Here are just a few reflections as I head out into life after Nesta.
Last year, I wrote a short history of Nesta – describing why it was created, and what’s been done and achieved. There are many organisations devoted to innovation - but few devoted to promoting innovation for the common good and public benefit. There are many foundations - but very few willing to experiment and shape-shift.
Plenty of people talk about the future – but few do as much to make shaping the future a shared project. And although many organisations do some of the things Nesta does - from investment and research to programmes – very few combine them. Through the nearly nine years I’ve been at Nesta I hope we’ve made the most of this mix, stayed true to the founding DNA – a deep belief in the power of creativity to solve problems – and shown a restless appetite to get more impact for every £.
When I started, Nesta was a quango - a bit too desperate sometimes to please ministers. Now we’re firmly independent and working better with the government but on a more equal footing. Back then, Nesta had around 60 staff; now we have well over 300. Back then the endowment was worth just over £300 million; now it’s around £450 million. Our turnover has risen nearly threefold, to £56 million in 2019/20. Back then we rented our offices. Now we own a big building that has already proven itself a fantastic investment, worth many millions more than it cost us. Ten years ago we only operated in the UK – now we work in dozens of countries. And in this time we’ve backed over 1000 organisations and affected the lives of many millions (while also documenting the benefits achieved in much greater detail). This growth has sometimes made Nesta harder to understand – but it’s allowed us to have a far broader influence and impact.
A word about our environment which in many ways has deteriorated. Politics and society are more polarised and vicious. Tech is much more likely to be seen as malign rather than benign. The climate crisis has become more urgent – but as hard as ever to act on. Innovation is as likely to be seen as creating problems as solving them. All of which creates new challenges for Nesta. It’s vital to cultivate both capacious imagination and tough-minded practicality (since castles in the air are not much use if that’s where they stay). It’s vital to pay attention to data and evidence but also be open to raw lived experience (the view from the bottom as well as the top). It’s vital to be committed to strong values but also open to hearing opposite ones and not becoming trapped in a comfortable echo chamber.
A word about gifts. Nesta’s funds come from the lottery, and were, essentially, a gift. Our job has been to pass that gift on, whether directly through projects and programmes or indirectly through organising the finance, the IT, the building, the law that’s vital for everything else to work. The gift we get in return is to interact with amazingly creative and committed people in the charities, social enterprises and companies we fund and more broadly. They constantly remind us just how much unrealised potential there is all around us – people with ideas who just need a bit of help, with advice, money or contacts to turn them into reality.
Finally, I’m a believer that one of the goals of leadership is to make itself dispensable. Just as Nesta provides grants and advice so that in time they’re no longer needed, I’ve tried to provide support and challenge to colleagues - and have sometimes been difficult and a pain in the neck – so that the organisation’s capabilities would grow and so that I would no longer be needed. I hope that I’ve now achieved that nirvana of dispensability and am now delighted to be dispensed with.