The Bartlett


Creating green cities through a mission approach

28 April 2021

View over the city blurred

At a glance

  • Cities have a significant impact on climate change but have struggled to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions because of how they’ve approached solving the problem.
  • Effectively addressing climate change will require cities to design policy in new ways that can create systems change.
  • Mission-oriented innovation is an approach that has begun to be used in cities, enabling new forms of action on climate change.

What is the problem?

Life for city dwellers will change radically as urban areas ramp up action to eliminate their greenhouse gas emissions over the coming years and decades. The way we heat and cool our homes and workspaces will change, people will move across the city differently, and new forms of urban design will reimagine how we interact with the built environment. Ensuring people and communities are at the centre of the design and implementation of these changes is crucial for their success and to ensure these transformations are fair.

What are the key characteristics of the problem?

Cities have a critical role in relation to the climate crisis, with the potential either to contribute further to the climate emergency or to reduce its impacts through ambitious action. 3 in 4 Europeans currently live in urban areas. Cities consume almost 80% of the world’s energy and are responsible for producing about 75% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Around the world, cities have recognised their responsibility to take action. For example, more than 300 local governments in the UK have declared a ‘climate emergency’ and many have subsequently produced action plans mapping out what they’ll do to contribute towards solutions. 

Despite their growing commitment to respond to the crisis, cities have struggled to mobilise action to combat climate change. Conventionally, climate change has been viewed and considered as an isolated challenge that can be solved by one department within a local government organisation or one sector in the economy. This ‘siloed’ or confined frame of thinking has, in part, led climate policies to be developed by trained experts with professionals from other fields and interested laypeople engaged on the periphery during consultation activities while a policy is being designed or through messaging campaigns once a policy has been established. This perception has led policymakers to design solutions that focus on addressing individual sectors such as transport or energy production. 

In addition, researchers and policymakers have also frequently focused on technological innovation as the primary solution to climate change. It is true that, for example, improving battery efficiency to store renewably generated energy, developing zero-waste ‘circular’ economies, better utilising AI to improve the operational efficacy of energy-intensive activities, and harnessing new technologies to capture and remove carbon from the air will all have an important role in helping cities reach their climate ambitions. 

However, deploying these technologies will need to go hand in hand with changes in urban behaviours. The way we use electricity in our homes, choose to move around the city, the products we decide to purchase and other activities all have an impact on our cities’ greenhouse gas emissions. If local government policymakers seek to change such areas of our lives without the public being centrally involved around the creation and implementation of the necessary policies, they run the risk of failing to win social acceptance for them and of amplifying existing inequalities.

What is the solution?

For green cities of the future to be realised, new approaches are needed that address an entire system rather than the individual interlinked parts of the system [1]. Taking a systems change approach requires engaging all the different types of knowledge and experience within the urban area. More fair, dynamic, and just cities can be created by enabling the public to participate in developing climate change policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions whilst creating additional benefits that improve their daily lives. 

One approach cities can take to bring about systems change to achieve their climate change ambition is through mission-oriented innovation [2].  Missions address a specific ‘grand challenge’ – such as climate change, or the Sustainable Development Goals – and set a clear, time-bound target that inspires society to come together to create solutions. There are five criteria for developing missions. They should: (1) be bold; (2) set a clear direction and measurable target; (3) be ambitious but realistic; (4) encourage innovation across sectors and disciplines, and (5) be open to being addressed by different types of solutions. By shaping markets in a way that tilts the economy towards a certain direction or goal, mission-oriented innovation seeks to use the power and tools of local government to produce public value for citizens as well as private benefits.

his approach produces solutions to grand challenges through ‘mission roadmaps’, blueprints that distinguish between ‘sectors’ that carry out innovation activities, and the individual ‘actors’ that steer and guide actions. Cities can use mission roadmaps as a tool for planning systems change by carefully designing a series of overlapping projects that bring multiple sectors together to act as a whole, cohesive group. Missions can enable cities to approach climate change by bringing together a wide group of actors to create solutions collaboratively. 

Mission roadmap framework, IIPP
Mission roadmap framework, IIPP

What is stopping the solution being implemented?

Bringing about systems change is enormously difficult and requires local government organisations to think of themselves in a new light, using new capabilities to solve problems. For example, missions ask local government organisations to work collaboratively and creatively across disciplines that are often separated from one another. Working in this new way requires local governments to become agile and imaginative with the ability to adapt dynamically to meet changing demands. It also calls for local governments to measure success in new ways, become able to evaluate activities in terms of their potential risks and opportunities, and monitor their progress, learning how to improve over time. New skills and tools are needed for cities to be able to solve grand challenges including climate change.

How can these barriers be removed?

At the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP), we are working with cities that are using missions to solve grand challenges. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, we launched a Renewal Commission with the London borough of Camden [3], which is drawing on the local community’s energy, creativity, knowledge, and networks. The Commission’s four missions seek to enable universal access to sustainable and nutritious food, create healthy estates and neighbourhoods, provide economic opportunity for young people, and diversify positions of power across Camden. The mission roadmaps are being set by the 15 individuals that sit on the Renewal Commission but will only be achieved by inspiring grassroots participation across the borough.

Camden Lock

By Raoul Croes on Unsplash

Each of Camden’s mission roadmaps is being delivered through a series of intersecting projects that will be overseen by a team of cross-disciplinary policy designers that have been assembled across multiple departments. One project on the sustainable and nutritious food mission is attempting to develop a zero-waste food system. A key aspect of this mission project will be to encourage young people to co-develop with the Council a public communications and engagement campaign highlighting the benefits and opportunities for different communities by achieving a zero-waste food system. The campaign aspires to frame the zero-waste food system as a pathway for wider systems change across all of the missions –enabling food production on estates, developing a sustainable school meals programme as a training opportunity to teach students employable skills, and establishing and empowering community food pantries managed and run by those using the service.

Camden’s Renewal Commission takes an approach to systems change that brings food, housing, economic opportunity, social justice and the climate crisis together. This approach views each of the four mission areas in a systemic way – the projects within each mission seek to impact as many sectors and actors as possible. Camden Council is also taking action to expand its capabilities to manage and oversee each of the four mission areas, establishing new teams with diverse disciplinary backgrounds to work collaboratively. The approach is demonstrating how mission-oriented innovation can be used by cities to support systems change.


Solving the climate crisis requires sweeping changes in the economic activities and daily lives of residents. Missions provide cities with an approach for mobilising the enormous resources and developing the new capabilities needed to address the climate emergency. Cities can be at the forefront of delivering action to eliminate greenhouse gases. Mission-oriented innovation is one approach that can enable cities to embrace systems change to address the climate crisis in a holistic way.

Key references for further information

[1] Graham-Leigh, E. (2020). Climate change requires system change. The Ecologist

[2] Mazzucato, M and Dibb, G. (2019). Missions: A beginner’s guide. UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, Policy Brief Series (IIPP PB 09)

[3] Camden Renewal Commission