Realizing mission-oriented innovations in a fast-moving world

Longread with Dan Hill from the Swedish innovation agency Vinnova about identifying, following through, and evaluating missions.

Dan Hill
Director of Strategic Design, Vinnova


Can you tell me about Vinnova and your role there?

Vinnova is the Swedish Government’s national innovation agency, and we’re responsible for coordinating Sweden’s innovation ecosystems. That largely takes the form of funding research and innovation projects across the country, and working in collaboration with other national agencies, regional governments, municipal governments, and the private and third sector, as well as with international partners. We have a dual role of being a funding agency for projects, innovation activities, and competence centres and all kinds of other entities, and for assessing, coordinating, facilitating and stimulating innovation across the system.

As the Director of Strategic Design, my particular focus is to look at new innovation tools, capabilities, and cultures. Understanding that we constantly have to innovate how we innovate, what tools and approaches do we need to develop, and how?

That involves a lot of engagement on the ground with actors right across the system – and indeed outside of it – to figure out what kind of innovation and research capabilities are needed.

Mission-oriented innovation is one of the primary approaches we’re testing and developing at the moment. That’s based on a few years’ worth of work I’ve been doing with the University College London (UCL) Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, where I’m a Visiting Professor. I worked previously on taking a mission-oriented approach to the industrial strategy in the UK, as well as in related areas for many years elsewhere, such as SITRA in Finland.  

In Sweden I’ve been looking at how to take forward the approach on the ground – what would it mean to co-design and co-develop missions and new innovation approaches? 

As a designer, what does taking a missions-oriented approach mean for your day-to-day work? What do you find most exciting about it?

One thing that’s particularly useful is the focus on societal challenges drawn from the Sustainable Development Goals, or the Paris climate change agreement, or from related national priorities. That gives a very clear agenda for innovation and research. 

That’s not to say that we don’t do so-called ‘blue sky’ innovation research as well – of course we do, because some of that is useful for solving societal challenges too, but also some fundamental research cannot describe its potential value in advance; that’s entirely clear, and fair.

But missions, and that societal framing, provide a very clear focus on tangible, concrete actions that will be meaningful for transitioning society to where we need to be, in order to achieve goals for sustainable development. 

As a designer, that’s particularly interesting because most design work is about having a positive impact in order to achieve something, in multiple ways. That’s what makes a difference.

Another key aspect of missions is taking a systemic approach, deliberately moving across existing structures and organizational boundaries, finding the gaps and gluing them together, and working in a far more people and place-based way as a result.

That’s something that design can pursue pretty well – looking at things where you have to clarify the question in the first place, where you’re not really sure what the answer is, or even what the research goal might be, but you’re using methods to address and achieve those things. Dealing with ambiguity and complexity from a blank canvas position is something that design is quite good at.

The systematic approach doesn’t just mean cutting across silos and boundaries – for example understanding that health isn’t just to do with the ministry of health, it’s to do with all ministries, individuals and communities as well – it’s about multiple levels and working from top-down and bottom-up. It’s a very participative approach involving citizens on the ground, as well as a top-down approach from scientists and experts. It’s balancing the different types of knowledge accordingly.

Scientific expertise is of course fundamentally useful, but it’s not the only type of expertise and knowledge. Communities have huge reserves of knowledge and capability about what’s required on the ground, and importantly, they are a key part of making anything happen. We can balance both of those things together with a mission-oriented approach.

How do you go about engaging the communities and getting them involved with identifying missions, or tracking progress towards missions?

Building a participatory approach has been a big focus, and that’s partly a reflection on the approach we took when we were developing the mission-oriented response to the industrial strategy for the UK, which was a rather more top-down approach led by academics and experts with some politicians on board. That was appropriate in that context, and produced meaningful results, but with our approach in Sweden we deliberately wanted to go to as close to the front line as possible, understanding that that’s where you develop real insights as to what to do, and how to do it. 

Most research tells us that we have what we need to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in terms of technology, it depends on our approach, and thus it’s a question of how, where, when.

Information derived from the front line in particular can help understand how to do this deployment. That’s a big swing towards a behavioural understanding of what communities might be able to do in a particular place, and what businesses can do using today’s technologies, and the technologies that will be available in the near term. In terms of technology readiness levels, it could be that we have most of the things we need in place, more or less and the response to the COVID-19 crisis tells us that in fact behavioural change can happen incredibly quickly given a particular set of circumstances. 

The question is how to develop long-term change that way for a long-term emergency, but a lot of those behavioural changes can happen outside of pandemic conditions as well.  We’re trying to understand those and that’s been derived from working at the front line. The first thing we’ve done is to work with lots of stakeholders, people you might call frontline actors – people running businesses or frontline services within local or regional government, perhaps around health, mobility, food, buildings, planning or whatever. It might involve people running public transport or school food delivery services or big businesses like Volvo and Ikea. We went through about 500 organizations across six or seven months, understanding where the pressure or intervention points were from their experience. In a way, they were a proxy for real users and citizens, but we’ve got that first set of responses.

From that, we’ve moved into prototyping, or starting to develop things that we can put out in public that citizens can react to, have a dialogue about and understand in the course of their everyday life. These might be prototype elements of a sustainable street design, actually built over parking spaces. Over the course of those conversations, participants reveal what they’re interesting in changing in terms of their own behaviour and values as well. Those are ideas we can develop in dialogue. That prototype gives you a way of figuring out what you can take back into the development process, and translate into what we call larger scale ‘systems demonstrators’. So it’s not about developing something in the lab for 10 years — much of it already has been — these are things that we’re dropping to the street as soon as possible.

You mentioned some differences in the way the mission-oriented approach is being implemented in Sweden as opposed to the UK. Do you think there’s a difference in the way the idea is being received as well?

If you look at the missions publications developed by Mariana Mazzucato they talk about a top-down and bottom-up approach. With the development of the UK industrial strategy we didn’t do that much engagement, and that’s not a criticism by any means, it’s just the nature of the commission that was set up. It was very effective in its context, and was far more diverse in its composition and discourse than is usually the case.

Since then, Mariana, in particular, has done some really great work for the European Commission in a report called Governing Missions, which makes very clear the citizen participation agenda, and the European Commission is trying to understand how to do that. But doing this kind of participation properly is a real challenge for institutions, whether it’s the UK Government, the Swedish Government or the Commission. That’s where a design process has been quite useful, because a good design process based around user research and iterative development involving prototypes is applicable to that kind of participation-led policy development. It hasn’t been tried that much, but it’s fit for purpose.

There may be a difference in Sweden in that Swedes are used to having a lot of dialogue and consensus across multiple actors – it’s been that way since around the 1920s. There’s a very large and complex public sector, for instance, and very big players in industry side and the third sector and trade unions and so on. There’s a strong tradition of what is now called a form of ‘stakeholder capitalism’, or more generally of participative dialogue — in Sweden known as a ‘Middle Way’ approach since the 1930s. It’s also a relatively non-hierarchical place.

We felt that it would be a good environment to test the missions approach. In a way, the idea has been to see what the bottom-up process can develop in terms of understanding – for example how quickly we could achieve healthy, sustainable mobility or healthy, sustainable food using all of the tools we have to hand, and then to take that to politicians and say this is what we think the system is capable of. That’s opposed to having the other approach in which a politician, for example, simply sets a discrete goal and then we all work towards it, which I don’t think Sweden would do — it’s far more symbiotic and engaged — and I don’t think is even possible these days, given the diversity of society. Of course overall goals, like the UN SDGs or the government’s stated ambition to be a ‘fossil free welfare state’ set the overall ‘North Star’, but we co-develop discrete goals towards that agenda.

How do you create a balance between missions as creating a system-wide roadmap towards a goal, and the potential to experiment and change course if necessary?

Developing anything is really a question of experimentation and adapting as you go. It would be foolhardy to set a target and try and stick to it no matter what feedback you’re getting in reality. 

A design-led process is very much built for this kind of iterative process of prototyping and evaluating research as you go, and then developing a system accordingly. Many of our contemporary systems are being built in that way – they’re actually based on real-time feedback, sometimes consciously or not, and that’s what we’re trying to get close to.

We’re looking at different evaluation methods, where you don’t just set a target and come back to it in five years and say ‘how did it go’, but where we’re actually able to evaluate as we go. That could mean changing direction if something’s not working, and equally it might mean we achieve things more quickly than we originally thought, and we want to take advantage of that and move the target forward or expand the target.

There’s a very positive side of being able to iterate, prototype and develop as you go and it maps onto the reality we have. If we think in terms of fast-moving and slow-moving layers of systems, we’ve already built a lot of the slow stuff. We’ve built our highway system; we’ve built most of our cities for the next 20 years. It’s a question of retrofitting them and changing what already exists. Often that’s these quick and moving layers to do with behaviour or the way things interact with and run on top of the existing system. So we’re looking at how to exert change there.

Because we’re looking at these faster-moving layers, you have to take a more fluid, adaptive approach to target-setting and policymaking. That’s something that governments and politicians aren’t used to, but designers and scientists absolutely are – things happen based on feedback and data that are derived from real-time experiments. Sometimes there can be completely accidental outcomes like the discovery of penicillin. You have to be able to adapt and take advantage of changes and that’s something we’re trying to then bring into the world of policymaking.

We’re all experiencing massive real-time behavioural change right now with the COVID-19 outbreak.

You can see the impact of the economy slowing down and changes in the environment in real time. The economic impact is horrible in the short term, but the changes could be very powerful in the long term — negative and positive. The environmental impact may be fantastic in the very short term, but we don’t want to have to have a pandemic to get that kind of effect. We’ve seen how closing down factories has improved air quality in China and theoretically saved more lives than were lost to the virus. The virus was unexpected but the industrial system is something we designed, so we might as well look at the system we designed and try and change it in some way.

The response shows that people can change behaviour very rapidly and some version of life goes on, so we want to ensure that we can get positive behavioural change without a pandemic, without people dying or losing their livelihoods. It would be fantastic if people drove a little less and flew a little less. Hitting the sustainable development goals we’ve signed up to means those kinds of changes. Most people know that, so how do we do that without a pandemic? Of course, we want to be able to move around and fly as required, but we know that we can’t do it to the extent that we did in the high-carbon era.

If the first wave of responding to the outbreak is to stopping the virus, the second wave is then understanding the short-term changes we can learn from for the longer term. 

For example, we’ve been talking about remote working for decades and made very little progress. We now know that a large proportion of the entire nation can do that with one week’s notice. When we go back to the office, will it be about going back every day, or working from home two days a week? The impact on mobility, buildings, and neighbourhoods in terms of carbon emissions, health, and biodiversity could be enormous if we transitioned to the next patterns. We want to make sure that the negative impacts of social isolation are dealt with, but we at least potentially have that choice ahead of us, having seen that we can do it.

And is your work being affected by the outbreak?

We’re figuring out how it affects the work – we were just heading into the physical prototyping stages for certain things, and now we can’t do those with members of the public just yet. I’m hoping we’ll be able to do so by the summer but I don’t know. More broadly, we’re thinking about how to look at across the short-term and long-term together, knowing that we might not want to just fire everything back up to business-as-usual given that we need to be tending towards a different trajectory.

This is part of a series of blogs examining ideas of ‘moonshot’ or ‘mission-oriented research’. Interested in contributing to the debate? Contact to find out more.