#11, March 2022
Could experimentation on the social R&D front be a game-changer for the future?
In the collective imagination, experimentation occupies a universe of test tubes and white coats, a milieu of technical and scientific expertise, of trial and error in a closed laboratory. The testing of ideas is not exclusively reserved for the pure and applied sciences, however, and laboratories are not always closed rooms in research centers. Even if existing societal structures favour experimentation in fields such as medicine, finance, or engineering, it is equally imperative to establish mechanisms for systematic experimentation in the social, political, and cultural spheres.
For Geoff Mulgan, Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation at University College London (UCL) and former Chief Executive of Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation, it is high time to collectively invest in a well-structured system for social R&D experimentation. This requires a culture of social experimentation that is as coherent, institutionalized, and embedded in our practices as what we take for granted in pure and applied science today.
Raccords: Funding and investing in social R&D and experimentation are a given in science and business. Why is experimentation culture so uncommon beyond the walls of laboratories and corporations?
Geoff Mulgan: Human beings are always innovating; they are always trying to solve problems. What changed a hundred to a hundred and fifty years ago, was that science – and then later medicine – became much more systematic in its approach to experimentation. Today, countries now spend several percent of their GDP on research and development. Yet funding for social R&D remains minuscule compared to funding for artificial intelligence, aerospace, or, for that matter, designing missiles.
One of the great challenges in the next few decades, I believe, will be whether we can build systems for our social needs that are as effective at innovation and experimentation as those we turn to—and take for granted—to develop new pharmaceutical drugs or vaccines. Our society has pressing challenges to deal with, including mental health and well-being, homelessness, a growing elderly population, and climate change. These challenges ask that we change our lifestyles in a sustainable way. To do that, we must experiment for positive social and environmental impact as systematically, coherently, and willingly as we do now for medicine or engineering R&D.
Raccords: You raise a crucial question: How can we shift the balance of funding towards social R&D experimentation that will produce game-changing solutions to the complex social, economic, and environmental problems we’re facing today?
Geoff: In scientific R&D, the significant shift came when governments decided it was worth spending taxpayers’ money on research, labs, and universities. Today, as a result, one to two percent of GDP typically comes from the public sector, with massive amounts spent in countries like the USA and China. We have also seen major commitments from the business sector from firms like DuPont and General Electric, and more recently Google and Facebook. These companies realize that their survival depends on investment in R&D.
We need a similar shift in the social field by having governments provide the fundamental—in other words, high-risk— funding for social R&D, which they don’t do now. On top of that, we need to encourage business investment in social R&D, which is usually focused more on the D than on fundamental research. After all, the social sphere is the largest sector of our modern economy! Health, for example, represents well over 10 percent of GDP in the UK, whereas education represents close to eight percent in most countries.
Of course, philanthropy has a significant role to play, just as it did in the development of vaccines. Much of public health on the international scale is helped dramatically by foundations. We need them to be much more engaged in social R&D because their money is “free.” In other words, they aren’t accountable to voters, to investors, or the stock market. Philanthropy should be willing to take the lead on the long-term, high-risk aspects of social change, followed by governments. Capital markets and businesses come behind them in the lower-risk parts of the picture.
Raccords: Could a partnership of philanthropy, business, and public funding be a model for shifting that culture and increasing investment in social R&D and experimentation?
Geoff: Let’s look at potential avenues for shifting the culture on experimentation and social R&D. Take mental health, which increasingly commands attention around the world. What can a governmental agency do to better support the 20 to 30 percent of its population that may be struggling with issues of depression, anxiety, or isolation, rather than just the one percent of its population that actually benefits from intensive health-system support? The required shift to reach that objective is massive! Of course, the public sector has a vital role in funding not only institutions but also the mechanics behind delivering services. The business sector also has a crucial role, because it interacts with employees daily, especially in the pandemic and post-pandemic context. Businesses must commit to the mental health of their employees—for example, by supporting Mental Health First Aiders or investing in better programs of diagnosis and support within the workplace. Philanthropy can test out new models—be they online models of support or new kinds of health coaches in communities—and gather evidence and data.
Another example is food waste, which represents approximately a third of what’s produced for our consumption. It’s a complex and multidimensional problem, and it could benefit from increased social R&D. Aligned action from governments, industries, and civil society is needed to shift consumption patterns, reduce food waste, and redirect resources to low-income families. On a city scale, you’re much more likely to achieve success if there are collective, achievable targets and a shared understanding of the problem. Food waste isn’t just the purview of the city council or the retailers! All sectors need to come together regularly to look at what is and isn’t working, what the data is showing, where the bottlenecks and blockages are. This collaborative approach is the essence of how society should function in the twenty-first century to address collective problems.
I mention mental health and food waste because they’re both new problems that have yet to be addressed effectively. They cannot be solved by a single individual working on a complicated policy in a governmental planning office or an industrial lab. To resolve them requires complex systemic and iterative experimentation, because no one quite knows what the best answers will be. It’s a journey of discovery.
So to answer your question: Yes, any complex and systemic issue will involve some partnership or alignment of government, business, and civil society. Even if each has its own program to offer, what’s most important is that they be aligned to increase their collective impact.
Raccords: Every day, public-service leaders face increasingly complex and urgent problems. They must tackle issues that are often beyond their jurisdiction or scope of competence, and they must do so quickly, efficiently, and cost-effectively. How can experimentation help them address these challenges?
Geoff: There are new methods for steering systems. I’ve been working in this area recently with Scandinavian countries. Let’s say you’re trying to steer your whole country to net zero. What do you do? You can establish a shared top-down goal and hope that the entire society buys into it. You can develop a broad framework, including policies on transitioning energy systems, housing, and building regulations, that will cascade down through collaborations with provinces and cities. But that isn’t enough. We need to encourage bottom-up experimentation and social innovation with communities, businesses, and the public sector—and then make their findings visible to higher policy makers and the public. Developing an experimental mindset while pooling and systematizing data and knowledge on how whole systems adapt is key to fostering collective intelligence and driving social innovation for systemic change.
Because they’re not accustomed to working this way, both governments and civil society find this quite challenging! Take public regulation, for instance. It isn’t seen as a space for innovation, yet it should encourage innovation, or at least sensible new and innovative ideas, rather than blocking them, as it usually does. Regulators tend to see risks and problems. An experimental mindset will get regulators or public officials to ask, “What could we get rid of? What rules can we try living without for a period of time?” In fact, there is now momentum in many countries, including the UK, Scandinavia, and Singapore, for a complete transformation and transition to anticipatory regulation methods. The “sandbox” model has spread in finance to some 100 countries. It’s a structured, safe place—be it a simulated space or a real-life context with contingent rules—in which an innovator and regulators can try out a new concept together. The Regulatory Pioneers’ Fund, which we created four years ago in the UK, supports regulators who use anticipatory regulation methods to run experiments in finance, aviation, health, and law. These approaches hold great promise.
Raccords: Public innovators often face resistance when seeking the endorsements of peers, decision-makers, and the general public. It’s understandable, because the innovation process is inherently disruptive, uncertain, risky, and sometimes lengthy. What are the key steps for getting buy-in from stakeholders, and what are the winning conditions for fostering a culture of experimentation?
Geoff: An experimental culture has many layers to it, and the first one is leadership. We need leaders who are willing to support experimentation and risk. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president, he declared, “We will need to experiment. Lots of things won’t work, but that’s part of our responsibility to our society.” He was speaking during the Great Depression, when much experimentation was needed. He was reelected four times; he proved that a leader could handle the politics of experimentation in ways that feed back positively.
Beyond leadership, a percentage of public budgets needs to be set aside for experimentation and the honing of skills. Risks need to be managed, and when things aren’t working, it’s crucial to pivot quickly. Lots of experiments won’t work, and part of good leadership, I think, is knowing when to say, “Actually, let’s stop this and try something else.” The public is much more aware of experimentation than it was ten or twenty years ago. It knows that businesses improve their services by running experiments and iterating. They recognize that experimentation—the vast investment in it, the international scope of it—contributed to global mass vaccination.
My hope is that we nurture a culture that embraces a promising social- and environmental-impact idea not by imposing it unilaterally through a law, but by adopting an experimental mindset—by trying out the idea, improving it, and allowing for successful implementation across communities, all with the confidence that it will achieve what it is meant to achieve. This should be so obvious to everyone! Let’s flip the question around: If you don’t rely on social R&D and experimentation, what method are you using? Hunches? Intuition? It will soon seem absurd, I think, not to have a mature and systematic approach to experimentation.
Sir Geoff Mulgan is Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation at University College London (UCL). Between 2011 and 2019, he was Chief Executive of Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation, and from 2004 to 2011, Chief Executive of The Young Foundation. He also had roles in the UK government including director of the Government’s Strategy Unit and the Performance and Innovation Unit, and head of policy in the Prime Minister’s office. He was the first director of the think-tank Demos; and has been a reporter on BBC TV and radio.