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Innovation and jobs: a summary of what we’re working on

We’ve been working on jobs innovation for some time now. Across the world underemployment and unemployment damage many societies, giving an implicit message to millions of people that they are useless.

You would have thought there would be feverish experiment and innovation to find better ways of cutting unemployment. But although there is plenty of innovation in some parts of the labour market - from executive search to matching platforms - there is much less innovation where it’s really needed.

In a small way, Nesta has been trying to fill this gap, addressing each of the stages of the innovation spiral.

Innovation Spiral

First, we’ve done analysis of the nature of the modern labour markets and the many different places where new methods could be tried, from education and training, to job matching services and apprenticeships. We’re also experimenting with new ways of mapping jobs – using web scraping tools to understand new job opportunities in fields like coding or looking at where occupation patterns are emerging through online postings such as those from ‘help wanted' adverts, along with exploring how to track innovative jobs in real time.

Second, we’ve tried mapping effective projects on a global scale with a ‘living map of jobs innovators'. This is far from complete, but we were surprised to find how few people involved in the field were aware of the best innovations from around the world. Many of these involve creative uses of technology - including now very familiar examples like Task Rabbit and Adzuna.

Third, we’ve worked on more systematic opening up to new ideas. A good example of this was the EU Social Innovation Competition, which last year had 1,300 entries with ideas for using technology to reduce unemployment. Thirty shortlisted projects were given intensive support to develop their ideas.

Fourth, we’re involved in some quite radical experiments, for example through the Behavioural Insights Team's work with job centres. Our open data challenge for skills uncovered some brilliant projects to help young people navigate their way through school and into a career - including a great winner, Skills Route. We’re now in the middle of an open data challenge on jobs.

Fifth, we’re providing funds to scale projects through the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund, giving significant grants to scale up projects with strong evidence of impact. I’m also involved in scaling up the studio school model, which was designed in part to reduce youth unemployment by giving young people much more experience of work, and skills in problem solving and teamwork. We’ll have nearly 50 schools open in England this year, with the first schools opening in Latin America too.

Sixth, our impact investment fund is supporting some very promising ideas, again to help them to scale. One is GetMyFirstJob, an innovative new way to connect young people making big decisions about their futures with apprenticeships and traineeships.

Seventh, we’ve been exploring how future automation could affect UK and US workforces in our Creativity vs. Robots report, co-authored by Mike Osborne and Carl Frey, which builds on their previous work about the future of employment. We think this has big implications for what schools and colleges do now - and makes it imperative to develop creative skills, social intelligence and problem solving as well as the more traditional curriculum.

Eighth, we’ve been looking at different barriers to employment, one of which is the lack of affordable childcare available to working families. We see innovation in childcare as the next grand infrastructure project, needing fresh new approaches before the current system hits breaking point.

Projects on the Nesta spiral

We’re quite proud of all of this, but it’s still inadequate relative to the scale of the problem. There is still little sign of the big players – governments in particular – complementing their familiar tools, such as large scale employment subsidies or payment-by-results contracts, with innovation programmes. What should happen? We’d like to see three next steps:

  • first, systematic funding is needed for promising innovations to help them develop and be tested, and then scaled. These could be themed - for example covering childcare, matching and skills, as well as focused on particular sectors like retail or eldercare. Funding could be orchestrated through national programmes as well as consortia of cities.
  • second, labs dedicated to jobs need to be created, drawing on the experiences of labs and i-teams around the world. These don’t exist at the moment. Nesta’s various guides to creating labs show how this could be done.
  • third, there needs to be systematic attention to evidence, through a ‘what works’ centre dedicated to jobs, providing guidance to practitioners and policy makers.

All of this could be done with relatively modest resources, certainly only a fraction of what is spent dealing with the costs of unemployment. When Roosevelt was elected US President in 1932 he said that radical experiment and innovation was needed to deal with the scale of unemployment. He acknowledged that many experiments would fail - but said that it would be a failure of leadership not to try out new solutions. I’d like to see some political leaders taking a similar stance today. It didn’t do Roosevelt any harm - he was elected four times.

For developing upon your own idea or organisation, discover our innovation toolkits, funding opportunities and how to work with one of our specialist teams here.

Author

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan has been Chief Executive of Nesta since 2011. Nesta is the UK's innovation foundation and runs a wide range of activities in investment, practical innovation and research.

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