Responding to a crisis

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Like many organisations this year, in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were forced to question our purpose and how we could make a difference.

Our immediate priority was to help in the most practical way we could, providing a combined support package offering financial flexibility and non-financial advice in response to the needs of our grantees. However, as we developed our response, our history of supporting innovation meant that we were able to draw on our tried and tested methods to help build the foundations for recovery.

We are now delivering more than 10 initiatives supporting the COVID-19 response. You can explore these below:

People Powered Results

Partnering with NHSX

The People Powered Results team at Nesta has been pioneering new approaches to achieving change and innovation in complex systems since 2014. These approaches are smarter, faster, more collaborative and more inclusive of citizens and people working at the front line.

During COVID-19, we partnered with NHSX to listen to those at the frontline of our healthcare system, and find out how they were rapidly adapting to working in a crisis environment whilst maintaining the delivery of key services. The team gathered learning and insights about what digital transformation happened during the early days of the pandemic and what helped and hindered this. These insights enabled us to make recommendations on the operational, technical and cultural shifts NHSX needed to be aware of to sustain digital transformation into the ‘new normal’ post-crisis. We presented findings to the NHSX senior leadership team and fed insights into a briefing for the Secretary of State for Health.

Challenge prizes

Longitude Prize Solutions Challenge

The Global Health Team at Nesta Challenges was well placed to provide support for COVID-19 test developers due to our network of experts and our established partnerships with key organisations.

Fifteen of the 54 registered Longitude Prize competitors for the antibiotic resistance prize are working on technologies that can be deployed to test for COVID-19: both to identify the virus and to detect antibodies that may be a sign of immunity. The Longitude Prize facilitates information sharing, use of networks to provide technical expertise and develops linkages where possible for competitors developing COVID-19 tests. In order to tackle growing levels of antimicrobial resistance, the challenge set for the Longitude Prize is to invent an affordable, accurate, fast and easy-to-use test for bacterial infections that will allow health professionals worldwide to administer the right antibiotics at the right time.

Rapid Recovery Challenge Prize

Nesta’s Rapid Recovery Challenge was set up to find and support tools and services that improve access to jobs and money for people across the UK, focusing on those hardest hit by the economic shock resulting from COVID-19. The £2.8 million Challenge is funded by Nesta, in partnership with JP Morgan Chase Foundation and Money and Pensions Service. The Challenge has two streams:

  • Job Recovery Stream - this stream supports solutions that connect younger workers or those in (or who have recently lost) low-paid or insecure work into open jobs that match their skill sets. To help make these connections to live jobs, we expect to see solutions that provide tailored learning, training, or advice to people seeking work.
  • Financial Recovery Stream - this stream supports solutions that help younger workers or those in (or who have recently lost) low-paid or insecure work access financial assistance more easily, manage their cash flow or, where necessary, access affordable, responsible credit.

Data analytics

EURITO

The EURITO project is creating Relevant, Inclusive, Trusted and Open indicators for research and innovation activity across Europe. During COVID-19 we have been building on our existing work to complement the ongoing efforts of the European Commission in mobilising its R&D efforts to tackle COVID-19. Through regular engagement with policy makers from across the Commission, who have been guiding and shaping the development of EURITO in real time, we have expanded our data collection efforts to bring in additional open-source datasets to help support the Commission’s evaluation and future investment efforts.

Broadening Career Options

In this project we are building on Mapping Career Causeways to conduct initial exploratory work to understand how our knowledge of the relationships between different jobs could support workers who have been displaced by the COVID-19 pandemic to gain a better understanding of career options available to them.


Workers often may not be aware that they have skills that are required in other occupations. As a result, those displaced by the pandemic may not know what other jobs they could transition to. We have visualised these similarities in an interactive map for navigating the labour market that can be used to view worker resilience to a range of shocks, including the impact of COVID-19. The insights gathered from this project could also help employers to re-deploy their workforce and broaden recruitment pools.

The long-term impact and motivation for this programme is to:

  • Help workers displaced by COVID-19, and intermediaries who support them, to have a broader understanding of career transitions available to them
  • Improve access to better labour market information and insights that empower workers to make more informed choices about their careers
  • Minimise skills mismatches and skills shortages as a result of COVID-19

Grant making

Supporting Nesta’s current grantees

As outlined in our first response, we developed an immediate response plan to provide support to current grantees. Our first act was to reach out to all of the grantees to reassure them that we would be flexible on delivery and payments to ease their cash flow.

Nesta funded 23 organisations from a variety of programmes, 18 organisations accessed digital support through a partnership with Catalyst and 100 people attended online seminars on topics such as human resources and finance. Nine grantees accessed coaching support from our Nesta coaches.

Awarding promising innovations

We also awarded a number of grants to scale great ideas:

  • Our first COVID-19 award went to the team at Newspeak House who crowdsourced the Coronavirus Tech Handbook with contributions from all over the world on how individuals can play a part in responding to the COVID-19 emergency. The handbook covered everything from manufacturing instructions for 3D printing ventilator parts, to tips on how to hack scuba gear for face masks, to tools for mutual aid groups to self organise efficiently. During the first lockdown, the handbook was attracting 20,000 views a day. Our £50,000 award helped the team reach even more technologists and citizens with informed guides.
  • The second award was a grant to the Jo Cox Foundation to help establish the Connection Coalition in partnership with Nesta, MIND, AgeUK and others, to promote social connection at a time of physical distancing. We knew that isolation would impact wellbeing, mental health and resilience. Our £30,000 award supported the coalition to gather examples of what works to make it easy for people and the voluntary sector to replicate these models in their own communities.

National Tuition Programme

The National Tutoring Programme (NTP) aims to support schools in providing a sustained response to the COVID-19 pandemic and to provide a longer-term contribution to closing the attainment gap. The programme has been created through a collaboration between Nesta, Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), Sutton Trust, and Impetus with support from the Department for Education. Additional support has been generously provided by KPMG Foundation, Bain & Company, and Freshfields. The NTP aims to fulfil its mission by delivering a programme with two pillars:

  • Through NTP Tuition Partners, schools can access subsidised high-quality tuition from an approved list of providers on the NTP website. Through NTP Academic Mentors, trained graduates are employed by schools in the most disadvantaged areas to provide intensive support to their pupils. Teach First is supporting the recruitment, training and placement of the first cohort of Academic Mentors.

Both pillars are funded as part of the Government's £350 million allocation to tutoring, through the billion pound coronavirus catch-up package. Read more about our work with the NTP.

EdTech Fund

Technology has the potential to transform aspects of our education system so Nesta has been working in partnership with the Department for Education (DfE) to support schools and colleges to make more effective use of technology. We want to ensure schools have access to high-quality products and help build the evidence base for what works. The £4.6 million partnership supports more effective use of technology in education with a programme, which aims to stimulate industry innovation, support the improvement of products, and build the evidence base to ensure that technology meets the needs of teachers, lecturers, pupils and students.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the EdTech Innovation partnership is focusing on supporting students most disadvantaged by school closures. Edtech organisations who are already part of the EdTech Innovation Programme and whose products support remote learning have been invited to apply to the EdTech R&D Programme, which will help remote learning tools to adapt to better support disadvantaged students in England.

Our COVID-19 response allowed us to work more collaboratively as an organisation and mobilise quickly around a common goal. Even as an innovation foundation, we too were forced to develop new ways of working which were more agile and responsive. We have also been able to use this work to trial new frameworks, both by bringing together different combinations of skills and by piloting different teamwork approaches (such as daily stand-ups). Consequently, working during the pandemic has helped shape our new strategy, as we’ve drawn on valuable lessons that bring a more sustained focus to our work. Amid the many tough challenges society faces, we believe now more than ever the field of innovation can and must play a critical role in bringing about large-scale solutions. That will be the aim of our new strategy, will be launched in January 2021.

We will continue to work to solve societal challenges exacerbated by COVID-19. Over the next decade, we will gear our innovation methods towards clear outcomes; from increasing the number of healthy life years to reducing the widening attainment gap in schools.

As our Chief Executive Ravi Gurumurthy expressed at the beginning of lockdown faced with a crisis, we are forced to innovate,” and in that spirit Nesta will be committed to testing, developing and scaling up solutions that improve people’s lives during and post-COVID.

Read more about our work supporting the COVID-19 response.