Innovation is required to address increasingly complex societal challenges. Late last year, we organised a workshop to build capacity within the Finnish innovation agency Business Finland, bringing together staff from across the organisation to consider how their approach could be both more mission-driven and more clearly centred on the needs of the communities they serve - Finland’s innovators.
Nesta has long been interested in the potential of national innovation agencies to convene and lead cross-sector partnerships capable of developing innovative solutions to societal challenges. There are signs that this is already happening in some places. For example, in the last few years the Swedish innovation agency VINNOVA has reoriented its innovation support activities towards addressing the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. The European Commission’s forthcoming Horizon Europe agenda is built around ‘research and innovation missions [that] aim to deliver solutions to some of the greatest challenges facing our world’. Innovation and science policy institutions are already responding with speed to the new challenges created by COVID-19.
Yet there remains much ambiguity about how these missions - both those that can be anticipated and those that are more unexpected - can and should be operationalised, and which organisations and groups need to be involved. In a 2019 paper on this theme, Nesta posed some questions for innovation agencies about how they could support mission-oriented innovation policies, including:
To explore some of these questions in a practical setting, we organised a workshop in Helsinki with Matt Finch of mechanicaldolphin.com, entitled ‘Many Roads Ahead’.
Using 'fast facilitation' methods to swiftly elicit key ideas and pressing challenges, we asked participants to consider their mission in terms of the value created by their relationships with stakeholders in the innovation ecosystem. As Nesta's report Public value: how can it be measured, managed, and grown? indicates, contemporary notions of value can be complex and contested - but unless we attend to value explicitly, we risk ending up with unhappy results.
Using a value-creating systems approach derived from work at Oxford University's Saïd Business School, we helped the group to map key relationships held by both Business Finland and their clients.
These maps allowed workshop participants to identify and define the different kinds of value being created through their interactions - and through other interactions by their clients, where they might usefully intervene in the future. These speculative interventions were then made practical through discussions of the risks, opportunities, and requirements which would be involved in their execution.
Building on these discussions, we facilitated a conversation within the group about the kinds of ‘missions’ this might imply for a country like Finland. Suggestions ranged from more ‘local’ issues (such as ending the use of single-use materials and products and revolutionising the Finnish textile industry) through to more ‘global’ and unexpected challenges (such as promoting a digital revolution in Africa to support growth and development and change the imperatives for migration).
This fed a discussion of the kinds of roles that an organisation like Business Finland might play in addressing the mission, and coordinating with other actors across the innovation ecosystem.
The session raised many questions requiring further exploration and analysis. How should missions be defined and selected? How can innovation agencies like Business Finland reconcile the need to provide inclusive support to diverse groups of innovators with the notion of joint missions addressing complex societal challenges? What will it mean for the 21st century innovation agency to evolve along with the communities it serves, and the concept of 'innovation' itself?
However, it also demonstrated new ways of helping innovation agencies themselves to imagine the ways in which they might innovate to meet the uncertainties of a changing world.