Join our Good Problems Team to identify science & tech problems and design incentives to solve them

The Good Problems Team at Science Practice works with funders, investors, and philanthropists to design innovative challenges and funding schemes in science and technology. We have designed over 30 challenges and funding calls including the £10M Longitude Prize.

How we work and what we’re working on now

Our approach relies on proposing interesting problems, or ways to encourage communities to solve them – challenge prizes, competitions, funding calls, accelerator programmes. We do this by creating design proposals which we then test in interviews with diverse stakeholders. This allows us to have focused conversations and helps us build a better understanding of problems, solvers and challenges.

We have designed challenges and funding calls covering problems like antimicrobial resistance or water desalination for the Longitude Prize, sanitation in humanitarian settings for the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, and non-animal protein sources and opportunities for re-engineering soil for the Frontier Prize.

We are currently working on a project exploring the commercial potential of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in urban settings. We’re also looking to publish some of our methodologies and tools.

We’re looking for someone who:

  • Has excellent design skills and a background in one or more design disciplines such as interaction design, product design or communication design.
  • Has excellent research skills and enjoys exploring new scientific and technical domains through desk research and by interviewing experts.
  • Is literate in science and technology and capable of identifying opportunities and barriers to innovation.
  • Writes well and enjoys expressing complex subject matter in simple, engaging language.
  • Can present ideas and concepts visually.
  • Is excited about collaborating with domain experts such as scientists and engineers.

What we’re offering

As well as a competitive salary we are offering matched pension contributions and family-friendly and flexible working arrangements.

Science Practice is an equal opportunity employer and we value diversity and inclusion at our company. We welcome people of different nationalities, backgrounds, experiences, abilities and perspectives.

How to apply

Please send an email with your CV and/or portfolio and a brief cover letter to Ana at af@science-practice.com. Thanks and look forward to hearing from you!

No agencies please

Join our Good Problems Team to explore the commercial potential of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)

The Good Problems Team at Science Practice works with funders, investors, and philanthropists to design innovative challenges and funding schemes in science and technology. We have designed over 30 challenges and funding calls including the £10M Longitude Prize.

We are currently scoping an UAV innovation challenge. We’re looking for an aerospace engineer to help us create viable use cases for UAVs and test them in interviews with domain experts. The role would also involve defining the technical requirements and identifying regulations that UAVs would need to meet in order to become commercially sustainable.

We’re looking for someone who:

  • Enjoys working in small mixed teams, in close collaboration with designers and researchers
  • Has a deep technical understanding of UAV design, testing, and safety; ideally, a PhD or an MSc in Aerospace Engineering or a closely related subject
  • Can communicate technical subject matter in simple and compelling language
  • Can synthesise multiple points of view to identify barriers or opportunities for innovation
  • Is comfortable interviewing technical experts, scientists, researchers or academics
  • Has an understanding, or is keen to learn more about, different funding mechanisms such as challenge prizes.

Position details:

  • Location: 83-85 Paul Street, London EC2A 4NQ (near Old Street Station)
  • Term: ~3-6 months
  • Hours: part-time/full-time
  • Starting date: November-December 2017
  • Pay: the rate will be negotiated with the applicant based on their experience.

How to apply

Please send an email with your CV and a brief cover letter to Ana at af@science-practice.com. The deadline for applications is Friday 17th November 2017, 12pm GMT. Applications will be considered on a rolling basis.

Thanks and look forward to hearing from you!

No agencies please

Ensuring affected communities have access to appropriate sanitation facilities is critical in a humanitarian emergency. If not dealt with properly, this can further endanger lives already at risk.

Can user-centred design (UCD) principles and tools help ensure facilities match the sanitation needs and practices of affected communities?

As part of our collaboration with the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF), we designed a challenge giving humanitarian practitioners an opportunity to explore the potential of UCD tools to build suitable sanitation facilities in an emergency.

Engaging with vulnerable communities in the aftermath of a crisis

There is a clear process for deciding in an emergency what toilets need to be built, how many, and where. This is to minimise casualties and any additional risks to people’s health and wellbeing. The problem is that the outcome of this process is increasingly at odds with the diverse needs, preferences, and practices of those affected. The location of a toilet, whether it’s accessible and safe, whether it’s suitable for children, women of different cultures, or those with a disability, even the direction it is facing, will have an impact on whether people will use it or not. Failure to consider such aspects in the design of sanitation solutions often means that provided toilets or latrines end up being misused, destroyed for parts, or abandoned.

The Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) wanted to explore whether user-centred design principles and processes like community engagement could help address some of these issues. But community engagement in the early stages of an emergency is a contentious matter.

user-centred-sanitation

Firstly, there is a lack of evidence around the impact of community engagement in the early stages of an emergency. This raises a lot of uncertainties around how to carry it out, how to use the resulting insights, how to translate them into suitable facilities – or why to do it in the first place. Uncertainty and risk are exactly what humanitarian practitioners are trained to reduce in crisis situations. So the lack of appetite for community engagement was understandable.

While guidelines for carrying out community engagement exist, there is little to no information about their suitability or applicability on the ground. This is perpetuated by the little time humanitarian practitioners have in an emergency to make detailed notes about the success or failure of a particular intervention. The lack of formal monitoring and evaluation processes adds to this complexity.

Also, the underlying assumption is that involving those affected in the decision-making and process of designing suitable sanitation facilities would be inclusive, even empowering. But how realistic is this in the first days of an emergency? How likely is it that people who have undergone immense emotional and physical stress would be interested in talking about their sanitation preferences? How can you engage with them in a sensitive, yet meaningful way? How can you make sure all voices are heard and that no one is placed at risk?

These were the kinds of questions the HIF were looking to answer. We helped them define and articulate the problem in the form of an innovation challenge.

Challenge: User-Centred Sanitation Design Through Rapid Community Engagement

We started by reviewing materials the HIF had commissioned around the limitations of sanitation provision in rapid-onset emergencies. Two limitations kept coming up – the lack of examples of best practice around community engagement to inform rapid sanitation design, and the lack of evidence to assess the impact of such initiatives.

How could we design a challenge that addressed both of these limitations? While driving community engagement projects was a priority, we also wanted to be able to compare their impact across different settings. We were increasingly aware that without an effective way to monitor and evaluate the projects, the opportunity to disseminate practice and improve the adoption of community engagement approaches was slim.

So we designed a challenge with two calls. The first was for up to five innovative Community Engagement Projects that could be used in the early stages of a rapid-onset emergency to inform sanitation decisions. The aim of this call was to generate a variety of innovative approaches and contexts of use.

The second call was for a Research and Evaluation Partner. Their role would include reviewing existing best practices, sharing lessons, co-developing with the selected community engagement projects a suitable framework for monitoring and evaluating the impact of their approaches, and carrying out the evaluation.

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Handbooks for the Research and Evaluation Partner and Rapid Community Engagement Projects.

We created Handbooks for each call to detail the problem, the context, what is expected of selected partners, and criteria to consider when developing proposals.

For the community engagement projects the criteria included: ensuring an equal representation of all voices in the engagement, and integration within existing humanitarian processes.

We also made it explicit that the challenge was not about blindly pushing for community engagement, but about building an evidence base of its impact on sanitation provision and use.

Once launched, we helped the HIF run the challenge by co-designing the application process and materials, and shortlisting applications.

Innovation Workshop

Because of the novelty of both the challenge topic and structure, we co-designed an Innovation Workshop with the HIF to allow shortlisted community engagement projects to ask any questions and strengthen their proposals. The 2-day workshop was an opportunity for humanitarian practitioners to explore different user-centred design principles and tools and see if/how these might be of use in a rapid-onset emergency. For community engagement practitioners, the workshop was a chance to understand more about the humanitarian setting and how they can adapt their tools to it.

We worked as part of a diverse team to design the workshop. This included the humanitarian organisation Oxfam GB, who were the selected Research & Evaluation Partner (read their Landscape Review here); and Pivotal Labs, a software company that uses lean methodologies and user-centred design to create new digital products. Pivotal ran a session on UCD tools for humanitarian innovation (you can find the Toolkit they created for the workshop here).

We were really excited to hear that after the workshop most of the shortlisted projects updated their proposals to include a number of user-centred design tools discussed in the workshop, such as user journeys and empathy maps.

Those who took part in the workshop also found it very useful to share their ideas with fellow applicants, and get feedback from the WASH humanitarian experts and the UCD experts present.

Overview of the HIF User-Centred Sanitation Design Workshop from Elrha on Vimeo.

User-centred design practices in humanitarian WASH

This project gave us the opportunity to see how to best create a context for two very different communities of practitioners to learn from each other and co-create solutions. Our key takeaways:

  • Define problems in a clear and accessible way to attract diverse solvers. Having a clear problem will make it easier for new people to understand it. It can also make it easier to figure out how they can contribute to developing solutions.

  • Give people space to learn from each other, understand what they can bring to a project and how they can collaborate on solving problems. The Innovation Workshop was valuable in enabling humanitarian practitioners and community engagement practitioners to share tools and explore how these could be adapted to a crisis situation.

  • Explore and evaluate the impact of different practices, don’t enforce them before you know they work. User-centred design principles and processes like community engagement may offer a way of building more suitable facilities. But there is little evidence to back it up. The focus of the innovation challenge was on encouraging humanitarian practitioners and community engagement practitioners to work together on developing suitable engagement tools and then testing them to see if they make a difference.

The selected community engagement projects are currently ongoing. We look forward to following their progress as they unfold over the next year.

This year I celebrated Ada Lovelace Day by speaking at Ada’s List Conference 2017. It was a privilege to share the stage with such open, honest and ambitious women, and to meet some inspirational fellow Ada’s. I spoke about the value of cognitive diversity in solving problems and approaches for making the most of people’s different skills and perspectives.

What is cognitive diversity and why is it important?

Cognitive diversity

“Two heads will only be better than one if their contents differ.” Scott E. Page

When we talk about diversity, we often talk about the one we can see – diversity of gender, race, ethnicity, age. This is referred to as identity diversity.

But groups of people who look differently are not necessarily better at solving problems; groups of people who think differently are more likely to be.

Cognitive diversity refers to people’s different ways of thinking, their different heuristics, and perspectives.

When we try to work together and solve complex problems, cognitive diversity becomes incredibly useful. It gives a group access to different ways of working, different ways of asking questions, and different ways of thinking about how to develop solutions.

While identity diversity correlates with cognitive diversity, it doesn’t predict it.

That doesn’t mean that cognitive diversity should become an excuse to ignore identity diversity altogether; it should be a way of enhancing it.

Identity diversity becomes powerful when we understand the different skills and perspectives that come with collaborating with people of different beliefs, gender or race.

The challenge with cognitive diversity is that you can’t see it. To discover cognitive diversity, you have to create opportunities for people to share their ways of thinking and see how they can collaborate and contribute to solving a problem.

How to create more cognitively diverse communities of solvers?

My talk suggested three approaches for increasing the diversity of solvers.

1. Making problems accessible

To encourage diverse people to collaborate on solving problems, they need to understand what the problems are. Problems should to be framed so people who are not familiar with the topic can understand their scope and how they can contribute to developing solutions.

This ‘framing’ refers to both the language used to communicate a problem, but also clarity in the way it’s defined. The problem itself needs to be real and ambitious, while remaining solvable.

2. Diversifying support & incentives

People might have the right kind of skills or approach to solve a problem, but limited access to the resources to help them develop their ideas.

To create inclusive opportunities for people to become solvers, we need to think about the kind of additional support different solvers might need and how to offer it.

Support can come in many different forms, from funding or access to lab space and equipment, to mentoring and training to help refine ideas. In some cases, it can even be something like giving solvers with children access to daycare services so they can attend workshops and pitch their ideas. (👍 to the Ada’s List Team for providing crèche services at the Conference!)

The type of incentives you present to people to tackle a problem also influence who decides to become a solver.

Some people respond well to problems framed as ambitious competitions. Others prefer to engage with a community they care about or want to help.

A problem might need to be pitched in different ways to different communities to get their interest.

3. Creating genuine opportunities for collaboration

Collaboration is not easy and can get messy. Especially when those expected to collaborate have different ways of approaching problems and thinking about solutions. This makes it even more important to create spaces where people from different backgrounds have an opportunity to share their tools, knowledge and experience, and understand how they can work together.

Sometimes this can work best via face-to-face facilitated workshops. In other situations, online platforms like Slack are more suitable. Key to each problem solving scenario is acknowledging that collaboration is hard and needs support and encouragement to succeed.

Achieving a diverse and functional team of problem-solvers is a challenging yet worthwhile aim. To quote Katherine W. Phillips“Diversity jolts us into cognitive action”. It’s up to us to build the right kind of context and support to ensure this cognitive action is a constructive and creative one.

Inspiration for the talk:

We’re proud to announce that Science Practice is part of a team that has been awarded $100,000 from the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) and the Gulf Research Program. The grant is for developing and building sensors to monitor marine snow in the ocean’s twilight zone:

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Marine snow is made up of tiny particles of decomposing microscopic plants and animals that “rain” down from sunlit surface waters of the ocean, providing nutrients to the deep ocean. Basically, it’s like crumbs that fall off the tabletop and feed everything below, which is the majority of the ocean. Pale specks of marine snow are noticeable in underwater footage:

This photo shows a squid surrounded by white specks of marine snow. Our sensor will characterise the particles that make up marine snow, and measure their falling rate. Image credit: Ocean Exploration Trust

The sinking of marine snow is a little-known but fundamental process that could play a key role in understanding and mitigating global warming. The sensors we’re building with the grant will use novel imaging technology to measure the size of marine snow particles and their sinking rate. The sensors will be small devices (the size of a bottle) that will passively float with the marine snow at different depths, rather than being large, motorised floats which are typically used in oceanography. Their passive drifting has data-gathering advantages, and drastically reduces the cost of sensors. Cost is further reduced by using novel imaging technology to capture compressed, encoded images, reducing the resources needed for data storage and transfer.

The funding from the USA’s National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine – supported 22 interdisciplinary seed grants this year, totaling $1.65 million. These competitive grants support collaborations resulting from the NAKFI Discovering the Deep Blue Sea conference that I attended last year. At the conference we formed teams and developed ideas, and it was optional for teams to apply for funding after the conference. My team consisted of diverse researchers who were interested in 1) mobile sensors, 2) marine snow and carbon export, and 3) targeting the Tuk Tuks, instead of the Cadillacs of marine observational platforms.


During the conference we developed some low-fi physical prototypes of our sensors to help us think through the design. We used coffee cups and modeling clay, and explored Matlab image processing on iPhone video of simulated marine snow.

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Matlab simulations and roasted marshmallows. Our team at the NAKFI conference used every opportunity to refine our idea, including the fireside cocktail session.

The motivation for the grants awarded after the conference is that “Major federal funding programs do not typically provide support in areas that are considered risky or unusual. Futures grants aim to fill this critical gap in funding for bold new ideas. The seed grants allow investigators to recruit students and postdocs to the research effort, purchase new equipment, acquire preliminary data, develop prototypes of exhibits, or create new collaborative teams and modes of inquiry – all of which can position the project to compete for larger awards from other public and private sources.”

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Our group on the final day of NAKFI 2016 when we pitched our idea for a small, low-cost device to measure the falling rate of marine snow.

The other team members in the grant award are Ken Buesseler and Anna Michel from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the project is lead by Melissa Omand from the University of Rhode Island. At Science Practice we’re really looking forward to bringing our experience in developing user-centered medical devices to an ocean research project!