Using social innovation to combat climate change

NESTA have announced the winners of the Big Green Challenge, a £1 million prize for communities in response to climate change. We report on the new innovations.

Last week the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) announced the winners of the Big Green Challenge, a £1 million challenge prize for communities in response to climate change. This marked the end of the two-year programme, which set out to test the use of smart incentives to stimulate and support communities to act on a social issue.

Inspired by technological innovation challenges such as the X-prize, NESTA designed the Big Green Challenge as a new hybrid model, combining support and recognition for entrants with small-scale financial support for finalists, alongside the incentive of the prize money itself.

The staged process allowed for a very open first stage, minimizing bureaucracy and maximising participation. The Big Green Challenge had more than 350 entries from community-based groups all across the UK.


Through workshops and one-to-one advice, ideas were stretched and refined, and the 100 most promising were taken forward. As the Challenge progressed, NESTA’s support and scrutiny became more rigorous.

Over the last year, ten Finalists have been putting their ideas to work towards a single, strategic objective – to reduce carbon emissions in their local communities.

Policymakers increasingly recognise that this kind of community participation is crucial in responding to many social challenges that drive escalating demand for our public services; tackling climate change, improving public health and supporting an ageing society requires not only action from government, but engagement and local knowledge from citizens.

Ed Miliband has argued that “local solutions to the global problem of climate change are vital if we are to make the shift to a low-carbon future”, David Cameron has extolled the virtues of the “Big Society” and the Lib Dems have advocated more local autonomy for a long time.

But despite support for more localism from across the political spectrum, central government has traditionally found this kind of genuine local engagement difficult. Existing funding processes can limit the sustainability of local projects and create dependency on short-term grants. And from a national policy perspective, there are logistical difficulties in coordinating lots of diverse, local solutions, raising concerns about national access and equity.

The principles behind NESTA’s Big Green Challenge offer a possible response to this dilemma – how to combine the development of effective local solutions with rapid impact on a national scale. Rather than assuming the best solutions come from the centre, the Big Green Challenge is a process for finding distributed answers to problems and galvanizing lots of localism against a clear, strategic objective.

NESTA’s forthcoming report on ‘mass localism’ will showcase these insights in more detail.

• To find out more visit the Big Green Challenge blog.

Our guest writer is Laura Bunt, a member of the Big Green Challenge’s policy and research team

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