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A conversation with Laurie Smith of Nesta Investment
by Aimee Rigby/11th-Feb-2021
So today we’re here with Laurie Smith, who’s kindly joined us from Nesta, welcome to Zero Waste Kode. Would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself and the work you do with Nesta?
Yes, so my role is senior foresight lead at Nesta, where I lead the research programme for our discovery team. And the goal of the discovery team is to anticipate shifts in the external landscape, to graduate promising ideas into new programmes and practices and missions in Nesta, and to gather intelligence about cutting edge innovation. And to do this, we use a wide range of different methods such as data science, design, and ethnography. And the set of methods I specialise in is strategic foresight or futures, that uses techniques like scenarios, which are short stories about possible features, or say horizon scanning, which is identifying emerging trends and ideas. And the discovery team at Nesta is quite new in the organisation as we had recently had a strategic refresh. So, we start our work proper this year. Before being at Nesta, I worked at National Academies such as the Royal Society, on policy around topics like science innovation, emerging technologies in global and public health. And I’ve also done some comments elsewhere. So, to the Department for International Development, and to Parliament.
Laurie Smith Senior Forsight Lead at Nesta
Amazing. So, going back to sort of the basics, can you tell us, you know, what is Nesta? What does Nesta do?
So, Nesta is an innovation foundation.
We were founded just over 20 or so years ago, with an endowment from the National Lottery.
We’ve got about 250-300 staff, mainly based in London, but we’ve got some offices and individuals who are based all across the regions and nations of the UK. And as I mentioned before, it’s an exciting time for the organisation, as we’ll be launching our new strategy very soon. And as part of the strategy, we are going to focus on three missions.
The first is about equalising life chances. So, in that our vision is for every child to the fairest possible start in life, so they can thrive and realise our potential. Our second mission is about ensuring a sustainable future. So, after the shock of COVID-19 we’re going to take steps forward towards a sustainable economic recovery that will work for people and the planet.
And finally, our third mission is about helping people live healthier lives. So, the poorest people in the UK die almost a decade before their more affluent counterparts, and experienced ill health almost 20 years sooner. So, to tackle this injustice, certainly first we’re going to focus on two of the biggest drivers of lost years of healthy life; obesity caused by unhealthy food imbalance, and loneliness.
So, how can innovation be used to tackle sort of problems like that? Would you be able to give us any examples of previous work Nesta’s done?
Yes. So, one example is some work Nesta helped fund but along with others, we do lots of our work in collaboration, on our project, goodSAM, which is a mobile app and web platform that alerts trained responders such as off duty doctors, nurses, paramedics and qualified First Aiders to life threatening emergencies that are taking place close by.
Ambulance services use goodSAM to notify responders of nearby emergencies via their smartphones, allowing the volunteers to arrive quickly, often before an ambulance, in cases where every second counts, so if someone’s having a heart attack or something, and goodSAM is now integrated into 10 ambulance services across the country. And whenever a 999 call is received, a cardiac arrest, as a heart attack in these areas, the ambulance service immediately deploys both an ambulance and an alert to nearby goodSAM responders. And the system is also being used by individual alerters and responders in many countries, including Australia, India, the US, as well as other parts of Europe and South Africa. And there’s 100,000 users worldwide. And around 500 alerts triggered every day. It’s estimated that a life is saved globally every other day for those who use the app. And Nesta has been supporting goodSAM through our accelerating ideas programme in partnership with the National Lottery community fund. And of course, ultimately, nearly all problems need to be solved through innovation. Since at some point someone has to come up with a solution in the first place, and that’s an innovation. So essentially about applying an interesting idea. They might even ask what if society’s biggest problems can’t be solved through an innovation. Does that tackle your question?
Yes, definitely. So, sort of moving on from, you know, the ambulances and saving lives. Nesta has done some work in the environmental crisis. Could you tell us a little bit about a phrase you used in one of your articles called eco anxiety, and how it might impact our relationship with the environment in the future?
Yeah, so I mentioned, so listeners have heard lots of sort of worrying legitimate headlines, and about protests and calls from experts about the climate crisis. And that’s creating a sense of fear, that’s been called by some, ‘eco anxiety’ that the American Psychological Association has defined it as a chronic fear of environmental doom.
And it’s characterised by feelings of depression, grief, rage, despair, hopelessness, guilt, and shame. And just over a third of the British public repored in 2019, they felt anxious because of the environmental emergency. And some people who experienced this state are considering whether even to have children because of concerns about the future of the world that children might be born into. But rather than viewing it simply as another medical condition, which can be cured through conventional medical treatment, eco anxiety can be seen as quite a reasonable, rational response to the significant changes the world is going through. So as an alternative to medication, those experiencing eco anxiety might be advised to take action to tackle the climate emergency as a way of coping. So, by channelling anxiety into collective action, people might not only feel better, they also might be able to help start tackling some of the underlying challenges the climate crisis poses for all of humanity. And I think the number of citizens experiencing eco anxiety will probably rise and push medical professionals start prescribing social action. And the foundations have already been laid for citizens to take action with growing interest through initiatives like rewilding and climate mobilisation, or using techniques like participatory features, which allows people to try to reimagine and create the feature they want. So, an example of this is something called carbon conversations, which is psychology and understanding social context to address how people can practically reduce their carbon emissions and their distress about climate change. And all these efforts, we hope will refocus action on tackling one of the greatest challenges that that we face. So that’s an example of especially an environmentally related challenge that I’ve done a little bit of work around.
Yeah, incredible. So yeah, last year, you conducted a horizon scan about future trends in tackling the environmental crisis. Can you tell us about your findings?
Yes, so I suppose, again, I’m sure listeners have heard or be concerned about things like extreme weather events and school strikes. And this has made climate change quite a defining social and political issue. And politicians are responding. They’re talking about things like green new deals and targets for net zero carbon emissions. But one thing we wanted to flag was that technology alone won’t save us. The scale of the emergency requires us to promote a diverse set of innovations. And so social practices, business models, and technologies to facilitate changes at a systemic level that can trigger new ways of thinking and living. And social innovation and people power is vital to helping communities adapt to the consequences of climate change and move towards net zero lifestyle.
So, to help understand the role that social innovation might play, in trying to tackle the climate emergency, myself and a colleague from Natural England, which is a government agency, conducted the horizon scan to systematically gather the evidence of change to identify future trends. And we looked at all these trends and prioritised them and analysed them. And we identified three opportunities, three gaps, and one disruptor as future areas to explore. Would it be helpful if I went into those? Or do you want me to pause for a moment to explore that some more general idea?
No. Yeah, you can go into those definitely.
So, the first opportunity was about essentially relates to the idea I talked about before of eco anxiety, that’s about turning eco anxiety into collective place based Environmental Action. So rather than to treat eco anxiety like a medical condition, we try to treat it with things like antidepressants, although I wouldn’t claim to be a doctor or know about that. There are opportunities to harness that anxiety concern people have direct it towards tackling some sort of environmental challenges. That’s an opportunity we saw. A second one was imagining what green jobs might look like. There’s lots and lots of talk of green jobs. But what these jobs might be, where are the opportunities, where are the gaps, where should governments and businesses be focusing training and- there’s a particular opportunity for Nesta because it’s got lots of experience looking at the future of work, and they might be able to take some of that expertise and apply it specifically to green jobs. The third opportunity we identified was harnessing people power to detect and tackle environmental emergencies. So, for a long time, citizens have been involved in helping tackle emergencies. So, for example, St. Johns ambulance or the national lifeboat institution, and because of increasing extreme weather, because of climate change, there are more and more environmental challenges likely to happen.
So, there are opportunities to harness people power to tackle these sorts of problems, as well as the sort of conventional problems that citizens groups have looked at in the past. So, they’re the three opportunities. And then we sort of go on to our gaps. And the first gap was redesigning local systems for a net zero world. So often, we found there’s lots of focus on tackling the climate emergency at a national level, but less at a local level of local government. And the local government association recently declared a climate emergency. And so, we thought there’s a gap there for local government, what can it do, even though it only has a sort of constrained power, because it only covers of one geographical area- what can it do to help? Another gap we thought was something quite practical, and maybe even prosaic, was thinking about healthy climate friendly menus for hospitals, schools, and social care. So effectively, the state provides quite a lot of food through its public services, and other ways they can look at the menus and supply chains that provide that food to make it more environmentally friendly. And a third gap we identified was thinking ahead about the possibility of UK climate refugees. And so, our most recent example is of Fairbourne in Wales, which could be the first UK community to be entirely decommissioned and returned to the sea because of climate change. So, we thought it’d be helpful if the UK civil society and government started thinking about, well, how much we tackle climate change refugees from the UK in the future. So, we thought about it, now we can tackle the problem that shouldn’t happen in the future. And then we thought, our final areas, we talked about opportunities, and we talked about gaps, and our final area is a disrupter. And we’re sort of wondering about what can artificial intelligence and digital technologies do because on one hand, they could help tackle some of the climate crisis. So, for example, there’s some really interesting work going on about whether quantum computing could make the harbour Bosch process, which is a way of producing fertiliser, more energy efficient. Because that consumes a very, very large amount of World Energy. So, on one hand AI could be a tool to help tackle climate change. But another challenge is that increasingly, digital technologies are consuming a very large amount of energy, much of which isn’t produced in an environmentally friendly manner. And therefore, it’s both a contribution to climate change as well. We weren’t sure which way that was going to go. But we thought either way, it was likely to be important. So, that’s sort of an overview of the horizon scan we did.
Yeah, that was absolutely perfect. So, in the scan, you mentioned that green technology alone won’t save us, which you mentioned, as a green technology start-up ourselves, can you expand on this as to why?
Yeah. But I think there is an important role for technology in tackling climate change and environmental challenges. And what we’re trying to illustrate that it wasn’t technology alone, it was technology, plus other things as well. And there are three reasons we thought this, the first was that most technologies only operate successfully because of associated social and cultural norms and behaviours. So, for example, with electric cars, you might need people to charge them at home. And with recycling, it often requires people to sort out their rubbish. So, you can’t just simply plonk a technology into people’s lives and expect them to get on with it. There needs to be some changes in the way in which people live their lives for them to work properly. The second reason is, as I mentioned earlier, innovation that helps environment, doesn’t just have to be about science and technology.
So, for example, taxes on carbon emissions or new national measures of success to replace GDP, and include environmental as well as economic dimensions, social innovations that don’t really involve all that much technology but can still help. And the third reason is that technologies improve efficiency, which you’d have thought would have been greener can end up increasing consumption. And this is known as Jevons paradox. So, the classic example is coal consumption from the 18th and 19th century, which sored, increased, the introduction of James Watt steam engine, which actually used the resource more efficiently. So, they create a steam engine, but instead of just using what they were using before, but much more efficiently, they ended up just mining a lot more coal, which obviously has been a major contribution to climate change.
So, last question, how should the public be engaging with the future of the environment?
Well, I suppose one area I think would be useful. So, there are many ways in which the public can engage with the future of the environment. But one area I’ve done some work in is a topic called participatory futures, which what it seeks to do is combine an area of work called feature studies, which is thinking about the future in our thinking, really thinking massive uncertainty in a systematic and structured way, and public engagement and trying to bring those two together. And the reason we think this is important is historically, this is done with big businesses and with governments to some degree and consultancies. But much, much less of these sorts of conversations have been done with the public. And therefore, we want to make the process of features much more participatory. That’s the reason for doing it. And over the last 10-20 years or so, there’s been an explosion of really exciting ways of doing this. Rather than simply, traditionally, lots of features aren’t necessarily analytical, which is fine, that can be helpful. But you also need things that speak to people in different, slightly more emotive and exciting, innovative ways. So, using things like the arts and theatre, to engage people in conversations about the future, more visceral ways, that means something a little bit more to them. And often participatory features involve harnessing digital technology.
So, things are much, much greater scale than previous public engagement. So, a couple of examples of participatory features are… there’s an interesting exercise done a few years in the United States called ghost food, where people were invited to smell fictional foods that were lost due to climate change. So, it was like a food van that was allegedly from a future- obviously, it wasn’t. But it identified species that were in danger of climate change, and speculated what would have happened if they disappeared, and it was a food van where people could smell what the food that they might lose as a result of climate change; it’s just a much more visceral way of engaging people than simply providing them with a long, detailed report. That’s one example. Another really interesting example, I know this is quite a classic example, is something called moral machine, which wasn’t about climate change. But it was a giant exercise, I think originally set up by the American University, MIT, where they essentially explored choices people might make about driverless cars. So, citizens were given a choice of if a driverless car went rogue and should run people over- who should get run over. Should it crash, should it crash the car and kill the driver? Should it kill people by the side of the road? And what happens if those people were different? What if they’re men? What if they’re women? What if they’re old? What if they’re young? And millions of people participated in this exercise to find out what social choices people would want driverless cars to make, which could hopefully help those who are making driverless cars come up with better decisions. Because ultimately, they’re the sorts of choices driverless cars might have to face in the future. Does that make sense?
Yeah, it does. So yeah. Finally. Thank you. Thank you for all that. Where can our listeners find out more about Nesta online?
So, first off, there’s three things I’d suggest having a look at. The first is checking out Nesta’s website, which is www.nesta.org.uk. The second is your listeners might want to check out a new podcast called the mission where our CEO Ravi Gurumurthy is joined by a range of thought leaders as he explores innovation and ideas that can be applied to tackling some of society’s greatest challenges. The third opportunity is our alternative virtual setting for Nesta’s flagship event, FutureFest, which for the past four editions, has welcomed curious minds and future gazes to imagine a better, fairer and more innovative world. And both of our mission podcast and FutureFest are on the Nesta website.
Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast. That was really interesting. Thank you.
Thank you very much.