Mission-oriented innovation policy is back on the agenda, gaining more and more traction among both innovation policymakers and practitioners. The European Commission has embraced the concept of “missions” in Horizon Europe, and many innovation agencies are also planning to launch mission-oriented programmes in the near future, if they haven’t already done so.
Yet, despite all this talk about missions, there is very little knowledge, practical guidance and prior experience on how to successfully implement them.
Yet, despite all this talk about missions, there is very little knowledge, practical guidance and prior experience on how to successfully implement them. We are still missing a “how to" guide to deliver missions, and face many unanswered questions on how to successfully implement them.
Adopting a more experimental mindset is one of the ways to start getting some of the answers we need. The question is how: is it possible to embed an experimental approach in the design and implementation of mission-driven innovation policies? What would the benefits be? Where do you start?
This is what we were asked to discuss at this year’s Taftie Annual Conference in Luxembourg, which brought together innovation agencies from across the continent and beyond to discuss ‘mission-oriented research and innovation’.
In this blogpost we want to share some of our current thinking on the interaction between missions and experimentation. We also want to hear your views and learn from people working on missions – so please feel free to get in touch.
The European Commission defines it, in uncharacteristically succinct terms, as ‘an approach to policymaking which means setting defined goals, with specific targets and working to achieve them in a set time’. In her report on the topic for the Commission, Mariana Mazzucato (perhaps the biggest champion of missions) defines them as ‘systemic public policies that draw on frontier knowledge to attain specific goals or “big science deployed to meet big problems”’. The classic example is the moonshot – a concerted, cross-sector effort mobilising large resources with a clear goal in mind.
In preparing for our Taftie presentation, we tried to understand what this means in practice: what are the actions a mission-driven innovation agency must take? We found that there is very little work describing in detail the actual stages involved in mission-oriented policymaking1.
Of course, this is a complex topic and not every mission will be implemented in the same way. Yet we feel it is useful to have a simple, schematic way of summarising the key steps of a mission:
This is, naturally, very simplified, but it helped us sketch out how experimentation can be applied to missions. We are keen to hear of any other attempts to describe the practical steps required to take on mission-oriented innovation.
At IGL, experimentation is our bread and butter – we’ve spent years arguing that innovation policy should make greater use of randomised controlled trials (RCTs), and take on an experimental mindset more broadly.
That is why we were pleased to read, across much of the literature on missions, about the need to have a ‘culture of experimentation’ and that we should be ‘experimenting with new ways of policymaking’.
And yet it is not always clear what is meant by an experiment. In fact, when people talk about experimenting often they mean ‘trying something new’. However, we believe that experimentation requires learning:
There are of course a number of ways to experiment. These can be broken down into:
A key idea is that RCTs are only one tool in the toolbox – but their use is not restricted to impact evaluation experiments. In fact, when well designed, they can be used to uncover assumptions, explore potential and improve processes.
So how can these two elements – missions and experimentation – come together? We think there is potential to experiment at each of the four steps described above:
This is just the beginning of our thinking on this topic, which is becoming increasingly more important for policymakers in innovation and industrial policy.
There are lots of other elements to consider, and RCTs are only one piece of the puzzle. Experimentation means much more – it is also a mindset, an organisational culture and an approach to failure. We are also aware that experiments sit within a family of methods, and we can all learn from adopting as many tools as there are inside the policy toolbox.
We are keen to find out what other people and organisations are thinking and doing with experimentation in mission-oriented innovation. If you have any thoughts or questions, share them with us at [email protected].