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.

Improving social innovation in Scotland

On paper, Scotland has some of the most progressive laws and ambitious social policies of any UK nation and many European countries. But too often these noble aims fall short of solving the problems we face as a nation at an operational level. If we want to turn ambitions into tangible improvements in people’s lives, we need to be willing to take more risks, change minds and experiment more rigorously. We need to get better at innovating for social impact.

Ambitious plans from a new Scottish Parliament

The reopening of the Scottish Parliament at the end of the last century led to two decades of political focus on the development of ambitious new plans, strategies and legislation on almost every domestic policy issue you can think of. In turn, many charities and agencies interested in progressive change quickly spooled up resources to influence and inform Scotland’s landmark policy developments.

There is no shortage of ambitious and broadly progressive policies we can now point to: net zero by 2045, statutory targets to reduce child poverty by 2030, a commitment to close the poverty attainment gap in our schools, the bold reform plan for our care system for children and young people called The Promise, the ambition to integrate Health and Social Care, the Fair Work action plan, a new social security system with dignity at its heart and a welcome focus on prevention across government and public services for complex challenges such as health inequalities, obesity and loneliness. The list is long.

However, when you take a step back, from the raft of legislation and numerous strategies and action plans, we have yet to see the corresponding impact on the ground for people and communities.

Little, slow or no progress

Too many times over the last 20 years we have failed to back up the policy aims with the necessary resourcing, adequate empowerment of communities or new operating frameworks for local authorities, public services and charities. This is our implementation gap, where bold rhetoric and hard reality collide.

On Scotland’s National Performance Framework (NPF) – itself a progressive statement of intent shared across local and national government that values things such as inclusion and wellbeing alongside economic success and population health – the majority of the 81 social, economic and cultural indicators it is comprised of are either static (44% of indicators) or getting worse (13% of indicators) with only a minority of issues where things are recorded as improving (16% of indicators). Some more recently developed indicators are yet to report.

And beyond these indicators, there is a very real human cost to our policy challenges in Scotland. Child poverty levels can still be as high as one in three in our low-income communities and children from some low-income households can start school up to 13 months behind their more affluent peers in key developmental areas. The gap in healthy life expectancy between our least and most affluent communities is still as much as 20 years in some places and almost 65% of our adult population are now obese or overweight.

We have been working to address some of these issues for more than 20 years, with little, no or too slow progress.

Three areas to focus on

But Scotland can do better; we have created and scaled innovative solutions to complex social problems in the past when the circumstances were right – some of the rapid responses to the Covid-19 crisis and the work of the Violence Reduction Unit are great examples of this. And there are plenty of examples from elsewhere in the UK and further afield of how we can better and more deliberately create the right circumstances to foster more and better social innovation.

In considering how Scotland can better tackle the longstanding challenges we face and close the gap between our words and our actions, there are three important shifts we need to make in our approach to problem solving and social innovation: recalibrate our attitude towards risk, change how we communicate and think about the collective challenges we face and create more safe spaces for experimenting and testing possible solutions to social problems.

In a series of short blogs, we look at all three of these issues through the lens of Nesta’s three innovation missions and in the context of our strategic aim to work both as an innovation partner and an effective system shaper in these areas in Scotland.

Rethinking risk

Local authorities and public agencies should have more confidence in taking innovative approaches to deliver social impact



Adam Lang

Adam Lang

Adam Lang

Head of Nesta Scotland

Adam led the work of Nesta in Scotland, working across missions, practices and partnerships to deliver impact against our strategic objectives in Scotland.

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