UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose


Mission-oriented innovation

Missions lay behind some of the biggest innovative leaps forward of the last century and can offer the transformative approach needed today.

People forming an upward arrow

The UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP) had led on putting missions at the heart of innovation and growth policy globally. This policy brief sets out why, where, and how missions matter.

The 21st century is becoming increasingly defined by the need to respond to major issues facing society, the environment around us and the possibility of developing a prosperous equal economy. Sometimes referred to as ‘grand challenges’, these include climate change, ageing societies, preventative healthcare, and generating sustainable growth for the benefit of all.

Innovation has not just a rate but also a direction. How that direction is set — not just by the government but by different actors and socio-political forces — is a key aspect of IIPP’s work. But how should we decide which direction? We use the concept of public value as a way to think about which direction innovation and industrial policy takes. Public value is value that is created collectively for a public purpose — this requires citizens to engage in defining purpose, nurturing capabilities and capacities, assess the value created, and ensure that societal value is distributed equitably.

What are missions?

Grand challenges by their nature are big, bold, difficult and complex. The UN recently launched 17 Sustainable Development Goals which act as global grand challenges, beginning with ending poverty everywhere. To make these challenges achievable, they have to be broken down into pragmatic steps. We term these missions — concrete targets within a challenge that act as frames and stimuli for innovation.

Using missions to drive national industrial strategy or innovation policy means focussing less on sectors — from automotives to telecommunications — and more on problems that matter to all.