Implementing Nesta's strategy in Scotland

Scotland in 2021 faces significant challenges.

Beyond the acute health crisis caused by COVID-19 lies the social and economic fallout from the unprecedented civil response. As society rebuilds and communities recover from the pandemic, we must also face up to the long-standing social inequalities that have, in many cases, been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. Looming over all these challenges is the pressing need to respond effectively, and justly, to the climate emergency. Addressing these issues requires focus, determination and investment in tested and innovative solutions.

Exploring social innovation in Scotland

Over the last 20 years, Nesta has pioneered a range of different methods and approaches to social innovation. Most recently, our work in Scotland has focused on exploring digital and data-driven innovation. Our ShareLab Scotland and AI for Good programmes supported organisations developing innovative uses of technology to tackle a range of issues from community wellbeing to adult literacy. In partnership with Scottish Government, our Healthier Lives Data Fund and Data Dialogues programmes explored ways to better understand and use health and care data.

Nesta’s People Powered Results team has taken a collaborative, place-based and people-focused approach, working with communities, local authority staff and third sector organisations to explore local responses to COVID-19 and look at ways of improving public services.

Through research and reports such as Is Scotland Getting Innovation Right? and Shift+Ctrl: The Scottish public and the tech revolution, we’ve sought to better understand public attitudes and understanding of data and technology and explore their potential to improve lives. Most recently, we’ve undertaken the first major study into defining and mapping the scale and impact of data poverty on people in Scotland and what can be done to address it.

What’s next for Nesta?

The work that Nesta has led and supported in Scotland has played a part in shaping our understanding of effective social innovation and made important contributions to people’s lives and to how, as a society, we approach problems. But in the face of growing challenges and deepening inequalities across Scotland and the whole of the UK, Nesta is refocusing its work.

In order to have a greater impact on social issues at scale, and change more lives for the better, we will focus on three innovation missions, working in new ways and taking new roles. Each mission is a response to some of the most urgent societal challenge we face in the 21st century and which we believe innovation can play a big part in helping to address. Our new innovation missions are:

A fairer start

The circumstances of our childhood set us on a trajectory that affects the rest of our lives, with children born into disadvantage being far more likely to experience poorer health, lower earnings, a shorter life expectancy and lower levels of happiness than their peers. Our mission is to narrow the outcome gap between young children growing up in disadvantage and the national average. This mission will also explore ways to support disadvantaged children in older age groups and those disproportionately affected by COVID-19 related school closures.

A healthier life

Over the past decade, the increase in UK life expectancy has slowed dramatically and health inequalities have widened. One of the starkest truths we face is that the poorest in society die around nine years before their more affluent peers, and experience ill health almost two decades earlier. Our mission is to increase the average number of healthy years lived in the UK, while narrowing health inequalities by focusing on tackling obesity. We will also work to grow the evidence base on how loneliness drives ill health and design solutions which help nurture the relationships and connections that sustain people.

A sustainable future

The climate crisis is the most urgent and significant threat we face in society today. It is an economic challenge, a social threat and a moral imperative that we cannot ignore. Scotland urgently needs to make progress on emissions reduction if we are to meet our legally binding goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2045. At the same time, productivity across the UK is far below that of comparator countries. These challenges go hand in hand: an economy that succeeds in emissions reduction but does not protect or improve economic wellbeing is no more sustainable than one that is productive but fails to reduce emissions. Our mission is to accelerate the decarbonisation of household activities in the UK and improve levels of productivity.

Sustainability in Scotland

As we begin to implement this new strategy, Nesta in Scotland will initially focus on our sustainable future innovation mission. This year, the eyes of the planet will turn to Scotland as world leaders meet in Glasgow for COP26. The event, delayed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will put renewed focus on a global effort to tackle climate change. It is undeniable we need an urgent, innovative and equitable response to the climate emergency to protect our natural environment and to help create fair work and good jobs in sustainable industries.

We have already begun exploring potential collaborations and we believe there is huge potential to develop strong evidence-led innovation partnerships in this field. In the latter half of 2020, we worked with some of the people helping to design Scotland’s response to the climate emergency, as well as those working across industries and communities, to build a creative vision of the place we want Scotland to be in the future and how we want to live when we get there. In the coming months, we will be conducting research and scoping out solutions and ideas to help us kick start this mission.

Notwithstanding this initial focus, we will be working to advance all our mission areas here in Scotland and Nesta will be exploring partnerships and ventures that can be adapted and scaled across the nations and regions of the UK.

Nesta's new mission-driven strategy

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How we will work

Thanks to Nesta’s public endowment, we have the blended expertise and independence required to approach problems differently. Our multidisciplinary teams – of data scientists, designers and behavioural scientists; practitioners at the front lines; academic experts; and those with lived experience – will bring a wealth of knowledge to the exploration of innovative solutions to these challenges.

We will utilise our range of expertise in three ways:

  • Leveraging our independence to form long-term strategic partnerships to design, test and scale innovative solutions hand in hand with those who will use them.
  • Creating, supporting and investing in early-stage ventures to develop new solutions.
  • Influencing and shaping wider systems of policy, practice and funding to support and promote innovation.

Crucially, people and communities will remain at the very heart of our work. Citizens and frontline practitioners have a huge role to play in improving society and shaping how we meet the challenges we all face. Through all our mission work in Scotland we will work with the people, communities and organisations most affected by the issues we are tackling to help develop, design, test and implement solutions. We will also continue to harness the skills and networks of three enterprises that Nesta has incubated over the last decade. Nesta Challenges, the Innovation Growth Lab, and People Powered Results will continue working in sectors and with organisations with a broader strategic focus to support and shape the wider innovation ecosystem.

Working together

The next decade will be pivotal – for Scotland and the world. The pandemic will cast a long shadow that will test our social cohesion, exposing its fragility and its strength. Addressing the deep structural and systemic inequalities that persist in the aftermath of COVID-19 and responding effectively and decisively to the existential threat of the climate emergency will necessitate cooperative action on an unprecedented scale. That action must be both global and local.

Our strategy outlines our commitment to being part of that action. Our commitment to backing the innovators across our communities whose ideas, skills and experience will drive a collective effort. The challenges we face are great and addressing them will not be easy. But we believe that by working together – investing in bold ideas, sharing resources and being open and transparent with successes and failures – we can make a tangible difference to people’s lives and build a sustainable future that works for our communities and the planet.

If you want to speak to us about this strategy or any aspect of our work, please email the Scotland team.


Adam Lang

Adam Lang

Adam Lang

Head of Nesta Scotland

Adam led the work of Nesta in Scotland, working across missions, practices and partnerships to deliver impact against our strategic objectives in Scotland.

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