Who gets to innovate?

29th September 2023

In her new book Nuts & Bolts, Roma Agrawal points out that the electric breast pump was invented much later than we might have thought: the 90s. Her explanation for the delay is that engineering has long been male dominated. As the profession has opened up in the last few years, versions designed by women have appeared – and prioritised features that lactating parents might prefer, such as quietness. It’s yet another story showing that, in many ways, who gets to innovate determines who gets the benefits of innovation. 

But it’s not just in product innovation that this happens. It happens in services too, and perhaps most importantly of all in public services. One of the questions we’re asking organisations continually at Y Lab, whether they work in housing, care or elsewhere in public services, is: ‘Does your new idea take account of the needs and wants of the people who are going to be using it?’ 

When I read a study showing that barriers are put in the way of female civil servant’s innovations, I approached Nesta about their grant making.1 They had been supporting public service innovators, like those civil servants, with cash and advice for a decade or more. It seemed their help could be an important lever for opening up innovation to broader range of people – or, without careful attention, unintentionally shutting it down. 

They were interested in finding out if there was gender bias in the way they gave out grants, so that was the initial basis for the study I completed for them. They were also interested in where in the UK their money went. From 1998, Nesta received around £360m from the National Lottery to support science, technology and the arts. Since Lottery players tend to be poorer, there was sensitivity about it funnelling the cash into prosperous London.2 While this would be unfair, it could also generate worse innovations: a public service designed in the UK capital might not make sense in rural areas, the devolved nations or even the English regions. So, I expanded the scope of the study to include geography as well as gender. 

The data Nesta shared with me covered around £10m in grants it gave out from 2016 to 2020. That represents just under a third of the money it gave out over that time. There are two findings I’d like to highlight: first, London applicants appear to have been favoured, being significantly more likely to receive funding than applicants from elsewhere in England. They were so dominant that they crowded out the small number of applicants from other parts of the UK. Applicants in Wales did not win a single grant from the twelve funding pots whose data I saw.3 Northern Ireland got one or two (depending on which part of Nesta’s data we look at). 

The second finding is that gender did make a difference, but not where we might have feared. I did not find that grant making panels were gender biased based on the data I had. What I did see was gender coming into play in how grant programmes were structured. For example, one fund was set up to improve technology used in schools. However, the cash was given direct to tech firms, who have a largely male workforce, bypassing the largely female teachers who would use the innovations. This isn’t to say women were cut out of the process, but this structure meant they weren’t exactly in charge either. 

I’ve worked closely with Nesta for years and they always tell their grantees about the importance of listening to service users.4 But it does seem like there was a blind spot in the way they have thought about their grant programmes. User centricity is a principle we can agree on, but putting their money where their mouth is appears to have been more difficult in practice for Nesta. 

I’d offer the following advice to any organization thinking about an innovation fund. Find ways to put the people who matter in the driving seat. That likely means financial support going direct to frontline staff and service users, rather than managers and intermediaries in centralized organizations. That’s not to say the latter have nothing to contribute, but let them be invited to the table by the service users, not the other way around. If Nesta were to start grant making again, I’d recommend they ring fence funding for the UK nations, for instance, to make sure this happens. 

To organizations reviewing their grant making: look at the data you have in the round. Not just whether the decision making panel is biased, but the whole pipeline from the strategic focus of the fund to its promotion and delivery. I would have missed interesting findings about the gender and geography of applicants and grantees if I hadn’t done this. If you don’t have good data, a group of grant makers is developing data standards for equity, diversity and inclusion in grant making whose work you can follow. 

The full report can be downloaded here

Y Lab are grateful for the financial support of Nesta, without which this research project could not have been conducted. 

1 van Acker, W. et al. (2018) Illuminating the Gender Divide in Public Sector Innovation: Evidence from the Australian Public Service. Public Personnel Management. 47:2. Pp 175-194. 

2 Oakley, K. et al. (2014) The National Trust for Talent? NESTA and New Labour’s Cultural Policy. British Politics. 9:3. Pp. 297-317. 

3 Nesta ran one funding programme, with Y Lab, in this period which distributed Welsh Government funding exclusively to Wales, but this data was not shared as part of this study. 

4 It was sad to see them shift direction away from this kind of funding in the last few years, because I have seen the difference it can make alongside the support of skilled staff.