Purpose-driven innovation in a time of COVID-19

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?

Rowan Conway
10 min readMay 6, 2020


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 governments in setting the direction of public funding toward societal challenges or “a mission-oriented approach to building the entrepreneurial state”. But to date, the major focus of mission oriented policies has been on ‘accumulation risk’ challenges which become more evident over time such as: antimicrobial resistance; an ageing population; and climate change. COVID-19 is a ‘contagion risk’ challenge which needs rapid response to halt its spread and manage the economic impact of lockdown so the attention of innovators globally is now centred on solutions to the immediate crisis.

Fast is not a direction

At the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP), we advocate for governments to set up mission-oriented innovation organisations, and funding vehicles to provide the stimulus for innovators to take on population-level challenges — a steer that the free market could not give alone. Our Mission Oriented Innovation Network is a growing global community of public agencies who we work with to rethink the role of the state with new questions such as: How can concepts of public value ensure that the direction of innovation is aimed at the greatest need? What new incentives are needed to move business models away from profit maximisation towards public purpose? What capabilities do we need to enable mission-driven innovation?

Pausing on these questions is hard when “pandemic speed” is of the essence. But for innovation to have a direction as well as a rate, governments must nurture their capacities for long termism. There is a clear tension between the need to respond quickly with solutions to urgent problems (PPE, ventilators, lockdown measures) and the need to deliberate about directions of travel and potential solutions (contact tracing, vaccines, economic recovery plans). The COVID crisis demands that the state builds its capability to move both fast and slow, and in doing so, take on the various roles of purpose-driven investor, partner and entrepreneur along the whole innovation chain:

· Illustration from Public financing of innovation: New questions Mazzucato, M and Semieniuk, G

The mission portfolio

Mission-driven money for COVID-19 will need to be deployed on a broad innovation portfolio. This means using traditional grants and contracts, but also trying newer tools like investment loans, targeted procurement and challenge prizes (eg: the COVID-19 call by the Global Challenges Research Fund). It will also be important for governments to understand how to engage with bottom-up solutions that emerge from philanthropic prizes like the Fight Covid XPRIZE and #BuildforCOVID19 hackathons from big tech companies like Facebook, Amazon and Slack.

The pandemic demands the capacity for adaptive management and creative policy experimentation like blending the certainty of grants with the market signals of challenge prizes. Managing this breadth of new activity would be tough under “normal” conditions. Doing it under extreme pressure, while working remotely and testing new mission oriented tools requires superhero level effort. This is definitely “daring greatly” as Brene Brown would say.

Will the real superhero be in a startup?

Superhero efforts may be needed, but lightning speed won’t always be possible, and as Batman’s girlfriend once said: “It is what you do that defines you.” How government structures its investments in tech innovation must balance the need for speed while “thinking like an ancestor”. Digital innovation will play a vital role in innovation for the pandemic — as organisations like NHSX already demonstrate. But their efforts are also prototyping the digital infrastructure of the future by setting temporary measures that could easily become system defaults. That’s why we must be mindful of the broader public purpose at all times. As Francesca Bria says in a recent IIPP blog “Digital is here. Data, artificial intelligence and connectivity are the critical infrastructures of the future.”

It is crucial then, that in our need for speed we don’t just pick winners from a camera-ready crop of CovTech startups. While tech startups are the totem of AI and data entrepreneurialism, the part they will play in solving this crisis is as yet unclear. In the UK, the first CovTech solution that government used was the GoodSAM Responder app using an existing platform for first aiders to enable UK volunteers to provide care to vulnerable people during the pandemic. With over 700,000 people registering in a weekend, the app struggled to deliver on its promise of frictionless matching and was temporarily suspended. The discourse has since moved on to contact tracing apps, but in time there will be more CovTech ventures that claim to be a panacea, and then fail to live up to the promise.

Why tech won’t save us

Government has long been grappling with ‘‘digital-era governance’’ and has used digital units such as Government Digital Service to signal the desire to bring internet era practices and cultures into government. But to date this has focused on bureaucracy hacking, internal behaviours and procurement processes. A more holistic approach will be needed to drive tech innovation for COVID-19. As Shira Ovide said: “Technology will not end a pandemic. People will…What we need to do is hard, and I worry that will make us look for tech quick-fixes.” To avoid this, governments must be mindful of three major traps: tech solutionism, data blindness, and the underdeveloped B2G business model.

Trap 1 — Tech solutionism. We all want rapid solutions, but governments must recognise the folly of seeing complex social phenomena like politics and public health as “neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions”. As Evgeny Morozov recently commented: in the context of the Coronavirus, the hasty application of “digital plasters” could ultimately lead to the poor quality design of permanent surveillance infrastructure.

That does not mean that #HacktheCrisis events and design sprints will always be in vain. Efforts like EUvsVirus Hackathon and data challenges like the XPRIZE will undoubtedly surface great innovations, but delivering on their promise will be what counts. Battling COVID-19 is a much longer game than anyone in government will readily admit, and we must resist the promise of salvation in a single startup or a two-day coding event.

Over and above the “move fast” hubris is a more insidious side of tech solutionism — the conceit that technology is “post-ideological”, values-neutral or apolitical, when in reality, the application of technology is profoundly interconnected with democracy and personal freedoms. Governments and philanthropists investing in innovation must be mindful that the political context that the crisis sits within is not rendered meaningless just because a solution is digital.

Photo by Engin Akyurt from Pexels

Trap 2 — Data blindness. With large datasets and rapid advances in AI, we now have “nuclear grade” data analytics capacity without the necessary governance mechanisms to keep it in check. Almost all digital solutions rely heavily on data. Challenge prize platforms combine data, AI tools, and insights to find solutions such as early warning systems or predictive modelling tools. The law just can’t work at the speed of tech, so the novel use of personal data is often a challenge to privacy and human-rights laws. In a world bruised by assaults on privacy, worries about data integrity are no longer limited to the coders who fret about “garbage in, garbage out”. New critiques are considerably deeper — from Shoshana Zuboff’s take on “surveillance capitalism” to Meredith Broussard’s case against “technochauvinism”.

There are also new concerns of embedded data bias. To make data legible across platforms, digital infrastructures seek standardisation. But in the quest for legibility, how we categorise and convert data is subject to deep — if unconscious — biases that can lead to racism, sexism and compound inequalities. As Didier Bigo et al say: “to speak constantly about data as though it either represents or records subjects and objects and their movements, independent from the social and political struggles that govern them, is to mask such struggles.” This is what I mean by data blindness. It is both a privacy and probity concern, because how data is used will affect outcomes and as medical researcher Hamid Tizhoosh says: “There seems to be a tendency to hastily use imperfect and questionable data to train an AI solution for COVID-19, a dangerous trend that not only does not help any patient or physician but also damages the reputation of the AI community.”

Trap 3 — The underdeveloped “B2G” business model. When it comes to partnerships with the private sector, how we cut mission-driven deals for innovation matters. To date this has been a question of striking the right price or setting incentives to get business to play ball. With mission-oriented innovation, government and business must actively co-design dynamic agreements that ensure that all partners have ‘skin in the game.’ To do this, underpinning business models need to be questioned. While digital technology may be seen as an unalloyed good (bringing with it a new culture of openness, agility and adaptiveness) the digital business models that “GovTech” companies work with are mostly cut from the cloth of Silicon Valley and follow a “winner takes all” logic. It is vital, therefore, that we examine the substantive differences between “B2C” and “B2G” business models.

Digital innovation at its most efficient sits in the B2C (Business to Consumer) realm of consumer internet products — where consumers pay for their free user experience with their personal data and the Faustian pact is entirely between customer and business. As the founder of Y Combinator once said “growth rate is the single most important concern for a startup.” But in a “B2G” (Business to Government) environment, a short term “value extraction” business model like this is simply not fit for purpose when governments need to steer longer term “value creation.”

For B2G innovation to work (by which I mean GovTech, PubTech, CivTech, RegTech, CovTech, RecovTech, etc), the business model must prioritise public purpose, with economic growth and scale as secondary concerns. Shareholder primacy should not disrupt the lines of accountability between government and business. In B2G, innovation should be for citizens not consumers (as Jon Alexander would say) and so it is incumbent on government to include wider actors like community voices and front line workers in its design. And, as Andy Haldane has said, venture capitalists and modern shareholders place a strong emphasis on the short-term, but when it comes to who shapes the mission, the input of wider stakeholders and citizens must be heard. For government to support high quality innovation it should confront the inherent imbalance between business and government and look to enter into contracts as partners, not just customers. This doesn’t level the playing field, it tilts it — rebalancing partnerships toward public purpose.

More haste, less speed

Purposeful leaders have a clarity about their mission and can see beyond the pressures of the present. Committing government spending is one thing, but effectively working in partnership for implementation is a much longer term pursuit. Don’t underestimate how hard this is, especially when the pressures of the present are overwhelming. Today’s civil servants need the capacity for what Rainer Kattel calls “agile stability”: the ability to both maintain stability and embrace innovation. Critically though, purpose driven innovation partnerships will rely on mutual trust and a shared mission.

In many ways, this call for purpose-driven innovation is pushing at an open door. The private sector is itself crying out for direction from government to “build back better.” A collective of investors have recently called for conditions on recovery finance, saying: “The path we choose in the coming months will have significant ramifications for our global economy and generations to come. It is critical that governments work with investors, companies and workers to develop just and sustainable recovery plans. Our organisations that work with investors stand ready to help governments to invest in a better, more resilient future.”

This is a once in a lifetime innovation challenge for governments, and how they operate now will have far reaching impacts. Startups will have a role to play, but they will only be one piece of the puzzle. The biggest test will be in orchestrating collective innovation efforts and working in trusted partnerships to deliver—which will require ongoing resources, perseverance and sustained cooperation. It is critical to acknowledge how easy it would be to default to the “business as usual” of traditional public private partnerships. But purpose-driven leadership will be needed long after lockdown is eased, and it will befall individuals to continue to act courageously to make bold decisions—always with future generations in mind — that push back on short term logics and steer innovation that is fit for the future.

When we look back on this time, hindsight really will be 2020 vision.

The Mission Oriented Innovation Network at UCL-IIPP is working with public agencies from around the world to explore new ways to direct innovation for public purpose. If you would like to know more about the network contact me




Rowan Conway

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