Where innovation goes next

The next big innovation won’t be in ideas — it will be in how to make people listen to them

Bea Karol Burks
Oct 19, 2019 · 4 min read

The organisation I work for, Nesta, is a charity focused on supporting social innovation. We’ve done this for the last ten years, raising the profile of great ideas and building capacity in the innovation sector. I increasingly think that innovation in the way we think about it today — new ways to deploy ideas, products and technological breakthroughs — has reached the limits of its potential (for the time being at least). More interesting to me right now than how innovation happens is the question of where it’s happening. A decade of accelerators, incubators and challenge prizes is soon to give way to a decade where the most exciting innovations will be around how organisations, people and movements get their messages across.

We’ve seen with the US election and Brexit referendum that the most critical battles today are being fought over who can control the flow of information to voters and who can best manipulate what people believe to be true or not. The idea of the ‘truth’ itself has never been so malleable. Not only must it contend with grandiose claims about immigration or NHS spending from certain politicians, truth and fact have to counter the imminent ubiquity of deep fakes, social media bots self-generating clickbait and entire towns where the fastest growing industry is manufacturing fake news. Just this week, the Oxford Internet Institute published research showing an alarming rise in state sponsored disinformation campaigns.

The upside of this perhaps is that in order to challenge small but frequent pieces of disinformation, we’re seeing a return to big ideas. Mass movements and community organising that is really well organised. People who can articulate the concerns and asks of these movements. And compelling arguments to make the case. I’m thinking Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, yes, but also Leave.eu and Breitbart. When the idea of truth itself is called into question, it doesn’t just change the rules of the game — it changes the game itself.

David Callahan, author of The Givers, offers a scorching dissection of the situation in the US, arguing that through the 2000s, while left-leaning charitable organisations were busy funding important but incremental, evidence-based programmes that worked within the framework of the current policy settlement, those on the right were funding the ideas and institutions that would completely change the nature of that very settlement. The election of President Donald Trump shows that this works.

But it’s not necessarily that the left aren’t funding big ideas — widespread trials of Universal Basic Income and zero-carbon cities are cases in point — but that they are largely failing to get their ideas across to the wider public. The problem is, the way we influence change has transformed and most established large funders in the UK are being slow to catch on to shifts happening outside the sector. We’re staring at the same field seeing the same green grass and tall trees, without realising that the landscape all around us has changed unrecognisably — and I don’t think we’re completely aware just how much.

Take for example, Extinction Rebellion’s highly organised campaign of “above ground” civil disobedience. Open communication with the police. A clear theory of change based on the idea that if enough of the general population are arrested, politicians will be forced to take note. This is not your average protest movement. It’s a lesson in how to get things done in a way that is decentralised, open and participatory. A sophisticated approach to tech and security, combined with tried and tested community organising. It’s one, very effective, way to get an issue that had fallen on deaf ears, despite the huge body of scientific evidence, back to the front and centre. XR is largely funded by individual donors, donating both large and small amounts. I’m interested to see if and how bigger institutions engage with the movement — whether that’s sanctioning staff with paid time off to protest and be arrested, or committing funding.

Our experience of the Brexit referendum with campaigns like Leave.EU (cleared of allegations of illegal funding by the National Crime Agency but still accused of faking publicity materials and a slew of other misinformation activity), the scandal around Cambridge Analytica and evidence of Russian Twitter trolls peddling the hashtag #reasonstoleaveEU are other examples of this changed landscape. We’re nowhere near piecing together the collective impact these modern, automated or highly targeted campaigning methods have. This is important because even the most seasoned systems changers risk missing parts of the puzzle if we don’t take these methods into account. People’s hearts, minds and votes are being played for in ways we’re only just starting to wise up to.

Funders and think tanks need to think about how these new ways of influencing are affecting the work we’ve always done, what we need to challenge and what we can learn from the new models taking place. We have ideas and we have evidence. But the next big innovation won’t be in ideas — it will be in how to make people listen to them.

Bea Karol Burks

Written by

Co Director for Explorations at Nesta

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