How Nesta Challenges is bringing people together to solve socially relevant problems

Nesta Challenges encourages the realisation of new solutions to important challenges facing society. We do this by shining spotlights on issues, setting goals and providing incentives and support to organisations to meet those goals, all with the aim that those innovations offer a benefit to our wider society.

The idea of taking a proactive approach to stimulating innovation to benefit society is not new in itself, but is more relevant now than ever before as the effects of technological change are increasingly visible, and as innovation has risen up the government agenda.

What does socially beneficial innovation mean? 

Historically innovation has been conceived of primarily in terms of its contribution to the economy and the economic growth that leads to improved living standards. The industrial revolution showed the importance of technological and organisational innovation to the performance of economies, but it wasn’t until later that the mechanics of innovation began to be seriously investigated through the work of Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter from the 1940s onwards. In works such as ‘Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy’, Schumpeter put innovation front and centre of his conception of economic development and societal progress, notably coining the term ‘creative destruction’ to describe innovation’s effect on economic transformation, a forerunner of the now ubiquitous ‘disruption’.

Through a purely economic lens, innovation enables greater productivity amongst individuals and firms, helping to deliver better products and services more effectively to customers. In the process new jobs are created, living standards improved, and wealth generated. 

Innovation’s importance has grown in prominence over time. As advanced economies have deindustrialised, there is a reliance on using knowledge and intellectual capital as a source of growth – high tech, science-based sectors, knowledge intensive services and the creative industries. Globally, governments are setting out to foster innovation through more interventionist policies and programmes, such as the Industrial Strategy in the UK. 

Alongside the increasing importance of innovation to society as a whole, greater consideration has been given to theorising how innovation can create social, as well as economic transformation. In recent years this has been expressed through the concept of ‘social innovation’, an idea promoted notably by the Young Foundation, and indeed Nesta, through initiatives such as the Social Innovation Exchange and the European Social Innovation Competition, delivered on behalf of the European Commission. 

Social innovation is a term that doesn’t have a single definition. One broad conception is simply any new idea that creates social value – value that isn’t primarily captured by a single entity but is shared broadly across society. A related definition is that it is innovation that provides for “social” needs, for example education, housing, healthcare and employment. A social innovation could thus be addressing a particular “social” problem, such as unemployment or homelessness, or it might create benefits that can be shared across society, perhaps by being open-access, or by producing a shared good, such as cleaner air. 

However, an additional approach is that social innovations can be describe as “social” thanks to the way they have been developed and delivered, and may be innovative in this respect also. Thus social innovations often make use of tools such as crowdsourcing or open-sourcing, and collaborative business and organisational models such as co-operatives. They may provide new ways of organising socially and increasing participation to solve problems and meet social needs. 

A third way innovations can be “social” is by having the effect of deepening the “social sphere”, increasing openness and participation in society, strengthening social ties and networks –  innovation that brings society closer together.

Social innovation could refer to any one of these or a combination all three. Although commonly associated with social enterprise, social innovation is practiced by a diverse range of actors in what has been termed the “social economy”, including for profit and non-profit, governmental and non-governmental organisations. 

Challenge prizes encourage entrepreneurs and innovators to put forward ideas to solve an identified problem. Prizes run by Nesta Challenges see the best ideas supported and developed to bring them to life with the incentive of financial reward to further boost the development and realisation of the product at the end. Challenges prizes in themselves could be considered a social innovation because they bring together a community around a problem, make connections between actors and bring in new players to address a particular issue, often in innovative ways. Historically they have been targeted at problems relevant to society as a whole, such as maritime navigation, food storage and new forms of transport (especially aviation), and are increasingly used a public policy tool, particularly in Europe, Canada and the US. 

Nesta Challenges very much takes forward this tradition and we are social in our ends and our means. We work across many sectors and problem areas, but the common thread in all of our challenge prizes is that they focus on socially relevant problems, and that we continue to experiment and innovate in the way we are able to bring people together to solve them.

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