Science Practice is excited to announce that our project SoilCards has been awarded £20,000 from the Cambridge-Africa ALBORADA Research Fund. The fund was established in 2012 with a generous donation from The ALBORADA Trust UK to the Cambridge-Africa programme.

In partnership with the Cambridge-based National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) and the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), the award will support user research in Kenya this year. Our team will introduce the SoilCards prototype to farmers, extension workers, soil-testing services and agri-business dealers.


We’ll be researching a range of topics which will help us understand the farmers who will be using SoilCards and their environment, such as:

  • what are farmer’s attitudes to soil-testing?
  • what water supply is available for use with SoilCards?
  • what variety of fertilisers are available and affordable?
  • how could SoilCards be distributed?

Follow SoilCards on Twitter to stay up-to-date with news about our visit to Kenya.

In September last year a new issue of the 2+3D Design Magazine came out and inside it — we had written an article introducing the three Science Practice themes. 2+3D is the biggest design magazine in Poland. The article was titled ‘Wieloboje w projektowaniu’ which in English translates to ‘Combined Track and Field Events in Design’ — a reference to the very interdisciplinary nature of our work at Science Practice, where it is not uncommon to see designers and researchers working together with geneticists, developers, science writers, illustrators, agriculture experts, aeronautics engineers, filmmakers, policymakers, data scientists… In fact — each project we work on at Science Practice requires a unique blend of expertise.

The word spread fast and not long after the publication of the article I received an invitation from the organisers of World Usability Day WUD Silesia to talk about our work at Science Practice at their conference in December 2016 in Katowice, Poland. I always enjoy such invitations, as they are usually a nice opportunity to look back at projects from a different perspective and see how they resonate with people. And because the theme of the WUD Silesia conference was ‘Sustainable Development’, I immediately thought about our Good Problems theme.

In 2016 most of our work in the Good Problems theme was focused on problems in the humanitarian emergency sector (namely, the WASH and GBV projects). Humanitarian aid is often defined in contrast to development work. Humanitarian actions are usually seen as short-term interventions (days, weeks or months) focused on the needs of people directly affected by a crisis. While the need to integrate sustainable principles in humanitarian aid is part of a growing trend in the sector, I realised that we had another project in our portfolio that was strongly rooted in the sustainable development context – this was the Longitude Prize 2014.

Sustainability and the Longitude Prize

The Our Common Future report completed by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987 defines sustainable development as:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Central to sustainable development are two concepts:

  • the concept of needs;

  • the concept of limitations.

As we developed prototype challenges for each of the six candidate topics for the Longitude Prize 2014 (Antibiotics, Dementia, Flight, Food, Paralysis, and Water), it became increasingly apparent that most of these problems stem from our inability to sustain a technology or a service that we already enjoy into the longer future. Simply speaking — our current situation is unsustainable and unless we come up with something really good, we won’t be able to enjoy those technologies and services for much longer.

The Antibiotics candidate provides an illustrative example. Here, the problem we are facing in terms of sustainable development can be phrased in this way:

How do we keep the benefits of using antibiotics today, and not risk future generations’ right to benefit from using antibiotics in the future as well?

With this phrasing the concepts of needs and limitations can now be clearly defined:

  • our need is to be able to use antibiotics effectively;

  • future generations’ need is to be able to use antibiotics effectively in the future;

  • one limitation is that the more liberally we use antibiotics, the less effective they become (due to evolving microbial resistance);

  • another limitation is that the development of new antibiotics becomes ever more difficult and expensive, as it takes ever less time for bacteria to develop resistance to a new drug.

Longitude Prize 2014: Antibiotics - infographic

Longitude Prize 2014: Antibiotics infographic. Key things you need to know about the importance of the problem of rising antimicrobial resistance. Presented data put the needs and the limitations into a quantifiable perspective.

In June 2014 BBC announced that Antibiotics had been selected by the British public to be the final topic of the Longitude Prize 2014. In conclusion of over 6 months of our research and design work for the Longitude Prize, we proposed that the Antibiotics prize should focus on improving antibiotic conservation through better stewardship of the existing antibiotic treatments. This in practice could be enabled by a new point-of-care diagnostic that should help clinicians target antibiotic treatments more effectively. The challenge statement in the Longitude Prize rule book reads:

The Longitude Prize will reward a competitor that can develop a transformative point–of–care diagnostic test that will conserve antibiotics for future generations and revolutionise the delivery of global healthcare. The test must be accurate, rapid, affordable, easy–to–use and available to anyone, anywhere in the world. It will identify when antibiotics are needed and, if they are, which ones to use.

The competition is still running.

Interestingly, other candidates that did not become the topic of the main Longitude Prize 2014 competition were also rooted in long-term sustainability context. The goal of the Dementia challenge was to address the challenge of caring for a growing ageing population while relying on finite human and financial resources. The Food challenge was focusing on the need to produce more food to feed a growing population on one hand, and on the limitations of agriculture’s growing environmental impact on the other. The Flight challenge was looking for a breakthrough that would balance our need for a rapid and convenient means of global transportation with the limitations posed by environmental impact of aviation’s CO2 emissions.

Sea Objects

Working with the UK Government Office for Science to research and visualise UK Sea Governance.

Connecting scientific evidence to policy-making is a non-trivial process. Evidence can be conflicting, incomplete, or inconclusive, obscuring the ability of policy-makers to apply this information. Likewise, policy-makers may not be receptive to information, or can be constrained in the choices that they are able to make. More than this, scientific evidence almost never compels any particular policy direction, rather providing insights into potential benefits, costs and risks of action. This difficult but important relationship is well recognised by UK Government, with many organisations in place to help facilitate conversation between researchers and policymakers.

One of these organisations is the Government Office for Science (GO-Science), who make sure that UK government departments have access to scientific advice and evidence to inform their policy-making. An important part of this is the Foresight programme, which looks forwards to identify opportunities and challenges that might affect the UK in the near future. Every year GO-Science chooses 2 or 3 different topics to investigate, producing a report and raising awareness of how government could use evidence to positively influence the UK.

One of Foresight’s most recent projects is ‘The Future of the Sea’, which is due to be published this year. The project is looking to understand the ways in which the UK interacts with the sea, how that might change in the future and how Government can act to sustainably support the people, organisations and industries involved.

Early in the project GO-Science approached us to understand if we could work with them to organise and rationalise their initial research, and to design a stimulus that visualises the responsibilities of different UK Government departments and agencies in relation to the Sea. The idea being that by synthesising and presenting research in an engaging and accessible way, interactions between foresight researchers and policy-makers would be more focused and fruitful, easing the relationship between policy and evidence.

How does UK Government interact with the sea?

Our starting point for this work was the initial research that GO-Science had done into the different interests that the UK has in the sea. This includes a diversity of concepts such as maintaining biodiversity and supporting coastal tourism, marine industries, port infrastructure, shipping, and the development of new technologies for ocean mapping. All of these related but distinct interests needed to be represented, with meaningful links being highlighted wherever possible. As important was finding a way to represent the responsibilities of different government departments and organisations.

Our goal was to produce something that would simplify the complexity of the interactions between people government, and marine, maritime and coastal activities without dumbing down or removing important detail. The aim was that this would facilitate conversations about how government is currently organised and how it could change, but also stand alone as a picture of UK sea governance.

Looking for an organising structure

Draft illustrations showing ideas for visualising links between concepts

We began by organising the interests into those that were more similar to one another or more different based upon different guiding principles. For example we experimented with grouping by the geographical location of the interests - in, across or by the sea. Another principle was the intended purpose of the interest such as extracting resources, or protecting biodiversity. We then drew and defined connections between groups, such as dependencies or beneficial relationships.

After a few iterations trialling out different organising principles, we decided with GO-Science to use a simple structure based around a flow of interests grouped into understanding, planning and working. Each group is dependent on the activities of the previous one.

  • Understanding — Interests with a purpose of monitoring and research on the sea, coastal and marine environments, climate or human activities related to the sea. These activities also include efforts to analyse this data.

  • Planning — Interests related to planning and regulating economic, environmental or security activities based upon the information gathered in ‘Understanding’.

  • Working — Diverse marine, maritime and coastal interests to sustainably benefit from the sea, and to protect the UK’s ability to continue to do this. The flow begins once more as there are efforts to monitor and understand the impacts of these activities.

This structure allowed the UK’s interests to be described as collectively working towards one of 3 high level goals: Marine and Coastal Environments and Mitigating Climate Change; Providing Marine, Maritime and Coastal Security to the UK; and Sustainable Marine and Maritime Economic Growth. For each of these goals we produced a visualisation showing the major industries, regulations, departments and people involved.

We then tested out the diagrams with representatives from different government departments. Based upon their feedback we iterated and improved the designs. Most significantly we made sure that it was possible to use the three diagrams together to show a whole picture of UK sea governance.

Managing complexity

Cover and overarching structure from our Future of the Sea report

As our first experience designing a tool to facilitate science policy discussions, this project proved to be a really useful learning experience for us.

Government is an enormous and complex organisation, with numerous ways of dealing with cross departmental topics such as the sea. To have a full understanding of this requires significant effort. We found that attempting to communicate this visually can serve a useful purpose in helping people to access the topic, and to discuss ways in which governance can be proactive to future challenges and opportunities.

One of the biggest challenges was in pitching the level of detail correctly. Different departments have different levels of interaction with the sea, as well as different understandings of whose responsibility certain activities are. It is likely near impossible for a representation to be perfect from all perspectives.

We found that it is precisely this difference of opinion that this type of work can help to bring out in the open. The process of presenting people with a picture of what we thought they and others do resulted interesting discussions around governments role in the sea. The diagrams give people a chance to react to something, focusing discussion and highlighting opportunities for relationships between departments.

This blog post is part of a series on our Good Problems Theme. Each post looks at a different step in the process of designing a funding programme and makes suggestions about how to optimise to achieve a greater impact.

How do you bring problems and solvers together?

If you work at a funding organisation, this question should be familiar to you. Do you set up a funding call, launch a challenge prize or run a hackathon? Do you hold a workshop to familiarise people with the problem or use a crowdsourcing platform to reach a broad range of potential solvers?

In the first post of the series we talked about the advantages of identifying a good problem. In the second post we looked at the added value of understanding the skills, resources and motivations needed to solve the problem. This third and final post is about using this knowledge to design a suitable incentivisation approach.

There are many ways to incentivise problem-solving. Some more common than others. The suitability of each approach will depend on the problem and the community of solvers.

Challenges and Hackathons and Sandpits – Oh, my!

An incentivisation approach is a way of trying to motivate and support people to come up with solutions to a problem.

If people are not aware of the problem, they will need time to understand it and develop the motivation to work on solutions. If they are already working on solutions, they may need extra resources to achieve a breakthrough. That is why incentivisation approaches are so diverse. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Funding Calls / Grants: These are funding mechanisms that involve organisations offering financial support – and increasingly feedback and mentoring – to those interested in developing solutions to a specific problem. The problem can be defined either by the funder or the applicant (see the Humanitarian Innovation Fund’s open Core Grants or specific WASH funding calls).

  • Challenge prizes / Inducement prizes: These are prizes that offer a reward to the person or team who can first or most effectively meet a defined challenge. The prize can include a monetary reward, mentorship, or access to facilities and investors (see Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre or InnoCentive).

  • Sandpits / Idea Labs: Sandpits (or Idea Labs in the US) are residential interactive workshops that bring together participants from across disciplines to work on addressing specific research challenges. The outcomes of a sandpit are not pre-determined, but are defined during the event (see EPSRC’s approach to designing sandpits).

  • Workshops / Conferences: These are a little bit different. While neither are funding mechanisms per se, they can help raise awareness of a problem and generate interest in solving it. Conferences tend to be larger and focused primarily on encouraging an exchange of ideas and forming new collaborations. Workshops can be more hands-on, with time allocated to working in groups to explore a problem and develop ideas (see our lessons from designing a workshop on Surface Water Drainage for the Humanitarian Innovation Fund).

  • Hackathons: Short and intense events where designers, developers, entrepreneurs and people with specific domain expertise collaborate on building projects that can help solve a defined problem (see Startup Weekend).

  • Crowdsourcing platforms: Online platforms where people can contribute with ideas, collaborate on projects, provide feedback and help shortlist top ideas to solve a problem (see OpenIdeo).

  • Innovation Labs / Accelerators / Incubators: Programmes designed to support entrepreneurs or teams develop their early-stage ideas into fully-fledged products and services that can solve problems. The support offered can include mentorship, money, co-working facilities, training, and access to potential partners and investors (see Bethnal Green Ventures or UNICEF Innovation Labs).

These approaches are not mutually exclusive, nor are they the only ones available. You can launch a funding call through a workshop or have the top ideas coming out of a crowdsourcing challenge attend an accelerator programme. The important thing is to choose an approach that matches the problem that you want to focus on.

Choosing an Incentivisation Approach

How do you know which approach to use and when?

In our previous post we outlined three roles a funding organisation can play – help build a community of solvers, expand it by bringing in new people and ideas, or support it by giving solvers relevant resources. Each of these roles will require a different incentivisation approach.

Here’s our interpretation of how the above incentivisation approaches map onto these three roles:

  • If a funder is looking to build a community of solvers, then workshops, hackathons, or crowdsourcing platforms can be relevant approaches. Although different in form and structure, these approaches are useful at drawing attention to little known problems or significant emerging ones, encouraging conversations around them and motivating people to work on solutions.

  • If the aim is to expand a community of solvers, funders can explore the possibility of setting up challenge prizes, sandpits, workshops, or make use of crowdsourcing platforms. Core to these approaches is encouraging collaborations between people or teams with different backgrounds and skills. Their aim is to bring on board new perspectives or domains of expertise that can challenge held expectations and provoke new ways of thinking.

  • If a funder is looking to support a community of solvers, approaches like funding calls, innovation labs, incubators or accelerators can help them achieve this goal. These approaches focus on offering wide ranging support to problem-solvers such as funding, mentorship, access to facilities, users and investors, as well as partnerships or contracts.

Having a rough idea of what your funding organisation needs to incentivise – whether it’s building, expanding, or supporting a community of solvers – represents an important starting point to designing an approach that can have a genuine impact.

It’s also useful to know that the boundaries between these approaches are very loose. It is often the case that in the process of ‘choosing’ a suitable approach you end up creating a new format – one that is tailored to the problem and its solvers.

Adapting the Approach

Any incentivisation approach you choose will need to be adapted. This is where knowledge about the problem and the community of solvers comes in.

The motivations of solvers, their available resources and the level of risk they’re willing to take should all shape the approach.

For example, if you’re designing a challenge prize, this information can help you define the criteria for a winning solution or the size of the reward. If you’re designing a crowdsourcing call, it can help you understand how to best articulate the problem to ensure a broad reach and diverse response. For a workshop, it can help you define the goals of the event and identify key attendees who need to be part of the conversation.

Each incentivisation approach will have its own defining features. The design of these features should reflect the problem, as well as the needs of its solvers.

In the end, an incentivisation approach is not just a way of flagging up a problem that needs to be solved. It’s about creating an engaged and adequately resourced community around that problem.

Refining the Approach

After creating an initial version of the approach, it’s time to test it with potential solvers. The aim of this step is to find out whether the approach is appealing, supportive and relevant.

  1. Appealing: Is the approach engaging and motivating? Is it likely to attract the people and collaborations needed to build impactful solutions?

  2. Supportive: Does it offer problem-solvers the necessary support to start developing impactful solutions? Is it inclusive and accessible to those who could add value to this process?

  3. Relevant: Will this approach and the resulting ideas actually help solve the problem?

A quick way to figure out the above is to ask likely participants: ‘Would you take part in this?’. If the answer is ‘No’, understand why not and keep iterating the approach until the answer is ‘Yes! Where do I sign up?’.

Closing note: Designing for Impact

Measuring and demonstrating the impact of a funding programme is never going to be an easy or clear cut process. But being open, transparent and deliberate about the process of designing such a programme can help maximise its potential for impact. To support this claim, we highlighted three areas where funders should focus their efforts:

  • Identify a good problem. Focus on problems that are real, worthwhile, timely, engaging and suitable for your organisation to prioritise.

  • Understand the skills and collaborations needed to come up with constructive ideas. Understand who are the people and communities able to work on solutions, what motivates them and what might limit their involvement. This will help you define your role in this process – are you building, expanding or supporting a community of solvers?

  • Design an incentivisation approach that motivates and supports people to build solutions. This is not just about choosing an approach that best meets a set of criteria, but about building an environment where people can think in different ways and explore new ideas and collaborations.

We introduced the above as three separate phases. In practice, they’re most likely to occur in parallel and shape and inform each other. For instance, it’s not unusual to have clients ask us to find good problems that can be solved through a specific incentivisation approach or in a given timeframe. ‘The problem’ may not always be the starting point for the design of funding programme, but it is a core component.

The aim of this series is to encourage funding organisations to design programmes that address real problems and actively engage with solvers as part of this process. Organisations able to deliver such considerate funding programmes are not only improving the likelihood of getting problems solved, but they are also creating a community of solvers who are motivated, engaged and feel part of a valuable and impactful process.

Science Practice’s interest in synthetic biology goes back to the Arsenic Biosensor Collaboration, and recently we were back in Jim Haseloff’s lab to learn about a new development called cell-free synthetic biology. This technology made headlines when it was used to create a low-cost, paper-based diagnostic test for the Zika virus. We’re interested in paper-based diagnostics (see SoilCards) and portable technology that could enable lab analysis in the field, like the MinION. Because of our work in this area were we asked to co-convene a workshop called “Programmable biology in the test tube”, which was organised by Jenny Molloy from the Strategic Research Initiative for Synthetic Biology at Cambridge.

Traditionally, synthetic biology has involved genetically engineering bacteria to do our bidding: producing a useful protein (for example a protein that is fluorescent) from a blueprint (DNA in the form of a plasmid). Cell-free synthetic biology means extracting the machinery that bacteria like E. coli use to produce protein from the DNA blue-print (the machinery for transcription and translation), and leaving the cell behind. There are numerous technical reasons why this is preferable, but the real-world consequences that we’re most excited about are that devices that use synthetic biology sensors 1) don’t need to be kept refrigerated, which means they can be transported long distances to reach rural places, and 2) are not restricted in use in the same way as whole genetically modified organisms.

Our day in Cambridge University’s Department of Plant Sciences included talks and a workshop. True to the open, collaborative, multi-disciplinary spirit of the OpenPlant initiative, there was a diverse group of attendees from the bio-hacking community, and even those in software engineering and economics.

Vincent Noireaux presents his cell-free synthetic biology work at the workshop: Programmable Biology in the Test Tube

Things you see in a plant lab. Department of Plant Sciences, Cambridge University.

The workshop was led by Vincent Noireaux (University of Minnesota), and hosted by Jim Haseloff and Fernan Federici. We worked from Vincent’s paper, “The All E.coli TX-TL Toolbox 2.0: A Platform for Cell-Free Synthetic Biology.

Each group of attendees was given a different cell-free gene-circuit to create. In the end we reviewed whether our gene-circuit was behaving correctly by using a microplate reader to look at the kinetics of expression of green fluorescent protein.

Kinetics of expression of green fluorescent protein produced by our gene-circuit

Groups gather round and discuss their results with Vincent.

It was easy to construct these gene-circuits on the lab bench, even for non-experts. We’re really excited to see a new generation of paper-based diagnostics that use cell-free synbio sensors. Thanks to Jim, Jenny, and Fernan for having us!