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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.

Thinking clearly about cleaner air

The real toll that air pollution takes on our health is beginning to dawn on us.

Thanks to programmes like the Global Burden of Disease, the Committee on the Medical Impacts of Air Pollution and rigorous research, we can say with some confidence that between 28,000 and 36,000 people in the UK die prematurely every year as a result of air pollution. A recent study in India estimates their national annual toll at over 650,000. Globally, 9 of every 10 people breathe air containing “high levels of pollutants”.

Despite this there’s still a lot we don’t know about air pollution, and less still about how to ensure everyone has clean air to breathe. There is a proliferation of air quality indices, standards and sensors, but we’re yet to find agreement on what clean air is and its value.

“Ambient air pollution alone caused some 4.2 million deaths in 2016”

World Health Organization (2018)

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This is why the Universal Commons Measurement Challenge - under development in Nesta's Challenge Prize Centre - is focusing on metrics of air quality. We have the science behind us, but we don’t yet have enough agreement to allow us to get on with the problem of cleaning up our air.

Like in so many other areas, we believe clear measures are the key to coordinated progress. The Universal Commons wants to find a metric of air quality we can use to invest in the outcome of cleaner air, promoting the idea that we can work to improve air quality now, rather than waiting for the best metric to find us.

And it's never been more important that we act. Air pollution is a global issue, and demands a global response, but the problem isn't the same for everyone. One look at the WHO's Global Ambient Air Pollution map will show you that the worst of the problem is felt in cities, especially cities across the global south. Nesta is committed to finding the most innovative and lasting solutions to air pollution, that work the world over.

To find out more about how we intend to do this, feel free to email [email protected].

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Oliver Cansdell

Oliver Cansdell

Oliver Cansdell


At Nesta Challenges, Oliver researched the topic of our challenge prizes, compiling the evidence on which we base our programmes.

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