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Innovating in the middle of a pandemic

Executive director Ali Donnelly discusses the ways in which we, and the sport and physical activity sector, have innovated during the coronavirus pandemic.

18th December 2020

by Ali Donnelly
Executive director for digital, communications and marketing

It’s been just over a year since we launched our organisational values of ambition, inclusivity, collaboration and innovation.

Each of these hold equal weighting for us as an organisation, and they can’t just be words on a piece of paper – our values define who we are as an organisation and highlight what we do to go the extra mile to set us apart.

But innovation has particularly come into its own this year, in terms of how we want to be and how we can help our partners and the people we work with to view this pandemic as a chance to create opportunities for growth.

The unpredictable nine months we’ve just come through have provided an accelerated opportunity for us, and the sport and physical activity sector as a whole, to put our talk about innovation into action.

2020 - a year to innovate

For so many, it’s been a terrible year and has presented challenges for sport and physical activity like no other. Survival has been paramount for many businesses in our sector, yet without the headspace to consider adapting and innovating. For others, with the normal rules thrown out the window, 2020 presented an opportunity for change and great ideas to get people moving in different ways.

According to Be the Business, British businesses had to do three years’ worth of innovation in three months to keep their businesses going during the first national lockdown, with over half a million businesses (37%) in the UK changing their operating model to find new ways to meet customers’ needs – our sector was no different.

When we were told we had to stay at home we switched our gym classes, 5-a-side football matches and socialising with other households for Instagram fitness challenges and Zoom quizzes. Face-to-face sport and physical activity ceased to exist overnight and the traditional ways we deliver and reach our audiences didn’t fit the new world order – we all had to improvise and adapt.

But innovation means different things to different people. We’ve been thinking about what innovation means to us and come up with some starting principles. This isn’t the final list, and we’re exploring this further, but for something to be considered innovative it we think it:

  • is driven by, and connected to, the needs of the community that it’s trying to serve
  • addresses a specific consumer problem rather than just being a light bulb idea in the night.

How did we respond?

Like everyone else, the pandemic challenged us do things differently. As part of our overall coronavirus (Covid-19) response, we ensured £5 million was dedicated to innovation - particularly for those who the pandemic’s affecting the hardest.

Our research showed the major inequalities causing some audiences to miss out on opportunities, were being widened. And we believed that now was the time to find out more about who was out there working on innovative solutions to support key audiences like women, people on lower incomes, older adults, people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, disabled people or people living with long-term health conditions. 

Our first offering was our first ever ‘Open Call for Innovative Solutions’, which was deliberately different to our more traditional funds and looked to address widening inequalities. Its aim was to find solutions that are using innovative methods to tackle the very real problems that certain communities were facing. We discovered, and are in the process of supporting, 27 organisations.

Now the journey's started, there's no turning back

Ali Donnelly

There are some brilliant projects in here, from Slow Ways – who are recruiting volunteers to help create a network of 7,000 walking routes across the UK, connecting towns, cities and villages to encourage more walking – to Dance Centred CIC, who are using physical postcards with accessible movement tasks to motivate and encourage individuals who are either shielding or digitally excluded.


The innovation open call received 840 submissions

While the open call was about existing solutions that needed support, we also want to support new ideas that address some of the problems that have never been tackled before. We knew we couldn't do that on our own, so we’ve partnered with the Design Council – a recognised leader in design thinking and innovation, and we’ll be announcing the detail of this exciting partnership in the new year. 

As inequalities in activity levels continue to persist, we believe there’s an amazing opportunity for innovative ideas to support those finding it harder to be regularly active. And we must recognise the realities of life at the moment. We’d encourage innovators out there to understand the barriers facing the less active audiences and solve for these as that’s where we’re most focused and where the focus for our new strategy, out next year, will be.

The Open Call for Innovative Solutions and partnering with Design Council are just the beginning for us and our work to truly deliver on our innovative value.

Now the journey’s started, there’s no turning back.

While we have lots to learn about what innovation is and looks like when addressing inequalities in sport and physical activity, we’re excited about the potential it brings. We’ll be sharing our learning openly and honestly in the hope it motivates and inspires others to do the same. And our hope for our next strategy is to shine a light on the role of innovation and how it can be a catalyst for truly relevant and inclusive sport and physical activity in the future.

Find out more about the 27 organisations we're supporting.

Innovation open call

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