Our work in 2015 - Nesta's Innovation Lab

The Innovation Lab is a fifty person-strong team and our mission is to support and scale innovation for the public good. We do this through running innovation funds, cohort-based programmes, open innovation processes and challenge prizes, as well as sometimes directly commissioning ideas.

We're here to support great ideas regardless of where they come from. Our approach to working with the people we support is high-touch, regularly offering other kinds of support to accompany funding for organisations who are genuinely trying something new and untested. Our mission is to scale what works and incentivise the adoption and absorption of proven innovations, methods and approaches.

We place a high premium on people and organisations improving their evidence of impact, and regularly share what is learned via playbooks, toolkits and blogs, as well as showcasing what we learn through events, workshops and other gatherings.

We champion the value of public and social innovation as a deliberate strategy to tackle public funding short-falls, rising demand for public services, tackling complex social challenges, and as a way of unleashing creative capacity of all kinds.

We’ve had a busy year in the Lab and here are just a few of the highlights...

It pays to be open with your data

Although the UK is the world leader in releasing open data, we’re still in the early stages of really exploiting its power to deliver social and economic benefit. So it’s great to be able to report that through the Open Data Challenge Prize Series, we’ve worked with the ODI to hit upon a method that supports innovation in the use of open data that delivers a five to tenfold return on investment. Success stories include Skills Route, a personalised service to help young people see how well they could do on courses they might take at local schools or colleges, and Movemaker, a new product for house hunters, which helps people living in social housing swap their properties. Take a look at the Handbook to find out how we did it.

Digital R&D in the Arts Sector

We brought the three-year Digital Arts R&D Fund home. Working with our funding partners Arts Council England and the Arts & Humanities Research Council, we supported 52 partnerships to experiment with digital technology to increase revenues for arts organisations, develop new audiences and even innovate entirely new artforms. Among a great many other things, we’ve shown how independent arts organisations and cinemas can generate income by becoming digital distributors of their work; how drones can be used in public performances, and how kids can learn music and coding at the same time. Take a look at the full portfolio here and pick up the toolkits for Making Digital Work. Nesta’s accompanying longitudinal Digital Culture survey shows that significantly more organisations now see digital technology as a core part of their business.


Working with film-maker Baroness Beeban Kidron, The Innovation Lab has financed and supported the development of iRights, a civil society initiative that seeks to make the digital world a more transparent and empowering place for children. We make large assumptions that young people are completely at ease with the digital world, yet research shows that view to be a long way from reality. Twenty five years ago we recognised the Human Rights of all children and young people by adopting the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The iRights Initiative evolves these rights for the digital world. A much needed intervention. Watch the irights video here.

We took Digital Making mainstream

We know that if we don’t develop young people’s skills to make things using digital technologies, the UK will face a very large future skills gap in its workforce. Nesta’s Lab has been instrumental in supporting the growth of the digital maker movement across the UK, and this year we focused on actively supporting bigger players to make digital making a priority, not least the BBC’s launch of the Make it Digital campaign, a major push on coding and digital creativity in 2015 across all their platforms. This animation tells the story of our work.

Scaling Social Action

In a complex and challenging world, we have to think differently about how to tackle long-term persistent social challenges like re-offending, disadvantage and quality support for vulnerable people. This year, with funding from our partners at the Cabinet Office, we’ve delivered the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund, designed to scale proven initiatives that mobilise people’s energy and talents to help each other. For example, we’ve supported London Ambulance Service to roll out GoodSAM, an app for first aiders that sends an alert to your phone when there’s an emergency nearby. Read more about our portfolio of innovators using digital technologies, and congratulations to the newly awarded Social Entrepreneur of the Year Vi Ability!

Satellite Data for social good

What could be more energising than bringing 500 young people aged 11-16 into a room to explore their collective efforts to hack new ideas using satellite data? Not much, it seems! At the end of a great year for our first Longitude Explorer, we’ve been able to support some stunning projects; like solutions that allow local charities to better support homeless people, wearable tech that lets you know if you’re going to get sunburned, and a tool which uses GPS information to map safe places which can be used when children or teenagers are feeling vulnerable or threatened. Demonstrating a creative and entrepreneurial capacity to rival many of their ‘grown up’ counterparts, these Longitude Explorers should be on everybody’s ‘ones to watch’ list.

Rethinking Parks

Public Parks are facing dramatic cuts to their funding, and yet we all recognise just how vital parks are to our collective health and wellbeing; particularly in large towns and cities. In partnership with Big Lottery Fund and Heritage Lottery Fund, we’ve been supporting organisations in our Rethinking Parks Programme to develop and test new ways that parks could be cared for, or how they could develop new sources of funding. For example, by introducing wildflower meadows and native plants which survive the winter, and involving volunteers in maintaining the park, Burnley’s Go To The Park initiative has saved £80,000 in its first year.

Tackling resistance to antibiotics

Our biggest endeavour in the last twelve months has undoubtedly been launching and delivering the £10m Longitude Prize in partnership with Innovate UK. Antibiotic Resistance is one of the biggest challenges facing us today. Bacteria are evolving to become resistant to the antibiotics we have successfully used for decades to treat infections. Without antibiotics, humanity is in trouble. The Longitude Prize is just one manifestation of our mission to use open innovation to mobilise a global community to act on some of our most important problems.

Changing the culture of grant-giving– 360 Giving

Being open about who we fund is important to us, and increasingly important to other funders too. In partnership with the Indigo Trust, Nesta have backed 360 Giving, a campaign that provides support for grantmakers to publish their grants data and to use that data to make their grant-making more effective. Big Lottery Fund, Esmee Fairbairn and over twenty major funding bodies have opened up their grant giving data, which is all now searchable here.

This is just a sample of our work. And this year has seen the launch of some tantalising new initiatives that will bear fruits over the next year or so, including the Welsh Innovation Lab and the Arts Impact Fund.

None of this would have been possible without the support of our amazing partners. In particular, I want to thank Arts Council England, Arts Council Wales, Cabinet Office, Big Lottery Fund, BIS, AHRC, Heritage Lottery Fund, ODI and Innovate UK for their continued support and encouragement. Nor would any of this work be possible without the very talented people who work in The Innovation Lab, or without the encouragement and support of our trustees. You have enabled the support of some genuinely game-changing ideas and allowed us the privilege to work with some very brilliant people and organisations this year.

Roll on 2016.



Helen Goulden

Helen Goulden

Helen Goulden

Executive Director, Innovation Lab

Helen was an Executive Director at Nesta and lead our Innovation Lab. The Lab’s mission is to support and scale innovation for the public good; working with partners to run innovation …

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