The Mission Lab:

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

Rowan Conway
12 min readJun 2, 2020

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 era in geological history in which human beings are the primary agents of change on Earth. Biermann (2007) states that Earth’s systems have feedback loops between human society and the global environment and he defines “Earth System Governance” as “the sum of the formal and informal rule systems and actor-networks at all levels of human society (from local to global) that are set up in order to influence the co-evolution of human and natural systems in a way that secures the sustainable development of human society.” He notes that Earth System governance involves a wide range of public and non-state actors at all levels of decision-making: “ranging from networks of experts, environmentalists and multinational corporations, to agencies set up by governments.”[2]

In the last 20 years, the emergence of comprehensive scientific data[3] on climate change and natural resource depletion, has given rise to public policies that aim to counter their growing pressures on our planet. The Paris Agreement 2015[4] was seen as the most significant step toward global cooperation and demonstrated a clear consensus and political will to tackle global challenges across nations. Apart from one notable exception (the USA), all signatory nations have since made significant strides toward making the Paris Agreement a reality in their countries. A World Resources Institute review[5] of major national announcements in 2017, showed that many countries are accelerating their climate efforts, setting bolder emission-reduction targets and protecting their fauna and forests. Examples include the government in New Zealand who set the mission to go carbon neutral by 2050; China’s ambitions for planting 6.6 million hectares of new forest in 2018; the closure of coal power plants in Chile; and the commitment to invest $25 billion in low-carbon technology in Ireland. As Mariana Mazzucato has said, the time for “mission-oriented innovation policy” is now.

Public policy around the world is reorienting in this vein, with European[6], US[7] and UK government strategies[8] looking to direct public investment towards innovation — what Mazzucato would call “tilting the playing field”. For nation states to use their spending power to stimulate innovation[9] to solve public problems in the environment, health, education, inequality, employment and housing, it needs to focus on action. The role of the state must go beyond fixing market failures and setting policy direction. Public actors, from city Mayors to central government departments need to find new ways to collaborate with others to take concrete actions that will help them meet ambitious climate change and other mission-led targets. These are the next generation of “public entrepreneurs”.

A personal inquiry into the mission-oriented approach

Over the course of my 20 years as a practitioner in social innovation and sustainability, my career has always gravitated towards “missions”. I have managed a wide range of projects in the private, public and third sectors all driven by the motive for public good. In the early 2000s, I worked as a sustainability consultant with private developers and the BP pension fund to invest in sustainable urban developments, in this work I observed trade-offs that exhibited “price-equals-value thinking”[10] and therefore defaulted to extractive capitalism. Following this I moved to the public sector to design community engagement in the planning process for the London 2012 Olympic Park and again observed trade-offs in the “value engineering” of the project. In my role in the third sector at the RSA (arguably the originator of the challenge prize for social missions), I experimented with how to be a “public entrepreneur” when even “impact investments” are extractive and prioritise shareholder return and financial gain above solving societal problems.

Working in the RSA Lab, I engaged with many visionary public servants, as well as those in the corporate sector and charitable funders — and we explored what it takes for the public and social sector to collaborate and fund innovation for social good. What I observed is that even in the social sector the incentives are defined by short termism — set to invest in projects with fast paybacks. Today’s public entrepreneurs are taking on the topline concept of “missions” and testing out innovation funds and challenge prizes in Innovation Labs — but rarely do they think through the long term implications or call for deeper systemic change.

There is a widening literature tracking the growth of dynamic capabilities and design processes in government, especially around Participatory Design and co-design, (Garud, Tuertscher &Van de Ven 2013), as well as co-production (Voorberg, Bekkers, Tummers 2014) and systems change (Birney, 2014). But the use of public funds for investment in innovation is less developed. While Innovation Labs are building government capability in design thinking and cultivating cross-departmental collaboration, they are seemingly not fostering techniques for long term public entrepreneurialism and mission-led investment as yet.

There are a growing number of theory-based policy proposals akin to Mazzucato’s “ROAR” Framework[11] that have emerged to provide structure for directionality (notably Kate Raworth’s “Doughnut Economics”[12]), but if, as Mariana Mazzucato says: “innovation requires investments and risk taking by both private and public actors” as well as requiring “consensus building in civil society”, public service entrepreneurs will need to combine the clarity of thought needed to set directions with the capability to foster experimentation and engage with a wide range of public actors and stakeholders.

With this PhD, I am engaging directly with debates on the routes to mission-oriented innovation, influencing the debate on “what works” and developing tools for experimentation in government, as well as understanding the behaviours and psychology of the public entrepreneur.

Positioning of the research

As illustrated above, the “why” and the “what” of mission-oriented innovation are increasingly clear. But there is a pressing need for action research into the “how” of making it happen. My PhD is a collaboration between the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at the Bartlett and the Experimental Psychology Lab at UCL, with supervision from Rainer Kattel at IIPP and Lasana Harris at the Department of Experimental Psychology.

Rainer Kattel is a thought leader in public sector innovation [14] and can speak to both “innovation in government” (transforming public administration, such as the shift to digital service provision) and “innovation through government” (initiatives that “foster innovation elsewhere in society, such as the public procurement of innovation, the unitary patent or support to social entrepreneurship”)[15]. In my proposed research I am primarily interested in innovation through government.

Kattel’s work on the practice of public service innovation gives in depth analyses of the public organization and its capacity to become an “innovative bureaucracy” by looking at public sector institutions through both an organizational and functional lens. He says: “Most existing research on this specific question focuses either on the individual level (public entrepreneurship) or institutional level (innovation systems, social innovations) seeking either psychological/individual or cultural, regulatory, or similar determinants of innovation. Yet, private sector innovation studies largely concentrate on firms as the locus of innovation: organizations are the environments where individual and institutional determinants combine in complex ways and lead to different innovation” Kattel has also explored the practice of digitising government and I want to build on his work by blending the account of the innovative bureaucracy, together with the insights I gained setting up the RSA Innovation Lab.

In the RSA Lab, I led a range of action research-based tests — primarily with third sector and public sector actors (Innovate UK, NSPCC, and Guys and St Thomases Charity) into collaborative decision-making or “collective impact”. It is here that I am inspired by the work of Lasana Harris’ in the experimental psychology department at UCL. Harris’s work looks at the social side of decision-making and encompasses social psychology, affective and cognitive neuroscience with philosophy of mind, developmental psychology and evolutionary anthropology and how they are applied to economics, law and policy. Where his approach is highly relevant to the “how” of mission-oriented innovation is in the focus on “social cognition” in decision-making. Harris’s social neuroscience evidence looks at how social context affects decision-making and challenges the rational economic notions that underpin “nudge” theory. I believe it is essential to challenge these theories if we are to test the capability of government actors to make investment decisions to support mission-oriented innovation.

In this PhD I will study three levels — the systemic change potential (macro or paradigm level change), the policy of mission-oriented innovation (meso or organisational level) and the psychology of the public entrepreneur (micro or individual level), with the view of putting MOIP theory into practice and testing “what works”.

The need for rapid action is of critical importance. For nations and cities to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, or to invest billions in sustainable infrastructure, public entrepreneurs will have to act fast, with the competence of an economist and the confidence of start-up founder. I want my research to show them how to do this — without the need to resort to short term thinking or solutionism.

The academic literature that I see as most important to this project spans a range of disciplines. The economic theory will be grounded in the work of heterodox economists and thinkers such as Carlota Perez, Mariana Mazzucato, Kate Raworth, and Saskia Sasson, who all define the need for a new account of public investment and value creation. The “what” is very clear — we need to pivot toward large scale investment in innovation for the public good. The “how” presents a significant challenge. I am therefore also investigating the contemporary behavioural economics agenda and rethinking its application (away from nudge and toward participatory processes) with experiments in social cognition looking at the mindset of the public entrepreneur.

Getting beyond nudge theory

A relatively recent innovation in public administration has been the adoption of “nudge theory” originated by Nobel prize winning economist Richard Thaler (2008). Nudge theory assumes that a benevolent decision-maker can identify ‘rational’ behaviour and develop “choice architecture” to nudge pro-social action. When thinking about the “how” of public entrepreneurship and investment, nudge theory could emerge as a tool of choice, but there are considerable flaws in its logic. Lodge, et al (2016) say there is “a fundamental paradox at the heart of Nudge, namely that an approach that places bounded rationality at the heart of its thinking reflects so little about the limits of its own rationality.” Rationality is tested by social decisions and mission-oriented investments are, by definition, social.

To understand the mission-oriented investment decision-making process at the micro level, I propose to take a neuroscientific approach. By understanding what goes on in the brain, we can begin to dissociate social and non-social decisions. To look at the practice of mission-oriented innovation investment, the behaviours that underpin decision-making are important to explore. When it comes to investment decisions that go against the economic orthodoxy, the rationality of “homo economicus” — the ‘ideal’ decision-maker, a master of rationality — is profoundly tested. I would like to build a body of knowledge that produces a more accurate picture of those public entrepreneurs who make decisions about public missions, understanding the psychological and biological basis of behaviour. So the framework for my research proposal is as follows:

Research questions

1. What are the enabling conditions for mission-oriented innovation policy to deliver on its goals?

2. What are the characteristics of successful public entrepreneurialism?

3. What motivates the public entrepreneur to collaborate and invest to help others?

Research approaches

(Mixed methods)

1. Macro and Meso — Practice based action-research (The Mission Lab)

2. Micro — First person action inquiry alongside behavioural experiments into social cognition and decision making in the Experimental psychology lab at UCL

Significance of the research

Tests the practical application of theory and policy for mission-oriented innovation

Generates an understanding the neuroscience of the public entrepreneur: bringing neuroscience in to underpin theories of public entrepreneurship and investment

Research design

The parameters of this research are to investigate the practice of mission-oriented investment in innovation and the uncover the mindset of the public entrepreneur. The core methodology I propose is a practice-based action research inquiry that will focus on exploring how to build collaborative of actors who together deliver on mission-driven innovation initiatives. Core to this project will be the development of a “Mission Lab” to undertake action research experiments with real government actors. Here I would seek to work with the Mission Oriented Innovation Network that is already established at UCL IIPP, convening various organisations from around the world in different sectors, all focused on mission-oriented innovation.

The secondary research method would be in the experimental psychology lab at UCL, to explore the mindset of the public entrepreneur. These different approaches would set out to be complementary. By augmenting the standard action research process of cycles action and reflection (Reason and Bradbury 2001), the overall approach would be as follows:

· Evidence review of mission based public investment strategies (year 1–2)

· Practice-based action research (the Mission Lab) (year 2–4)

· Game Experiments with social cognition in Experimental psychology lab (year 2–4)

· Reporting (year 4–5)

Evidence review

The research began with a standard evidence review of mission based public investment strategies: starting with a background to the research, literature review, informing the action research methodology and investigating the following (not limited to) research domains: economic theory; sustainability and systems change; user centred design in government; Design thinking processes; involvement of users, citizens and stakeholders as actors in policy development; collaborative platforms, collective impact investment processes; public entrepreneurship; challenge prizes and other policy options to address a particular challenge; policy experimentation.

Action research: the Mission Lab

Action research is usually a two-cycle model — a continuous process of action and reflection. Informed by the evidence review I would aim to set up a 2-year learning laboratory with dynamic cycles of action and reflection that bring in and reframe different knowledge and perspectives from a widening range of stakeholders in government to test a real-world process of investment in missions. This process aims to facilitate transformative learning amongst stakeholders (Ha et al., 2015e).

The core action research project will use soft systems thinking to underpin an ‘action’ driven research programme to understand the enabling environments for mission-oriented innovation. The Lab process would follow a framework for action inquiry adapted from Anna Birney’s (2014) strategy for systems change practitioners, the process would seek to undertake the following:

1. Identify the different actors in the system. Engage leaders and people engaged in public service missions.

2. Scan the wider landscape for emerging signals and trends of change. Produce a systems map.

3. Co-design experiments and projects that mobilise people and develop prototypes of the new.

4. Create innovation and learning support structures, such as communities of practice that build bridges from the niche to the mainstream.

5. Continually monitor and reflect on what is happening at all levels, ready to capitalise on the windows of opportunity. (Birney, 2014:27–29)

This would aim to be a collaborative process, so the development of action learning sets within the community of practice could emerge (these could also engage with the Mission Oriented Innovation Network). The outputs of this process would be a series of lab notes tracking the process of action and reflection and determining findings from the feedback loops. Alongside experiments, I would aim to gather supplementary evidence in a range of innovative ways.

Game Experiments with social cognition

Alongside the Mission Lab, I would seek to bring a range of government actors to undertake neuroscientific experiments into social cognition to understand risk perception and decision making. These experiments would employ behavioural, cognitive, and physiological measures as well as brain imaging techniques to study the effects of social knowledge (e.g., goals, beliefs), social situations (e.g., power, status), and social stimuli (e.g., faces, social rewards).

To undertake this work, I propose a controlled game experiment with the same actors participating in the action inquiry process in the Mission Lab. Findings from this controlled experiment would aim to be written up and feature in a noted academic journal.


The combined findings from the practice-based action research and the experiments into social cognition and decision making, will be tested with an advisory group comprised of government actors and academia. This report will draw together the findings to identify coherent recommendations to government, academia and the third sector on the practice of investment into “mission-oriented innovation” and the mindset of the public entrepreneur.

[1] Crutzen and Will Steffen (2003)






[7] the 2016 American Innovation and Competitiveness Act set a mandate to turn federal research into companies as “a national goal to promote economic growth and benefit society







[14] EU Expert Group on Public Sector Innovation, 2013

[15] Powering European Public Sector Innovation: Towards A New Architecture, EU 2013 —,



Rowan Conway

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