Dispatches from the 2020 Mission Oriented Innovation Bootcamp

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.

Immersion in the concept of mission-oriented innovation

Professor Mariana Mazzucato, Founder of IIPP, opened the workshop with a presentation that spoke to her work advising policy makers around the world on innovation-led inclusive and sustainable growth. Many participants at the event had taken their lead from two influential reports she has authored, firstly on Mission-Oriented Research & Innovation in the European Union, which turned “missions” into a policy instrument in the European Commission’s Horizon innovation programme, and her second report, “Governing Missions” which focuses on implementing missions in three key themes: Engaging citizens, public sector capabilities and financing.

Building the tools for missions

Societal challenges (climate change, ageing populations, global pandemics, etc.) will have real impacts on our societies, and they require profound changes in how we think about innovation. Moving from an era of relative certainty which sought concrete solutions to simpler challenges, to one that embraces the complexity and uncertainty ahead requires transformations that will not happen without scientific progress and technological and social innovations. Put simply: we need new tools to face the future.

  • They use various instruments (supply-side and demand-side; top-down and bottom-up).
  • They are targeted towards ambitious and concrete goals in a defined time-frame.
  • They cross various policy fields and are often inter-ministerial and cross-agency.
  • MOIPs often still rely on traditional evaluation tools and methods which may not be fit for purpose
  • Governance redesign is an important part of adopting missions. To work with multi-level (‘nested’) and cross-ministerial / cross- agency governance structure is new practice and needs development.
  • There is work to be done to understand the best internal distribution of power and structure of leadership for missions.
  • The relative novelty of a growing number of pilot experiments can mean that mission-oriented programmes face challenges in scaling-up.

Missions in Action!

With the Bootcamp we also wanted to give a flavour of what it was like to lead missions in practice, so with the help of four members of IIPP’s Mission Oriented Innovation Network, the next phase of the Bootcamp was a practice forum led by four practitioners from Sweden, Holland, Spain and the UK.


We started with Dan Hill, Director of Strategic Design at Vinnova in Sweden.

  1. Build participation from stage minus one
  2. Understand that place-based innovation unlocks systems
  3. Identify and redeploy existing embedded value
  4. Deploy technology in context of people and place
  5. Where possible integrate private, public and third sectors
  6. Deploy prototypes to help people understand the mission and promote discourse
  7. Foster continuous stewardship and engagement
  8. Use a platform strategy to scale
  9. The Innovation agency can be ‘the cement between the bricks’


Following Dan, we moved to Jordi Garcia Brustenga, from ENISA, the National Innovation Agency of Spain.

Health Holland

Following Jordi, the focus shifted to health. Tackling societal challenges in the public health arena has never been so prescient, so it was great to hear from Kirsten van Spronsen & Hanna Groen, from Health Holland, the Netherlands’ health innovation agency.

EngineeringX at the UK

And last of our practitioners, we welcomed Shaarad Sharma who leads Engineering X at the Royal Academy of Engineering, an international collaboration that brings together a network of expert engineers, academics and business leaders from around the world in partnership to deliver impact through mission oriented innovation policy. He described missions in the domains of Pandemic Preparedness, Safer Complex Systems, Safer End of Engineered Life.

  • Don’t nail down on a programme or solution too early — invest in your own understanding and capability
  • Be inclusive in the community that you build — listen to underrepresented voices and leverage networks of networks
  • Don’t duplicate, collaborate!

The key takeaways from the Bootcamp

In today’s Zoom-fatigued world, it can be hard to stay on line for three hours, but the energy and commitment to this event was palpable and we were delighted to see so many participants with us right to the end. After a round of breakout discussions, our key takeaways were:

  • Mission practice is very diverse even in a relatively uniform context of the EU. And this is a good thing as we need more experimental and iterative approaches to governance and to missions
  • Context matters!
  • There is urgent need to learn from emerging practices and to develop peer-learning communities of mission practice — MOIN and the OPSI platform are here to help!
  • It is vital to understand that missions are not easy, they need new tools, new approaches and new capabilities to deliver.
  • We should not only just focus on the granular practice-based insights (on reasons why missions fail), but also on the creative endeavour of building the tools we need that are fit for the future

And Finally…

We concluded the event with the commitment to reconvene in the new year to co-design tools for the future. Missions ask of public institutions to go against the established economic logic of market fixing to focus on value creation and this is why we need policy design and experimentation to define new ways of doing things.

More ways to engage with this work:

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