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Assessing potential social, societal and environmental impacts

Professor Palie Smart and Dr Sara Holmes (University of Bristol) and Professor Miranda Wolpert (UCL) have completed a scoping study examining criteria by which Innovate UK can assess funding priorities according to social impact. The project contributes to the commitment of Innovate UK to deliver economic and social impact through its investments. Following a review of social impact measures, the project developed a framework based on the Sustainable Development Goals to help inform the prioritisation of future funding programmes. Whereas Innovate UK has historically evaluated funding priorities based on four economic criteria, this work will inform ongoing efforts to incorporate social, societal and environmental impact into future assessments.

The framework is underpinned by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 interconnected objectives aimed at tackling global social and environmental issues. Agreed by world leaders in 2015, they are part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. All signatories to the SDGs are expected to contribute to them internationally and deliver them domestically. The project identified 6 priority SDGs for Innovate UK based on a content analysis of the most recently available Annual Report and Delivery Plan. The 6 priority SDGs are those which Innovate UK activities impact most directly and can be used as a starting point for societal impact evaluation. These are:

  • End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
  • Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
  • Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
  • Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
  • Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive & sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  • Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

The project also identified a set of societal impact evaluation criteria which could enable Innovate UK to examine the potential social, societal and environmental impacts of future programmes in greater detail. These criteria were drawn from the Impact Management Project, a multi-stakeholder initiative convened by four recognised bodies in impact investing: the Global Impact Investing Network; Global Reporting Initiative; Global Steering Group for Impact Investment; and the International Finance Organisation. This project consulted widely with stakeholders to develop a common framework which could be used and understood by organisations in all parts of the impact investment ecosystem. A summary version of the suggested evaluation criteria is below.

Categories                 Dimensions of evaluation            Evaluation criteria

Scale of impact         Numbers of people affected       Few ↔ Many

Depth of impact        Extent of societal impact           Limited ↔ Extensive

Timescale                 Time expected to take effect      Short term ↔ Long term

Societal attention     How well addressed issues are   Under-served ↔ Well-served

These components can be incorporated into a 2 stage evaluation template. The first stage involves identifying the potential applications of an innovation or technology research area and aligning these with priority SDGs. The second stage involves applying the above societal impact evaluation criteria. All SDGs have an associated set of more specific, measurable targets. Therefore the second stage of the evaluation process could consider whether the application can be related to delivering a specific SDG related target.

A potential next step would be to trial the proposed framework against a sample of emerging technologies that might receive future Innovate UK funding.