Democratising Innovation Policy: How community organising can help build a more inclusive economy

Innovation policy has wide-ranging and profound effects on our lives. It shapes how we work, communicate, manufacture goods and wage war, as well as how we respond to global threats such as climate change and pandemics.

Yet decisions about what problems to focus on, and with what distribution of benefits and burdens, tend to be made by a small scientific and technocratic elite, with those most affected rarely involved. Previous Nesta research has found that while people think the public should have decision-making power in innovation, most believe they currently have none.

For the 2020 round of Nesta’s Everyone Makes Innovation Policy programme, which tested new ways of involving the public in innovation policy decisions, we were looking for a partner who could help promote people power in innovation policy. This search led us to Citizens UK, the leading practitioners of community organising in the UK – a method that builds power among communities to campaign and win on issues of shared concern.

We launched our partnership with Citizens UK in January 2020, supporting a professional organiser in East London and Birmingham to work with member organisations to build a citizens’ agenda around local economic and industrial policy. We also commissioned evaluations to study the process, experience and outcomes of the projects in each location.

In East London, the initial scope centred around an innovation hub, Here East, exploring the potential for more reciprocal relations between the hub and the local community. In Birmingham, meanwhile, the project built on Citizens UK’s long standing work with ethnic minority micro-businesses in deprived areas of the city, specifically supporting the development of a business leadership group.

Projects in both locations were rescoped to better meet community needs following the onset of the pandemic. In East London, the team coordinated a digital mutual aid group, calling on local power holders and businesses to help with access to devices and reliable internet. In Birmingham, we shifted to exploring how Citizens UK could help its members with regard to business support and commercial opportunities during the pandemic period.

The innovation policy prompt brought many issues and ideas to light. Community members raised and explored a wide range of topics related to innovation, including access to innovative jobs, digital exclusion, service innovation, and inclusive business support for migrant entrepreneurs.

Both projects achieved substantial wins. In East London, the digital mutual aid group secured funding from crowdsourcing and local corporations including Amazon to deliver on plans to support community members with devices and digital skills. In Birmingham, the business leaders group successfully bid for a local authority contract to create public health videos in community languages, featuring community members in familiar locations as a way of making the content more relatable to the target audience.

The community organising method enables different forms of participation than traditional public engagement activities, addressing the balance of power on a local level by recognising shared concerns, developing community members’ leadership skills, and bringing members and power holders together in collaborative as well as confrontational modes. It also creates links between decision-making institutions and communities that would otherwise be hard to form, and provides a way for communities to use their experience and knowledge to shape responses to innovation-related questions locally. The local aspect is something to stress as a key strength and as a consideration for how it might be applied in innovation policy, where decision-making remains fairly centralised.

Key findings

We identified several use cases for community organising across the innovation policy landscape:

  • Local and regional government could improve the reach and impact of place-based agendas and business support activities, develop more inclusive procurement practices, and enhance their awareness of emerging social issues and priorities.
  • University departments, research institutes and think tanks could develop research partnerships between community organisers and researchers to improve scoping, framing and impact of research and develop their roles as civic institutions.
  • Innovation developments such as hubs and science parks could improve community relationships, develop routes for local talent to access opportunities, and enhance the potential for innovation activities to support and strengthen the local business community.
  • Service design community could form mixed methods partnerships with civil society organisations to improve service delivery, as well as work together to hold government to account on delivering accessible digital services.

The evaluation reports describe and analyse in depth the process, experience and outcomes of the projects in each location, and the overview report provides a summary of findings and recommendations for how community organising can facilitate more inclusive innovation.

Read the evaluation reports


Juliet Ollard

Juliet Ollard

Juliet Ollard

Data Justice Senior Researcher, Data Analytics Practice

Juliet was a senior researcher in the Inclusive Impact unit within Nesta’s Data Analytics Practice.

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Madeleine Gabriel

Madeleine Gabriel

Madeleine Gabriel

Mission Director, sustainable future mission

Madeleine leads Nesta’s mission to create a sustainable future, which focuses on decarbonisation and economic recovery.

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