Today, governments across the world are facing major social and environmental challenges — from climate change to COVID-19. Overcoming these will require that governments invest in mission oriented innovation. This is for many, a completely new practice, and so there is a pressing need for learning about how to do it.

As part of an ongoing partnership between the UCL Institute for Innovation & Public Purpose (IIPP) and OECD’s Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI), we hosted an online immersive workshop on 2 December 2020 to explore the challenges and opportunities of directing mission oriented innovation in practice.

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The event brought together leaders from across a range of government institutions in OECD countries and from the IIPP MOIN network. Over 150 civil servants, economists, business leaders and policymakers from 36 countries took part, including: Brazil, Malaysia, The Czech Republic, Thailand, Italy, South Africa, Canada, Spain, Denmark, Estonia, Austria, Australia, Latvia, Greece…

We are living through such a momentous time of rapid transformation, the big question is: how will we enter the next era?

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Photo by Harrison Candlin from Pexels

In February this year I was browsing in a bookshop in Gatwick Airport (an act that seemed so normal at the time) and I came across a copy of The Future We Choose by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac. The brightness of the cover and the boldness of text was instantly memorable.

This is the decade. We are the generation.

“This is the decade in which, contrary to everything humanity has experienced before, we have everything in our power. We have the capital, the technology, the policies. …

Getting from the “what” to the “how” of mission-oriented innovation policy — a research proposal.

This is an introduction to my PhD (initiated in July 2018) at UCL-IIPP — please feel free to contact me at if you would like to find out more or discuss this in more detail. This Medium blog site will track the ongoing development of my studies and provide an open forum for Lab Notes.


Environmental researchers argue that the magnitude and rate of human activities on Earth are overshooting the great forces of nature — biodiversity, climate stability, energy production and natural resource consumption. This is driving the planet into what they call the “Anthropocene”[1] — the first…

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As we seek to make sense of the pandemic, many are pinning their hopes on an “entrepreneurial state” to champion innovation to solve the crisis. But it is one thing for governments to announce big investment plans, it is quite something else to convert them into innovations that will tackle the virus and rebuild the economy. In our haste for answers, how do we avoid the trap of short-term solutionism?

At the moment the public was finally waking up to the existential threat of climate change, COVID-19 swooped in as a clear and present danger. The crisis brings with it an unprecedented injection of government cash into the economy that, as Christine Figueres said: “will set the contours of the economy for years to come.” But, while the pressure is on to move swiftly and invest in innovation to solve the many problems brought on by this pandemic, we must avoid the proverbial trap of “more haste, less speed”.

Mariana Mazzucato has long argued for a more active role for…

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Photo by Maël BALLAND from Pexels

Successive transformation plans have sought to inject dynamism into government. Last month, Dominic Cummings upped the ante with a call to recruit “assorted weirdos”. But will it be the answer?

In his now infamous blog, Dominic Cummings put out a call for “weirdos and misfits” to join him at Number 10. In it he laments Whitehall bureaucracy and its unexploited “trillion dollar bills lying on the street”. But by caricaturing government as a lumbering giant which he and his small band of weirdos must slay, he falls into the trap of assuming that disruptive innovation will work in government the way it does in the private sector.

This is a common mental trap of start-up founders who fail to scale because they over-simplify the market conditions for their products or…

Here’s a short review of the work the RSA did on digital citizen engagement in 2017 with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. For this project, Clare Devaney and I did research to understand more about the innovative ways that cities and regional governments are engaging with citizens to talk about inclusive growth. Below is a summary of digital and data-driven methods in cities were pionneering then to enable citizens to inform policy.

The RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission completed its inquiry into how cities and regions can enable as many people as possible to contribute to and benefit from economic growth in 2017. Among its recommendations was the suggestion that city mayors and local leaders invest in ‘social infrastructure’ to help individuals, families and communities to participate more fully in decisions about society and the economy.

According to an Aspen Institute report: “the future vitality of cities is increasingly based on their ability to use digital networks in intelligent, strategic ways.” In an age of ubiquitous free wifi, smartphones and data, the social…

How an RSA programme blended action research and exploratory design methods to support the development of “impact entrepreneurs.”

At the RSA you meet a lot of people who want to change the world. Some are social entrepreneurs and many spend their lives relentlessly trying to change systems. They work in a variety of fields — from mental health to the circular economy — but what binds them is a burning desire to make an impact.

This passion is something the RSA has always sought to harness and support, and in 2019 the RSA Lab worked in partnership with the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth and the systems innovation agency Alt/Now to pilot an Economic Security Impact Accelerator as…

There are some who can only see the future of work through the prism of automation. But from this vantage point, the discussion can often descend into robot panic…

Some call it the “singularity”, others prefer the “fourth industrial revolution” or the “age of artificial intelligence”. But what is notable in its absence is the human experience of work. When centred on the machine, the discourse becomes dehumanised and imbued with tech determinism (the assumption that people will be passive in the face of an inevitable machine age), while at the same time remaining too abstract for anyone to actually know what to do.

And yet, “good work” is a profoundly human concept. At the RSA,we are interested in this human experience of work and how people will be…

For generations a job for life has been the norm. Today, while paid employment is still a reality for most, digital trends have sparked a revolution in how we work, and for some this means that work — and life — is more precarious…

Employment in the UK has reached a record high of 32.75 million. Despite this fact, there is a rising concern that the labour market is fragmenting into low paying, poorly protected jobs and some economists believe the jobs market has become increasingly precarious for people. Many new jobs are now ‘atypical’ — with self-employment, zero-hours and temporary contract arrangements all growing. Self-employment has outpaced growth in other forms of employment and nearly 5 million people in the UK now work for themselves. Gig work is also on the rise: recent research from the TUC found that 7.5 million people have…

In this blog series we are looking at how to be a public entrepreneur — a practitioner in government who wants to move fast and fix things. Here, we break down some thoughts on how to foster an entrepreneurial culture in government.

In the RSA Lab’s recent report on how to be a public entrepreneur we lay out seven ways to foster an entrepreneurial culture in government, using the RSA’s “think like a system, act like an entrepreneur” model of change as a guide. As Graham Leicester, author of Transformative Innovation says, this role means “acting both as hospice workers for the dying culture and midwives for the new”. This means that the public entrepreneur needs to master the art and practice of maintaining order (keeping the lights on, avoiding turmoil), while completely reinventing “business as usual”.

The seven ways to foster…

Rowan Conway

Head of Mission Oriented Innovation Network at UCL IIPP. Former Director of Innovation at the RSA, on Medium just me.

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