Nesta has a strong track record in pioneering analysis of new technologies and opening up public debate about future trends. Our Explorations team analyses emerging trends, technologies and early signals of change to identify the key drivers shaping tomorrow.
Between 2017 and 2020, our focus was:
Since Nesta was founded, we have explored emerging trends and technologies to identify the drivers shaping tomorrow. With the creation of the Explorations team in 2017, we began systematically applying both qualitative and quantitative methods to carry out foresight exercises for Nesta, and integrating a range of data sources (such as social media data) and experimental analytical methods (such as machine learning). We have also engaged the public in Nesta’s work, through dynamic large-scale events such as FutureFest and the organisation’s far-reaching Predictions series.
Our Explorations work spans all five of Nesta’s fields of work, so we’ve applied future methods to look ahead to the impact of AI on education systems, the key trends shaping the arts and culture sector to 2030, and the technologies and values we should be putting at the centre of the next generation internet.
Explorations has sought to seed novel ideas, both within Nesta and in building new fields beyond the organisation. Our Explorations Initiatives programme aimed to create an internal pathway for staff to pursue more experimental ideas within Nesta, whereas our external field-building activity between 2017 and 2020 centered on fostering the nascent concepts of anticipatory regulation and collective intelligence.
Explorations incubated Nesta’s Centre For Collective Intelligence Design (CCID). The Centre has produced cutting edge research into The Future of Minds and Machines, looking at the relationship between human collective intelligence and artificial intelligence, and funded 27 experiments through our Collective Intelligence Grants programme to generate new insights and knowledge. CCID has also created a Collective Intelligence Design Playbook, which is the first codification of collective intelligence as an innovation method. The Playbook is now being translated into Chinese, Portugese (Brazilian), and Spanish.
We also established collective intelligence design as a core innovation method for the United Nations Development Programme, with 90 accelerator labs around the world using the techniques developed in our Playbook. We convened leading practitioners and academics from around the world to spread practical skills and knowledge in how to design collective intelligence, and we collaborated with a growing group of other funders to support collective intelligence design - Wellcome, Omidyar and the Cloudera Foundation are all backing our grants programme.
The impact of the team working on collective intelligence is especially impressive - they’ve shown what collective intelligence is capable of in practice with a host of real-world demonstrator projects. Now, with the launch of a new academic journal we’ll be seeing the impact of their interventions for many years to come.Celia Hannon, Director, Explorations
In 2020 we supported the development of a new open-access journal in the field of collective intelligence, in collaboration with SAGE and the Association for Computing Machinery. It aims to connect academia and practice, building a cross-disciplinary body of theories and results. We believe the journal will help to scale the field of collective intelligence and bring it even further into mainstream scientific discourse.
In tandem with Nesta Challenges and our innovation policy teams, Explorations has been working to advance the concept of anticipatory regulation. In 2019 and 2020 we launched a series of reports, events and practical partnerships to help regulators experiment with innovative approaches to regulation. Our work contributed to a series of policy interventions - such as the UK Government creating a £10 million Regulators’ Pioneer Fund and the Regulatory Horizons Council.
When it comes to fostering an internal culture of exploration across Nesta, we have experimented with a range of approaches to channel the creativity of our staff. Through our Explorations initiatives programme we make a small fund available for staff to develop novel ideas that are too new, far out or risky for standard Nesta work.
Find out what we discovered when we used randomised funding to foster a culture of innovation.
In general, funds were awarded on the basis of pitches to a senior group of staff, but in 2019 we took a risk ourselves and experimented with a randomised funding model (the idea emerged from a Nesta prediction made in 2018 about the rise of randomised funding approaches to support innovation). Notably, we found that this approach did expand the diversity of proposals and internal applicants (see more about our learning from the experiment here). Over four rounds of Initiative funding our team received over 70 imaginative applications from Nesta staff, seeding a range of ideas from simulation in policymaking, through to an interactive townscape for visualising the future of the sharing economy, and even growing a living garden for FutureFest.
We seek to spark public debate about the development of emerging technologies, to demystify them and cut through the hype. This exploratory agenda has found expression through the annual cross-Nesta initiative to surface ten ‘predictions’ about the year to come, a new ‘Tipping Point Prize’ to highlight emerging technologies with potential for social good, and through our research programmes on the future internet.
Explorations has helped to shape the funding and research agenda of the Next Generation Internet initiative (NGI), the European Union’s ambitious flagship programme seeking to build a more democratic, resilient, sustainable, trustworthy and inclusive future internet by 2030. From 2017 to 2019 we ran Engineroom, which brought together key stakeholders and voices from across Europe to help identify the technologies and emerging dynamics that will have the most impact on the future internet, along with steering the development of five €10 million R&D funds run by the European Commission.
In 2019 we kicked off Next Generation Internet Forward, as a follow-up to Engineroom. NGI Forward functions as the policy and strategy arm of the European Commission’s Next Generation Internet initiative, setting out an ambitious vision for how the future internet should look, identifying the concrete building blocks (both policy interventions and technological tools) we will need to get us there, and convening the right ecosystem to bring us closer towards our vision.
As part of this work we also launched Finding ctrl in 2019, an interactive digital publication reflecting on the future of the internet. The content was authored both by technology luminaries such as Jimmy Wales and Shoshana Zuboff, along with emerging voices. The publication was featured in the Financial Times, on the BBC Today Programme and other high-profile outlets.
Since 2010, Nesta has been publishing an annual series of ‘predictions’ for the year ahead, which shine a light on a trend or technology which is about to tip over into the mainstream. Our predictions often attract media coverage and high levels of website traffic. The series has been featured across national media including BBC and Sky and widely on national and regional radio and had over 200,000 web visits since it launched. We keep track of how accurate these predictions are, but their true purpose is to ignite a debate or to send a warning signal.
For example, our 2018 series highlighted the scramble by tech giants to establish first-mover advantage in developing algorithms for health - a field which has become increasingly crowded and contested. The same year we also predicted that human collaborations with AI would create prize-winning art - a few months later an AI-powered artwork sold at Christie’s for almost half a million dollars.
In the year the internet turned 50, our Next Generation Internet work has pushed back hard against the dominant paradigms around how the internet should be designed and controlled, putting forward a positive, truly European vision when it was most needed.Celia Hannon, Director, Explorations, Nesta
Nesta believes that the public needs to be more closely involved in shaping the future, and our joint work in Explorations and Collective Intelligence has developed both the theory and the practice to support decision-makers to more effectively involve the public.
In 2019 we published a report into the nascent field of participatory futures titled Our Futures: By the People, For the People. Participatory futures move beyond citizen assemblies and traditional public engagement to help people develop a collective image of a future they want, allowing for better, more informed decisions. The report defines and categorises the methods found in the field, and offers practical suggestions to policymakers understanding where and how to use them.
The same year, we partnered with BBC Future to run a year-long crowd predictions challenge. Over the course of the year, more than 7,500 people from 119 countries around the world made more than 33,000 forecasts about expected events. We found that crowd forecasting can play a useful role in decision-making for the complex times we face.
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With Nesta’s interactive events we put our theories about public engagement into practice. FutureFest serves as a showcase for the next generation of ‘big ideas’ in governance, education, health, and culture. Over four editions, the festival has provided a platform for technologists and artists to demonstrate new tools and technologies so that the audience can experience a taste of things to come. Since 2013, FutureFest has hosted over 11,000 attendees and engaged almost a million people on the web. The 2018 edition featured speakers such as Nicola Sturgeon, Akala, Imogen Heap, Sir Nick Clegg, Annie Mac, and Ruby Wax - along with immersive installations such as a living garden and a data casino. The event was held at London’s Tobacco Dock, but also had a considerable digital reach — over 86,000 people have visited the FutureFest website and the event reached 14.8 million Twitter accounts.
How could mass involvement with shaping the future solve complex problems? Our Futures is a game which encouraged players to imagine new ways to involve people in thinking about the future. It was created in partnership with John Sweeney, Jose Ramos and the Centre for Collective Intelligence Design, based on our report of the same name. Key questions asked by the game include ‘How might emerging technologies be used in combination with participatory futures approaches?’ and ‘How might they help us find new ways to involve citizens in tackling 21st century challenges?’
In 2019 we launched an open call for ideas about the next decade’s breakthroughs in technology and science in order to reach a wider pool of perspectives. We published nine entries, including a winning essay from Dr Edmund Hunt, who made the case for swarm robotics, and two runners-up: Dr Anna Ploszajski and Sally Adee, who championed bioelectricity and wonder materials respectively.
In the first round of the Collective Intelligence Grants programme, we funded an experiment from the Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law at Swansea University to find out whether machine learning can turn crowdsourced footage of airstrikes into legal evidence of British weapons being used in Yemen. As a result of this work, the Global Legal Action Network (a partner on the project) has submitted a dossier to the UK Government showing how arms sold from the UK were used to carry out unlawful attacks in Yemen. This will be followed by a legal challenge, which will be coming through the UK courts in 2021.
We have played a part in changing the way regulators now think about anticipatory regulation. Our work has influenced the government’s regulatory policy and contributed to the creation of the £10 million Regulators’ Pioneer Fund and the Regulatory Horizons Council in the UK. We also worked closely with the Solicitor’s Regulatory Authority, helped the Canadian Government to create a new Centre for Regulatory Innovation, and informed the Finnish Government’s policy approach on regulation and innovation. Anticipatory regulation and innovation-friendly regulation are now an established part of the lexicon of the field.
Nesta helped to train more than 370 staff from the United Nations Development Programme in 72 countries on collective intelligence design, as well as establishing partnerships with three co-funder organisations (Wellcome Trust, Cloudera Foundation, and Omidyar Network) to launch the largest collective intelligence fund to date. By launching a new journal on the field of collective intelligence with SAGE and the Association for Computing Machinery, we hope our interventions will support the creation of knowledge in the discipline over many years to come.
In 2018, Nesta published a horizon scan commissioned by Arts Council England as part of its consultation for their new ten-year strategy to 2030. Designed to be an accessible primer for arts and cultural organisations navigating an uncertain future, it explored trends and innovative practice in audience participation, sector workforce and skills, business models and new technologies. We invited a number of leading experts and practitioners in the field to respond to the findings with provocations of their own.
In 2018 and 2019 the Explorations team worked with colleagues in the Education team to map out the future role of AI in education. This work culminated in Educ-AI-tion Rebooted, a report exploring the future of artificial intelligence in schools and colleges, and charting a path for the future that maximises the benefits and minimises the risks. The research helped to pave the way for Nesta to build a new career tech partnership with the Department of Education, was profiled at the SxSW technology festival and has been cited by organisations such as UNESCO, the Independent, the Guardian and the Institute for Ethical AI in Education.
In 2019 we published Foundation Horizon Scan: Taking the long view, bringing together insights from foundations and grant-giving organisations across the world to explore the future of the sector. From a broad literature review and interviews with 25 international leaders in the field, we isolated signals of change and highlighted the challenges these organisations will face over the next decade in order to maintain their legitimacy and impact.
Our Crowd Predictions partnership with BBC Future engaged more than 7,500 people in the practice of forecasting worldwide, while the impact of our work on the future of the internet can be seen through our influence of public discourse and funding policy at the pan-European level. Our Finding ctrl collection, which brings together visions for the future of the internet, has over 150,000 views to date and the collection was featured on the BBC Today Programme and in the Financial Times.
The Next Generation Internet project as a whole has directly influenced the European Commission and helped steer the creation of five €10 million R&D funds, focused on interoperability, collective intelligence, online identity, decentralisation and infrastructure resilience, further solidifying these topics as key building blocks for the future.
Tipping Point: Which technologies will change our lives in the next decade?
Dive into this collection on breakthrough ideas from the nine Tipping Point prize finalists.
Our own in-house experiments have taught us a great deal about the organisational challenges of fostering a culture of innovation internally - specifically the need among staff for targeted support in order to take creative risks whilst still meeting the demands of their day-to-day jobs. We will be continuing to evolve our thinking on employee innovation practices at Nesta, learning from others as we do so.
We’ve seen first hand that we need to challenge ourselves and others to ‘get out of the ivory tower’ more often and bring the future to life. Abstract debates about future scenarios feel too removed from people’s everyday lives, but if they can touch or see the possibilities (or even get involved in forecasting themselves), they are more likely to feel invested. So, for example, games, art installations, participatory theatre and tech demos can all be good ways to start different kinds of conversations, which are more inclusive of non-experts.
The shocks following in the wake of COVID-19 are exposing profound underlying economic and social inequalities, so when we do begin to rebuild we will need spaces for public dialogue about deep systemic change. I hope that the tools, resources and insights Nesta has created can assist others in scaffolding those debates about how we want our future to look.Celia Hannon, Director, Explorations, Nesta
In a time of great insecurity and uncertainty it is more vital than ever to give people a feeling of agency when it comes to shaping the future. However, the political drivers of the moment are inevitably centred around short-term crisis management, whilst COVID-19 restrictions mean that public engagement is even more difficult to do on a practical level. When policymakers and community leaders are eventually able to look further ahead we hope that they will be able to draw on our resources on Participatory Futures to find ways to create a collective vision for recovery.
In future we also hope to see more partners joining our efforts to build the field of collective intelligence. A range of interventions will be needed to maximise the potential of collective intelligence for public good: academic institutions will need to set up dedicated research programmes; we will need to see more collaboration between disciplines; and investors will need to launch large-scale funding opportunities for collective intelligence R&D with an explicit focus on social impact.