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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Many roads ahead: the role of innovation agencies in driving societal missions

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.

Innovating solutions to societal challenges

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:

  • What are the key challenges facing your country that could benefit from a mission-oriented approach to innovation policy? How do these relate to your agency’s mandate and responsibilities?
  • What is the unique contribution your agency could make to the coordination or delivery of mission-oriented policies?
  • Does your agency have the power and the capabilities it needs to convene or implement missions? What methods and tools would you use to operationalise these missions?

Exploring value creation with Business Finland

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’.

'Many Roads Ahead' Helsinki workshop

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.

'Many Roads Ahead' workshop map 1
'Many Roads Ahead' workshop map 2

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).

'Many Roads Ahead' workshop map 3

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.

'Many Roads Ahead' workshop map 4

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.


Alex Glennie

Alex Glennie

Alex Glennie

Senior Policy Manager

Alex is a Senior Policy Manager in the Innovation Growth Lab (IGL).

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Matt Finch

Matt Finch, of mechanicaldolphin.com, is a writer and foresight professional who helps communities, companies, and institutions to bring new ideas to light and put them into action.