Opinion

How social innovation can fix the greatest challenges we face

'Given the size of today’s challenges - from chronic inequality and climate change to stagnant productivity - we have yet to see social innovation driving significant improvement in people’s lives at sufficient scale'

The climate crisis touches everyone, but the most disadvantaged most, writes Ravi Gurumurthy, chief executive of Nesta. Image credit: Free-Photos / Pixabay

The climate crisis touches everyone, but the most disadvantaged most, writes Ravi Gurumurthy, chief executive of Nesta. Image credit: Free-Photos / Pixabay

Over the past decade, innovation-speak has become commonplace. Trial and error, prototyping, failing fast, human-centred design and impact investing are now widely used phrases not just in corporations emulating Silicon Valley but in the public and social sectors.

Yet despite all the new products, services and ways of working that have emerged, the promise of social innovation – new or better solutions that deliver social good – remains unfulfilled, especially given the magnitude of the challenges we face as a society. 

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Given the size of today’s challenges – from chronic inequality and climate change to stagnant productivity – we have yet to see social innovation driving significant improvement in people’s lives at sufficient scale.

This mismatch, between the power and potential of social innovation, and the extent to how much it has transformed people’s lives so far, is what lies behind Nesta’s new 10-year strategy. 

Nesta is the UK’s innovation agency for social good. For more than two decades we have worked to support, encourage and inspire innovation that benefits society. 

The historic breadth and variety of our work has, so far, limited our ability to stick with an issue and bring the combined strength of our resources to bear. Therefore, the next chapter for Nesta is for us to focus our efforts so we can achieve social impact at a much bigger scale. From now, we will design, test and scale new solutions to three innovation missions: working to promote a fairer start, a healthy life, and a sustainable future.

Each mission is a response to a generational societal challenge, one where we believe innovation has a big part to play in driving large-scale change. Inequality and injustice are at the heart of each one.

Creating a fairer start for the UK’s most disadvantaged children simply can’t wait. It’s hard to believe that in the twenty-first century the circumstances of a child’s earliest years still shape so much of their future, but reams of evidence show that children born into poverty are far more likely to experience poorer health, lower earnings, a shorter life expectancy and lower levels of happiness than their peers.

We also know that the poorest people in the UK die around nine years before more affluent people and experience ill health almost two decades earlier. Addressing this injustice requires us to tackle the disparity between those who can access and afford healthy food and those who are forced to choose between heating their home and feeding their family.

And while the climate crisis touches everyone, we already know that it’s lower-income and other disadvantaged groups of people that contribute least to causing climate change but are likely to be most negatively affected by it. 

Our vision is to significantly improve the lives of millions through innovation, and the measure of our success will be how many people we impact and the degree of meaningful change we create. 

For this vision to be more than wishful thinking, it must be supported by resources and ingenuity that match the scale of the challenges we face.

Our new strategy will require new skills and partnerships and fresh ways of working. It will require us to be diverse in the skills and perspectives we bring together, and cut across the usual boundaries of the public, private and voluntary sectors, and the divisions between academia, industry and government.

We’re optimistic. We believe that large-scale, meaningful change is possible now more than ever before. With the country engulfed by major challenges on several fronts, ‘good’ innovation has never been more necessary and new solutions must be central to any hopes of building ourselves a fairer, healthier, more sustainable future.

Ravi Gurumurthy is chief executive of Nesta 

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