Realizing our innovative potential

In June MaRS and SiG were privileged to welcome a visit from Laura Bunt, the Public and Social Innovation Advisor at the UK’s remarkable innovation centre, NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts).

I am an avid follower of NESTA’s work since they research and publish so much excellent material relevant to the work of SiG on topics as diverse as models for investing in social enterprise, co-production, and a global survey of social innovation methods and tools. Reports are done by NESTA staff or in partnership with outside organizations such as The Young Foundation and the New Economics Foundation. The NESTA program, started in 1997, is built on the UK’s largest independent endowment.

Earlier this year Laura and colleague Michael Harris wrote a concise and insightful report entitled Mass Localism: A way to help small communities solve big social challenges, on how government can tap into the extensive capabilities of local communities to generate high impact solutions to local and global issues.  The report draws on the lessons NESTA learned from conducting their £1 million prize Big Green Challenge. The Challenge invited groups to propose ways to tackle climate change. Three hundred and fifty-five responded and, after a process of whittling down plus coaching for finalists, the prize was shared by 4 winners.

In meetings with us, and separately at a talk with the Ontario Public Service’s Community of Practice on Innovation that I was able to attend, Laura described the role of NESTA and specifically the program she is part of, The Lab, which focuses on “innovation in public services”. NESTA is an advocate of “people-powered public services”, the notion that by tapping into local capacities it is possible to expand society’s creative possibilities to generate more effective and more efficient public and social goods.

The Green Challenge was a case in point. NESTA reached out to community organizations throughout the UK for solutions to a complex societal issue and were rewarded with a range of thoughtful and implementable ideas. Laura describes that ability as “mass localism”. As she wrote in her report, “Mass
localism is about seeking distributed solutions to problems and supporting communities to implement them.  It is an alternative approach to combining local action and national scale.  Instead of assuming that the best solutions need to be determined, prescribed, driven or ‘authorized’ in some manner from the centre, policymakers should create more opportunities to develop and deliver their own solutions.”

Speaking to the OPS, Laura explained that “bottom up groups can reach into communities. They build trust and access resources in ways government can’t.” In other words, “we can galvanize change in new ways. We can support voluntary action in more sustainable ways.”

Asked how one can best promote innovative practices in government, Laura described the obstacles as being structural a well as cultural. Her experience with The Lab has been that people best learn by doing. Hence The Lab encourages people in government to run a co-design process. In the UK one interesting example of that have been the National Health Service’s regional innovation funds, which offer a very flexible process for engaging civil servants in generating and exploring innovation pathways.

A lot of Laura’s time is spent liaising with senior government officials to explain and promote the value of adopting new innovative models for how government works.  The UK has had experience with different pathways for promoting change. One has been via intrapreneurs who act as “innovation
champions”. Another has been through the vehicle of dedicated in-house units promoting innovation (seen in the departments of Education, Health and the Cabinet Office).  In the case of Education, the Innovation Unit was spun out of government as a not for profit social enterprise to give it greater latitude in promoting innovation with innovation pioneers inside Education and other organizations.

Laura reflected on the fact that innovation as an emergent field has had the benefit of a broad range of approaches of a chaotic nature. Would there be a danger, she asked, if a lot of the work became codified?  Would that propel us back to siloed approaches that point us towards “mechanisms” rather than changing systems?

Notwithstanding that caution, the “Mass Localism” report does report in depth on the five top principles the Green Challenge offered as lessons learned:

  1. Establish and promote a clear, measureable outcome
  2. Presume a community capacity to innovate
  3. In the early stages, challenge and advice is more valuable than cash
  4. Identify existing barriers to participation and then remove them
  5. Don’t reward activity, reward outcomes

Recently NESTA announced a partnership with Innocentive, a US-based open innovation centre, for a new challenge that seeks innovative solutions to increase parental involvement in young people’s
learning. This challenge falls into the Innocentive challenge category entitled Public Good & Citizens in Action.

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About Tim Draimin

Tim Draimin is the Executive Director of Social Innovation Generation (SiG)


  1. Hi all,

    Thanks again for hosting me and for fabulous and energising conversations at lunch. I had a really great trip – and it was very interesting to hear about your work and how the network is building across Ontario.

    A privilege to spend time with you.


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  1. This post was mentioned on Twitter by Linda Hutton. Linda Hutton said: RT @YSECanada: RT @sigeneration: Learning from others to help realize our innovative potential

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