About Nesta

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.

Edinburgh Tool Library team

Edinburgh Tool Library (ETL) lends tools and brings people together to learn new skills. ETL was supported through ShareLab Scotland in 2018.

Governments and public sector organisations are facing complex challenges in the face of rising expectations, shrinking budgets and an increasingly fragile trust in political systems.

For the past 10 years, Nesta has helped governments and communities to reimagine public services and improve outcomes for people.

Our focus

Between 2017 and 2020, our work was guided by three key principles.

  • Smarter use of data and technology
    We believe smarter use of data and technology will help to reform public services, improve citizen engagement and deliver social impact at scale.
  • Engaging the skills and time of citizens
    We believe in ‘people power’: plugging the power of citizens back into places, institutions, services and democracies.
  • Innovation tools for public servants
    Governments need innovators within the system if we are going to be fit for the future and improve the lives of citizens.

Nesta's story in government innovation

We’ve been working in the field of government innovation since 2010, when we published the first public sector prototyping manual in partnership with ThinkPublic. It provided a framework for public servants to take concepts from commercial design and apply them to new public services design. The same year, we created the Public Services Lab, an internal lab with a mix of former public servants, grant makers and designers, which focused on finding new solutions to public services challenges.

Smarter use of data and technology

In 2014 we began working on D-CENT, a Europe-wide project to create digital tools for direct democracy and economic empowerment. With funding from the EU, and in partnership with citizen-led organisations from Spain, Finland and Iceland, we developed a set of open source, distributed and privacy-aware tools that promote meaningful political participation in the digital age.

In 2017, building on our work on D-CENT, we began experiments with digital democracy through DECODE - a consortium of 14 partners from across Europe. In response to the loss of control people have over their personal data on the internet, we began developing and testing new tools to give people back that control. We also started work on anticipatory regulation - helping regulators cope with the increasing pace of change in technology. 

Anticipatory regulation illustration - innovation methods

In 2016, we helped the Greater London Authority to establish the first Office of Data Analytics in the UK. Since then, 12 Offices of Data Analytics have been established in local councils around England, and many more are being considered by other cities and regions. We also founded the Alliance for Useful Evidence, a network that champions the smarter use of evidence in social policy and practice. More than 3,000 public sector workers have signed up as members.

At the same time, we expanded our work with devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland. In 2015 we founded Y Lab, a £4 million partnership with Cardiff University. Y Lab issued the first public sector repayable finance loans, combining grants, support and loan funding to drive public services innovation in Wales. We also created the Innovation Growth Lab, making use of randomised control trials to improve the evidence base around innovation, entrepreneurship and business growth support programmes in Europe.

In 2019, we re-established a dedicated team in Scotland to explore the potential of data and digital technologies to help tackle some of the biggest social challenges. Nesta in Scotland's ShareLab Scotland and AI for Good programmes, and research projects into Scottish attitudes to innovation and technology, have helped to forge relationships with local partners in Scotland who develop innovative and effective approaches to social issues.

Explore our interactive timeline

Nesta's work in government and community innovation

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Engaging the skills and time of citizens

In 2013, we founded The Centre for Social Action, aiming to grow the impact and reach of people-powered innovations inside, and alongside, public services. Over the course of seven years, with a £25 million partnership with the Cabinet Office and Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport, we have supported more than 100 innovations. As a result of these innovations, more than 650,000 beneficiaries have been supported by 100,000 volunteers who gave their time alongside public services to improve outcomes like reducing loneliness, and improving student exam grades.

Organisations that we’ve supported to grow dramatically through the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund, each with different routes to scale, include: 

  • Code Club, which has taught tens of thousands of children to code, growing from 100 schools to a third of all primary schools after we helped it merge with The Raspberry Pi Foundation, a large charity with existing infrastructure.
  • GoodSAM, a technology platform which alerts hundreds of thousands of trained responders to life-threatening emergencies close by and has saved the lives of many. It grew with our support from a standalone app to an integrated part of ambulance dispatch systems saving hundreds of lives.
  • VIY, which works with tradespeople to teach young people skills through fixing up community buildings. This organisation grew to engage thousands of young volunteers (85 per cent of whom had not volunteered before) supported by over 1,000 volunteer tradespeople through a partnership with DIY supplier Wickes.
  • Grandparents Plus, which supports relatives and friends who step in to raise children whose parents can no longer look after them. We helped them scale their Kinship Connected programme to support kinship carers through one-to-one and peer-led support groups. There was a statistically significant increase in kinship carers’ mental well-being from being involved in Kinship Connected.
  • Shared Lives Plus, which places older adults with additional needs with ‘foster families’ instead of in residential care. We supported them to grow and scale nationally by investing upfront in its operational infrastructure, creating senior posts ahead of need.
Grandparents plus

Grandparents Plus supports relatives and friends who step in to raise children whose parents can no longer look after them.

In 2014 we founded Nesta Challenges, a programme which uses challenge prizes to deliver societal change. Prizes incentivise new ideas and support and cultivate innovators by providing funding, expertise, profile-raising, investment and networks. Among our prizes is the Longitude Prize, which has seen 80 teams around the world race to create an affordable, accurate, fast and easy-to-use test for bacterial infections to fight anti-microbial resistance.

In 2016 we launched ShareLab, a project aiming to grow evidence and understanding of how collaborative digital platforms can deliver social impact. We supported eight early-stage organisations to develop and apply collaborative digital platforms to tackle real world challenges like a breastmilk donation site, or a tool library so a community needs to only own one hedge trimmer or drill. 

In 2018, we founded the Centre for Collective Intelligence Design. Collective intelligence combines insights from crowds of people with the best of digital technologies like artificial intelligence and big data. Our Centre uses these techniques to develop innovative solutions to social challenges, and these solutions have been adopted by teams from the United Nations Development Programme, among others, to make faster progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.

A drone transporting medical supplies

Our Flying High programme worked with five UK cities to shape the future of drones in their communities and create systems that use drone technology for good.

Innovation tools for public servants

In 2012, we launched our Creative Councils programme to help local government innovators across England and Wales develop radical solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing their communities. It began as an open call for ideas in 2011, which attracted 137 applications covering a huge range of issues. We selected 17 councils with the most promising ideas, and helped them iterate their proposals, then selected five to receive implementation support. The programme was heralded as a game-changing new way of councils leading change.

In 2019 we built upon this legacy, launching the Upstream Collaborative - a learning network which supported 20 local authorities who were moving their efforts ‘upstream’ and focusing on prevention and sharing power with citizens. The new operating models they created became especially relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic, as governments moved fast to grant communities the agency to support one another.

There's been a massive shift in how local authorities and health trusts, Public Health England and NHS England, talk about citizens determining their own destiny, communities being in the lead, people having agency and autonomy. That situation has arisen in part because Nesta has been campaigning for people power, not just professionals making decisions about other people's lives.

Vicki Sellick, Chief Partnerships Officer, Nesta

In 2014, we provided investment to spin the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) out of government. The organisation was founded in 2010 to investigate the use of simple changes to tackle major policy problems. Our investment allowed BIT to set up independently from the UK Government, and it now works with governments across the world.

In 2019, we established States of Change - an international training course and network for public sector innovators, with faculty experts from across the world. In the first programme, 200 senior civil servants attended a nine-month course on the key components that help to build innovation capacity and create culture change over time. We also launched the Democracy Pioneers Award, recognising 19 projects working in new ways to revitalise democracy and civic participation.

Finally, in 2020, Nesta in Scotland launched the AI for Good programme supporting seven innovative projects that champion the use of artificial intelligence to solve social issues. Our work aims to demystify the technology and open up the public discourse around positive, ethical uses of AI that can help to change lives for the better.

When we began our Office of Data Analytics programme in 2016, none existed in the UK. Following Nesta’s pilot in 2016–17, London established the London Office of Technology and Innovation, and the City Data Analytics Programme. Our pilot in Essex has supported the creation of the Essex Centre for Data Analytics and nine other councils have now replicated the model. The work is covered in-depth in our 2018 State of Offices of Data Analytics in the UK report.

Through our investments of more than £20 million in anticipatory regulation, Nesta supports trials, sandboxes and experiments to test novel ideas in new regulatory frameworks. Flying High is a trial to demonstrate that drones can be used safely in cities and can save the public sector £1 billion. Following a research and city engagement phase, the programme is now focused on developing innovation challenges, urban demonstrators and stakeholder and public engagement.

Full Fact, one of the 19 Democracy Pioneers, is a team of independent fact-checkers and campaigners who find, expose and counter the harm that bad information does to lives and to our democracy. Full Fact holds politicians and the media accountable for false and misleading claims, and has partnered with Camden Council to spread accurate health information on COVID-19 among the most vulnerable people. With a community of 200 fact checkers worldwide, Full Fact has published more than 50,000 fact checks since its inception. It has used its technology to detect well over 500,000 claims made about COVID-19 this year in the UK media alone.

Our impact


members have signed up to join the Alliance for Useful Evidence.


volunteers mobilised through our Social Action Innovation funds between 2013 and 2020.

In total, across our Social Action Innovation funds between 2013 and 2020, we mobilised 100,000 volunteers who helped almost 670,000 people. That’s in addition to the many organisations we’ve supported doing amazing work around the country, such as Code Club, GoodSAM, VIY, Grandparents Plus, and Compassionate Neighbours

The Behavioural Insights Team grew from a seven-person team embedded within the UK Government to a social-purpose company with offices around the world. Applied, a recruitment software business which uses behavioural science to eliminate bias, was also spun out of the Behavioural Insights Team in 2016.

Another important Nesta spin-off was States of Change, which coaches groups of civil servants through innovation projects, into an independent non-profit. The organisation has delivered four intensive six-month learning programmes in the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and trained and advised the Asian Development Bank and the Sri Lankan, Portuguese and Serbian governments on establishing innovation and policy labs. States of Change has a 100 per cent approval rating for ‘would you recommend us to a friend’ from course participants. We also trained thousands of civil servants through the Alliance for Useful Evidence.

Our Second Half Fund supported Compassionate Neighbours, a social movement where trained neighbours offer friendship and a listening ear to people living in their community. The project, which was founded by St Joseph’s Hospice in 2014, helps to reduce loneliness and social isolation for people that are near the end of their life. Over two years from 2017, the programme was adopted by eight hospices across London and nearby counties.

In partnership with Welsh Government and Cardiff University, our Innovate to Save programme supported 15 great ideas to improve public services and generate savings with distributed grant funding, non-financial support and £2 million of interest-free loans. These loans are projected to generate £32 million in savings over five years, with a return of investment of more than £25 for every £1 of loan finance. Using the learnings from the programme, Y Lab published a guide on Repayable Finance for Innovation in Public Services.

Our ‘People Power’ narrative is now in widespread use within local councils across the UK. For example, Wigan Council (a member of our Creative Councils programme) created a new economic model for social care in which they meet service and financial challenges by harnessing the local community through volunteering and the development of micro-enterprises.

Other funding bodies have adopted our move from simple grant funding with quarterly monitoring, towards a model of financial support accompanied by intensive support from a skilled team of scaling experts who might also offer coaching for the founder, or sit on the charity board.

Our Standards of Evidence remains one of the most popular pages on our website. This influential document was developed and published in 2013 as a prompt for linking grant and investment decisions to our confidence in the evidence of impact behind a new social venture or enterprise.

Welcome to ShareTown! Visit our imaginary town which explores how citizens, technology and local government can work together, better.

Visit ShareTown

What we learned

We have found that governments are slow to embed promising new solutions widely, and especially to decommission less effective interventions. Much of our work in the last 10 years has been to increase the supply of innovation inside and alongside government, especially those with national scale and reach. This has been effective, but in retrospect we should have spent as much effort on increasing the demand for innovation from public servants. Nesta’s new strategy seeks to embed this learning, working with institutional partners from the beginning to embed innovation in systems. 

In our more recent projects, like States of Change and the Upstream Collaborative, we’ve been making a concerted effort to be more collaborative, work in partnership and share credit as much as possible. We’ve found that our messages are more effective when we’re one of many organisations saying similar things, rather than claiming to be the sole originators of an idea.

I hope that the heritage of our work, both in terms of what we've learnt about what works and also the depths of our relationships, can be a springboard for real impactful work with local government partners as we pursue a mission of reducing health inequalities and equalising life chances for under fives.

Vicki Sellick, Chief Partnerships Officer, Nesta

As we’ve tried to make decisions on how to award funding based on evidence, we’ve found that many organisations don’t have the knowledge or capacity to produce the strength of evidence we’ve required - like randomised controlled trials, for example. We’ve therefore become less prescriptive about evidence requirements for funding and rather put our efforts into ensuring all grant recipients are improving their evidence of impact and evidence-building capacity, whatever their starting position.

Through our Creative Councils project, we learned a huge amount about what it takes to be a brilliant local government innovator and shared the top ten lessons in our report, Call for Action: Ten Lessons for Local Authority Innovators. Among the key learnings were that innovation is as much about asking questions as finding solutions, that decommissioning existing services is an essential part of creating new, different, better solutions, and that the real innovation challenge is not about having ideas, but turning those ideas into action.

The future

In the coming years, we’d like to see better distribution of power from governments to communities, where open, people-powered public services are the norm. Our recent People Power and Upstream Collaborative publications both argue for this.

Our work with States of Change and the Alliance For Useful Evidence has shown the value of better training for public servants in innovation methods, and we’d like to see governments around the world take this idea more seriously.

We also believe there is a role to be played by new finance models for public services improvement - convertible grants, repayable loans, challenge prizes, matched crowdfunding and more, as we set out in our 2018 Practice Guide on Funding Innovation. Governments tend to underuse these financial instruments to bring innovation to life in comparison with grants or commercial investments and we hope our demonstrators mean that will change in the coming years. 

Finally, we’d like to see a real democratic renewal in the UK. This can be done through ‘everyday acts of democracy’, as well as improved access to high-quality news and information. We hope that other funders, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government will take up these challenges.