The Mission Lab:

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 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]

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.

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.

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.

Research questions

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

Research approaches

(Mixed methods)

Significance of the research

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

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.

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).

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).


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.

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