In order to understand where you are going, you need to understand where you have come from.
In the process of crafting Nesta’s new strategy, which charts an ambitious path forward and will be published in the new year, we have been doing a lot of reflecting as an organisation. This has included revisiting the huge amount of work undertaken to deliver our 2017–20 strategy, and drawing out learnings. This week, we have shared summaries of our work in six focus areas: health; education; innovation policy; the creative economy & culture; government innovation; and futurescoping.
Three key themes stand out from these summaries. First, the need to get as close to the front line as possible in the way we work and who we work with. Second, the challenge of bringing about change at scale. Third, the importance of creative risk-taking in the innovation process.
Across our workstreams, we have repeatedly seen the power of working directly with front-line practitioners and communities. Our work in innovation policy, for example, has shown that innovation is not just the preserve of well-resourced firms and universities. This led us to publish, in 2018, a set of principles for how the public should be involved in decisions about innovation.
Our work has demonstrated the power of involving front-line staff and creating solutions with those people who are directly affected by the problems we’re trying to solve.
Similarly, our work in health and education has demonstrated the power of involving front-line staff and creating solutions with those people who are directly affected by the problems we’re trying to solve. For example, over the last six years, our People Powered Results team has supported 42 local health and care systems, with positive impacts on A&E attendance and hospital admissions all over the country.
Our new strategy will push us to work hand-in-hand with organisations and individuals as close to the front line as possible, to tackle the problems they see every day. As an ‘innovation partner’, we will combine our own capabilities in innovation with their expertise to generate new solutions, and use our convening power and relationships to help magnify the impact of our shared findings by scaling solutions and shaping systems.
Our six work summaries have also surfaced some of the challenges of bringing about social change at scale. Certainly, Nesta has successfully influenced government policy: for example, in 2013 we founded The Centre for Social Action which, through a £25 million partnership with the Cabinet Office and Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), supported more than 100 innovations to improve student exam grades and reduce loneliness, among other things. However, we also know that the pursuit of impact at scale is far from straightforward. Our health summary notes that ‘mainstream innovation often assumes a solution that works in one place should spread as far as possible, but that’s not always true’.
Meanwhile our work in government and community innovation has highlighted a parallel challenge: the need to ensure the production of innovation is matched by demand for it. Even if an innovation is proven to work across multiple contexts, we should not assume that this alone will be sufficient to deliver change.
Going forward, Nesta will work with our partners to generate solutions that are rooted in relevant contexts, building bottom-up momentum. At the same time, we will work hard to match that momentum with demand from policy-makers and practitioners to replicate and adapt those solutions in new contexts, creating the conditions for large-scale change. By focusing our efforts on a smaller number of innovation ‘missions’, we will be better equipped to work in this coordinated way, bringing the best of Nesta to bear in pursuit of the breadth and depth of impact we will target in our new strategy.
Finally, these summaries of Nesta’s past work demonstrate the importance of ‘creative risk-taking’ within the innovation process. While our new strategy is designed to make us more focused as an organisation, innovation is neither a linear nor a predictable process and we must always be willing to push the boundaries in search of better solutions. Not only is creative risk-taking an essential ingredient of innovation, but if we (rightly) ask policymakers to be experimental and open-minded, then it’s the least we can ask of ourselves too.
Innovation is neither a linear nor a predictable process and we must always be willing to push the boundaries in search of better solutions.
Recently we have taken on boundary-pushing projects such as Data Dialogues – a dialogue with Scottish citizens about health and care data using immersive theatre, online social games, speculative designs and pop-up installations to engage a diverse array of groups – and Flying High – a trial (as part of our investments in anticipatory regulation) intended to demonstrate that drones can be used safely in cities, potentially saving the public sector £1 billion.
Going forward, we must continue to push boundaries in service of our more focused goals and be ready to fail – doing so openly and honestly, learning and sharing the lessons we learn with others. Furthermore, by setting ourselves clear and ambitious impact targets, we will be able to better identify what does and doesn’t work, and challenge ourselves and others to iterate, get creative and find new pathways to our desired destinations.
These reflections on our past work have played an important role in illuminating the path forward for Nesta. Our new strategy will push us to get to the front line as quickly and as often as we can, to think early and carefully about pathways to scale, and to be bold and creative in our approach. Each of the six summaries go into more detail on these themes, providing some hard-earned lessons from years of work and – through multiple examples of success – some real hope for what can be achieved by harnessing the power of innovation for social good.
The demand and need for innovation to change lives for the better is arguably as great as it has ever been. Our ambition is to meet this need head on, by designing, testing and scaling solutions that improve millions of lives. We will share more on our plans for how to do this in the coming weeks and months, and hope you will join us on this journey.