Our strategy focuses on three innovation missions.

A fairer start

Our mission is to narrow the outcome gap between children growing up in disadvantage and the national average.

Mother and baby laughing and playing

Our goal is that, by 2030, the UK will have eliminated the school readiness gap between those born into deprivation and their peers, with similar gains at age 16 among students receiving free school meals.

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. Taken together, the early years (ages 0–5) and secondary school period (ages 11–16) account for the development of 80 per cent of this divergence in life outcomes.

We know that investing in early childhood can vastly improve outcomes for our poorest children. Yet progress to narrow the gap in early years has stalled, with trends once again worsening, and made even more stark by COVID-19. Fragmented service delivery, the distributed nature of national early childhood policy, an overstretched early years workforce and lack of support for parents all combine to leave many children without the resources they need in their early years.

Our programmatic focus: Early childhood

From the moment of conception, the life trajectories of children in richer and poorer families begin to diverge. Some of this has its roots in physiological development. Our brains and bodies are built and refined in the womb and first years of life, meaning maternal health, diet and early nutrition play a considerable role in our development.

The context of the home environment also exerts a great deal of influence. Financial difficulties, strained relationships and poor or unstable housing can all prevent parents and carers from giving their child the best possible start, and forming the strong early attachments that are so critical in infant development. Indeed, socio-economic and environmental factors can explain much of the gap between children from richer and poorer families during the early years.

Children and families also need access to high-quality childcare to thrive. The UK has a chronic shortage of early years practitioners, access to high-quality childcare is often dictated by where someone lives, and even where supply is good, poorer families are much less likely to take up these options.

These problems are surmountable. While the evidence is not perfect, we broadly know what drives improved outcomes for lower-income families and why. Innovation can play a critical role in turning this knowledge into action. Data-driven labour market advice could help drive more applicants to early childhood training and jobs. More deliberate design of the services delivered in pregnancy and the first year of life could deliver enormous benefits by building up parenting skills and agency from the beginning. Experimenting with different models of data sharing, or different ways to support parents to navigate services, could help improve take-up of government support. Together with partners who are experts in policy design, service delivery and have deep expertise in early childhood development, Nesta can accelerate the pace of change by overcoming barriers to progress, and resolving empirically any uncertainties that might be causing delays.

Additional focus: Secondary education

In secondary schools, our challenge is to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children and those disproportionately affected by COVID-19 school closures. We will form partnerships with groups of schools – combining their expertise with our own in data science, behavioural science, technology design and evaluation – to identify and grow practice that supports those children who need it most. We will continue our work supporting the effective use of EdTech platforms, helping to ensure they meet the needs of children and teachers.

A healthy life

Our mission is to increase the average number of healthy years lived in the UK, while narrowing health inequalities.

Our goal is to halve the prevalence of obesity by 2030. This would increase healthy life expectancy by an average of nearly two years for around ten million people in the UK, while narrowing health inequalities between the richest and poorest in society.

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. This gap is socially determined: the conditions in which people live and the opportunities available to them shape the extent to which they can be healthy. Related negative outcomes such as loneliness and high blood pressure contribute to the greatest loss of healthy life. Obesity, which affects 35 million adults in the UK, and loneliness, which affects 9 million people, account for a disproportionate risk to healthy life across the UK.

Our programmatic focus: Tackling food environments

Relatively small changes to diets can make a big difference to health outcomes. On average, adults eat 195 calories more than they need each day, the equivalent of a packet of crisps. For those who are overweight, this increases to 320 excess calories. By reducing daily calorie consumption by an average of 250 calories over a 5 year period, our projections indicate that 50 per cent of adults who are obese and 16 per cent of those who are overweight would move into a healthier weight class. This would mean around ten million people in the UK could expect to live nearly two more years in good health as a result of changes to their diets.

Many efforts to date have put too much onus on individuals without fully recognising the influence of supermarkets, restaurants and food producers on the choices we make. To effectively reduce obesity, we must make healthy eating easier, regardless of how little money or time people have, where they live or how health-conscious they are. Manufacturers must reformulate their products, retailers must actively promote healthier choices and government must ensure people have controlled portion sizes and access to healthier food. The public needs improved transparency about what they are eating and what alternatives are available.

It is possible to shift the market dynamics that mould people’s food environments. While the Soft Drinks Industry Levy made certain drinks more expensive for consumers, its power was not in the direct effect it had on consumer behaviour but in the way it incentivised producers to reformulate their drinks to avoid the levy, ultimately reducing sugar consumption from sugary drinks by 35 per cent on average. Better labelling, advertising bans and further levies could exploit a similar logic – moving enough health-conscious consumers to incentivise producers to reformulate their products, and supermarkets and restaurants to promote healthier foods.

Nesta will work with others to catalyse and accelerate these changes. We can form coalitions around a five-year target of reducing daily calorie intake. Together, we can identify the barriers to achieving this target and use Nesta’s innovation methods to help overcome them. For example, we can use novel data science approaches to understand which foods and food categories would drive the highest return in terms of calories saved from reformulation. We can work directly with the public to understand perceptions of acceptability around government intervention – and what it would take to increase acceptance. We can help retailers and manufacturers experiment with portion sizes. We can collaborate with wholesalers to redesign their ordering platforms in a way that puts healthier food in shops, without compromising commercial performance.

Area of exploration: loneliness

While loneliness has gained greater traction as a public health issue – and is understood to be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day – we do not yet understand the extent to which reducing loneliness would lower the associated health burden. Our initial work aims to help grow the evidence base on how loneliness drives ill health, in order to design new solutions that most effectively nurture the relationships that sustain people.

A sustainable future

Our mission is to accelerate the decarbonisation of household activities in the UK and improve levels of productivity.

Wind farm aerial view

Our goal is that, by 2030, the UK will have reduced household carbon emissions by 28 per cent from 2019 levels, and will be on track to reach zero by 2048.

The UK urgently needs to make progress on reducing emissions if it is to meet the legally binding goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 (2045 in Scotland). At the same time, productivity in the UK is far below that of comparator countries. These challenges go hand in hand: an economy that succeeds in reducing emissions but does not protect or improve economic well-being is no more sustainable than one that is productive but fails to reduce emissions.

Our aim is to accelerate the UK’s transition to a low-carbon, productive economy by cutting UK household emissions, and to reduce skills mismatches – a major factor in lost productivity – by using data-driven approaches to give people better information about their options as they navigate the labour market.

Our programmatic focus: Reducing household emissions

Over the past decade, UK greenhouse gas emissions have fallen substantially as the UK has invested heavily in producing low-carbon electricity. In the next two decades, however, decarbonisation will mean more substantial changes for consumers. They will need to insulate their homes, move to electric cars, replace their gas boilers and help the grid by shifting electricity usage away from peak production times.

Our aim is to help rapidly accelerate the reduction of household emissions by 2030, and to ensure that policies and conditions are in place to support continued reduction from 2030 onwards. To achieve a 28 per cent cut in household emissions over the next decade, we need to save some 19 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (MtCO2e) per year by 2030, compared with 2019. Among other measures, this will require at least 5 million households to switch to low-carbon heating solutions, and over 10 million to install cavity wall, solid wall or floor insulation.

Nesta will explore many avenues to support this transition. We will look at increasing consumer take-up of low-carbon heating solutions, for example by using data science to identify households with a higher likelihood of adopting low-carbon heating, and by mobilising ‘social referents’ such as heat installers who may be the most credible group to influence levels of take-up. We will work with energy companies to test different business models that generate revenue by helping consumers reduce or shift their energy consumption. We will help de-risk policy changes by testing the viability of new regulatory frameworks, or by using online and field experiments to test the potential benefits of financial incentives to change behaviours.

Area of exploration: Productivity

Since 2008, productivity growth in the UK has been slow, with knock-on effects for household incomes and economic inequality. People may resist climate action if they feel a green economy is leaving them behind. As we look to decarbonise the economy, we need to make sure it is productive and delivers a good standard of living for all.

Low productivity sectors like accommodation and food have been particularly hard-hit by COVID-19. Our work will build on Nesta’s Rapid Recovery Challenge Prize and Open Jobs Data tools to support those who have lost work to find roles that use their skills and talents, and to retrain where appropriate. As well as supporting economic recovery, this work aims to tackle skills mismatches, one of the long-term problems behind poor UK productivity growth. OECD modelling suggests UK labour productivity could increase by 5 per cent if skills mismatches were lowered to ‘best practice’ levels.

Through Nesta’s Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre we will continue to support the creative industries as a productive and growing part of the UK economy. The Innovation Growth Lab will continue to work with partners in the UK and internationally to build a rigorous evidence base for interventions and policies that address productivity.