In December 2019 I stood on a roof at Southampton General Hospital as we staged a drone delivery of medical equipment to show the possibilities of innovation to save lives. Last week, the NHS was trialling real-world drone flights between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight to deliver chemotherapy drugs. In a few short years, a concept that existed in research, animations and PR stunts is now a life-changing reality.
“Innovation” is a bit of a buzzword; it’s flung around so often that its meaning risks becoming diluted. True innovation transforms the way we live. Sometimes it can be a Big Bang moment – the launch of the iPhone for example. More often, it’s a slower burn.
We’ve all seen concept drawings of the next big thing, only for the promise of immediate technological revolution to fizzle (flying taxis, hyperloops, self-driving cars). The reality is most innovation is incremental and iterative – it makes its way slowly into our lives and we adapt to it with little fanfare. Look at the semi-autonomous technology in a new car, think about the digital connectivity involved in ordering a takeaway or a cab, or the steady advances in renewables powering our homes.
The NHS drone news is a stellar example of innovation for social good. And it’s not just medical deliveries between hospitals that could benefit from drones. Drones could become a frequent part of paramedic response, delivering specialist equipment or blood to an accident scene. The fire service could dispatch drones to assess a blaze while the crew and fire engine are en route.
Drones could be used to prevent accidents too – to scan railways, bridges and roads, and identify dangerous defects more precisely and earlier than intermittent human inspection can achieve.
Innovation can move quickly… We need to incentivise it to solve the great challenges we face
In 2019, we produced the Flying High report to look in detail at the role drones could play in making a difference to society. In the short time since, the concepts explored have moved swiftly to become reality.
Innovation can move quickly, and it can change the world, whether it lands with great fanfare, or quietly improves the way we live. We need to incentivise it to solve the great challenges we face.
Challenge prizes are proving themselves to be highly effective in doing just that. They incentivise innovators from multiple disciplines to apply their genius and solve problems, sometimes in the most unexpected ways. It’s not just in healthcare where they’re having an impact – but also in achieving net zero, protecting the environment, and building more resilient communities.
The XPRIZE Rainforest is encouraging innovators to use autonomous technology to map and catalogue rainforests in greater detail than ever before – this could help preserve biodiversity, tackle climate change, and even identify new plant species to be used in modern medicine. While the XPRIZE Carbon Removal – funded by Elon Musk – is incentivising new carbon capture technology.
Above: Afri-Plastics Challenge finalist, Chanja Datti, which turns plastic into currency by converting collected recyclable waste from various sources, then sorts and bails it to sell on to manufacturers (credit: Chanja Datti, Nigeria)
The Afri-Plastics Challenge is supporting African entrepreneurs to scale cutting-edge innovation to prevent plastic making its way to the ocean. Finalists include a company making biodegradable bio-plastics from invasive weeds growing in Lake Victoria, a company converting plastic trash into affordable cooking gas, and a diapers-on-demand service in Rwanda that means parents can use sustainable, washable cloth nappies instead of plastic-based equivalents.
The gap between concept and reality is narrowing constantly
Thanks to the Ofwat Innovation Fund, water companies in England and Wales are developing technologies to turn sewage into a source of green hydrogen, exploring how to turn industry CO2 emissions into useful products like pharmaceuticals and paint, and how to use specially cultivated bacteria to remove agricultural pollution from waterways, turning it into fertiliser to grow food.
The Longitude Prize on AMR is incentivising a new generation of diagnostic tests to tackle superbugs by improving stewardship of antibiotics. And a new Longitude Prize on Dementia will launch in September to incentivise technologies that use artificial intelligence to help people living with dementia stay in their own homes longer by bridging cognitive gaps that develop as the condition progresses.
There may not be a Big Bang moment for any of the innovations incentivised by these prizes, but we live in a time when the gap between concept and reality is narrowing constantly. Slowly but surely, we will welcome new technologies into our lives. In a decade we may well be using plant-based bioplastics as standard, painting our houses with carbon-captured paint, while elderly neighbours with dementia enjoy fulfilling lives thanks to AI technologies, as drones fly overhead with life-saving drugs and equipment.
It’s not pie-in-the-sky thinking. When I stood on the Southampton General roof just three years ago, we’d created a convincing mock-up out of a well-researched concept to show the possibilities of innovation for social good. Now NHS cancer patients are receiving lifesaving drugs via drone. Innovation is extraordinary. Perhaps the word itself has become diluted in recent years, but one thing is for sure, we need more of it.
- Kathy Nothstine is the head of future cities at Challenge Works (formerly called Nesta Challenges), where she focuses on place-based innovation.
Top image: mocked-up medical drone deliveries at Southampton General Hospital, pictured in 2019 (photo courtesy of Challenge Works)
Thanks for reading Pioneers Post. As an entrepreneur or investor yourself, you’ll know that producing quality work doesn’t come free. We rely on our subscribers to sustain our journalism – so if you think it’s worth having an independent, specialist media platform that covers social enterprise stories, please consider subscribing. You’ll also be buying social: Pioneers Post is a social enterprise itself, reinvesting all our profits into helping you do good business, better.