. If you want to know how we got from trends to opportunities and gaps skip to the final section of the blog.

Opportunity 1: Turning ecoanxiety into collective place-based environmental action

Concern about the climate emergency is creating a sense of fear that has been described as ecoanxiety. Rather than seeing this as a medical condition to be cured, one opportunity for social innovation is to work out how to harness concerns for collective action, such as stewarding local green spaces, changing the way people heat their homes or participatory futures - where citizens reimagine how the world could be. This could not only make people feel better but also tackle environmental challenges. Further exploration might consider:

  • How does sometimes distant activism in big cities or on social media translate into local action or changes in local values - what comes after the protest?
  • How to harness this energy in places where people live and work to improve local environments rather than focus on who is to blame for the climate crisis?
  • How do we consult local communities to create policies and programmes to tackle climate change and meet other sustainable development goals? Do we need to see a revival of something like the Local Agenda 21 process?

Opportunity 2: Imagining what new green jobs will look like

Green new deals and low carbon economies all promise much in terms of green jobs in sectors such as clean energy production, energy efficiency and environmental management. The sheer magnitude of the climate change problem virtually guarantees new or changing jobs in many sectors to combat its effects. One opportunity is to imagine what ‘climate change jobs’ might look like and how the future of work could change in the face of the climate emergency. Further exploration might consider:

  • How can we imagine new green jobs that don’t yet exist or how developments like a four day week could reduce our environmental footprint?
  • How might we use digital technologies to create a map to link new green jobs, skills and qualifications to help people navigate the labour market of the future?
  • What happens when we combine quantitative digital and qualitative expert analysis to understand the future of green work in a manner similar to that undertaken by Pearson and Nesta for the future of skills as a whole?

Opportunity 3: People power taking on environmental emergencies

Citizens have always been involved in helping to tackle emergencies from St Johns Ambulance to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. As the likelihood of extreme weather and disease disasters increase with climate change, voluntary organisations and local communities face new challenges that require novel solutions. Further exploration might consider:

  • What are new ways of organising citizens to help tackle environmental emergencies such as platform cooperatives or collective intelligence?
  • How do these new ways of organising citizens interact with existing emergency services or voluntary organisations that are often structured in more traditional ways?
  • How can digital technologies be harnessed to help citizens organise in new ways to tackle environmental challenges?

Gap 1: Redesigning local systems for a net zero world

The Local Government Association declared a 'climate emergency', following in the footsteps of more than half of councils in the UK, many of whom have set 2030 as the date to reduce carbon emissions to zero. To reach net zero, local communities need to change their culture and aspirations, supported by local government. This will require local systems and services to be redesigned. A local approach to the climate emergency could make the topic more tangible and closer to people’s everyday lives. Further exploration might consider:

  • How can local authorities get their contractors to reduce emissions as many local services are procured from others?
  • What are the best methods to assess the many different sector plans, strategies and policies of local authorities to reduce the climate change impact of public services?
  • What do local authorities do next after declaring a climate emergency - can we use systems thinking to reshape local public services and government?

Gap 2: Healthy climate friendly menus for hospitals, schools and social care

Food production is an important driver of climate change through direct emissions and changing land use. Climate change can also affect the supply and quality of food. Public services and civil society are often responsible for meals in places such as schools, hospitals and social care. This means they can play a role by making more sustainable, healthy food choices. Further exploration might consider:

  • How can public sector service providers in education, social care and children’s services provide healthy food with a low carbon footprint in a warmer world?
  • What are the healthy, low carbon foods of the future that will be economically viable in the UK for widespread consumption? What might we see on a school plate in 2030 and 2050?
  • How will food systems need to change to make healthy, low carbon food economically viable and the social norm?

Gap 3: UK climate refugees

It will be increasingly difficult and expensive to engineer our way out of extreme weather related events so some local communities might need to be relocated because of flooding or sea level rise. One example is Fairbourne in Wales which could be the first UK community to be entirely decommissioned and returned to the sea because of climate change. This raises the long-term possibility of UK citizens becoming ‘climate refugees’, which raises questions about of what constitutes a climate refugee and how the process of relocating citizens and communities might happen. Further exploration might consider:

  • Is the tipping point 2039 when the agreement between government and insurance companies about flooding comes to an end and some householders are no longer able to access affordable home insurance?
  • What are the wider social implications of climate refugees in areas such as education, healthcare, employment and social cohesion and integration?
  • How might climate migration shift population patterns across the UK?

Disruptor: Will artificial intelligence and digital technologies go green?

Artificial intelligence and digital technologies could both exacerbate and mitigate the climate crisis and so disrupt social innovation in this field. For example, the internet was recently described as the “largest coal fired machine on the planet” yet quantum computing could make the Haber-Bosch process for fertiliser production more energy efficient, which currently consumes 3% of world energy. Further exploration might consider:

  • How can AI help persuade people to tackle climate change by identifying persuasive narratives and understanding new ways to facilitate behaviour change?
  • How can the transition to a smart energy system produce a fairer and less expensive energy system for those in fuel poverty?
  • How might digital technologies allocate natural resources in more sustainable ways than markets?

How we did it

Starting with the Natural England’s horizon scanning evidence base, we identified 25 political, economic, social, technological, environmental and legal trends, underpinning the climate emergency. This ‘PESTEL’ framework helps remove bias by ensuring we considered a wide range range of trends. Each trend was supported by evidence of where we are now and what change we could expect to see in the future.

We categorised each trend by its relevance to Nesta and how certain we are about how the trend could play out, based on the weight of horizon scanning evidence we collected. The trends were judged relative to one another - the intention was to provide a rapid overview rather than precise analysis of each trend.

We focused on the trends we judged most relevant to Nesta which are located in the top boxes. Those we thought more certain we identified as ‘opportunities’, those we thought less certain we identified as ‘gaps’.

Next we selected combinations of three trends to create 30 mini-scenarios, brief narratives of what might happen if the trends were combined. To stretch thinking and assess interactions trends were selected from different PESTEL categories for each scenario.

Finally, we used our judgement to pull out the most interesting mini-scenarios which consisted of three opportunities, three gaps and one disruptor. We did a brief bit of testing with internal and external experts to develop some further analysis around each of these - key questions, timeframe to act, where it sits with Nesta’s innovation spiral and other Nesta related work.

What’s next?

We hope this horizon scan will provide social innovators with some useful leads on opportunities and gaps to tackle the climate crisis. The methodology used in the scan could also be adapted for horizon scans of other topics. If you would like to discuss further please contact [email protected]


Laurie Smith

Laurie Smith

Laurie Smith

Principal Researcher, Explorations

Laurie undertakes experimental work in new fields at Nesta and leads for the organisation on futures methods.

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Helen Doran

Senior Specialist Futures. Helen leads the horizon scanning and strategic futures work within Natural England.