What’s in the mission?

Countries that are recognised as innovation leaders and strong innovators (see European Innovation Scoreboard 2021) are increasingly taking a long-term mission-driven (also referred to as vision- or challenge-driven) approach to their innovation and science policies. For example, Sweden has noted that missions linked to global sustainability goals provide a solid ground for organisations from different sectors to cooperate with each other. In the Netherlands, missions are negotiated between relevant ministries and then articulated to implementing agencies and their stakeholders to develop priorities and programmes. In Ireland, challenge-based funding was set up as a solution-focused approach to research funding designed to direct research activities towards critical societal problems. A shift to missions is prevalent in Europe and worldwide.  Missions have been introduced in the new Research and Development Framework 2021-2027 Horizon Europe. Globally, the OECD Mission-Oriented Innovation policies online toolkit offers examples of mission-oriented innovation policies (MOIPs) to “better understand the different ways in which governments design, govern and implement these systematic initiatives” and their recent report systemically formalises and categorises mission oriented practices and patterns.

Missions are typically large-scale initiatives with high-level vision aimed at solving major societal challenges translated into concrete objectives and impact targets within a defined timeframe. Mixing the bottom-up and top-down processes, policy measures, ensuring cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral approached, cross-ministerial participation and involvement of a wider society are common elements in defining the missions towards the delivery on common goals. They reflect national priorities, including Smart Specialisation Strategies, but also EU and global initiatives, for example the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. According to Mariana Mazzucato, who advised the European Commission on the introduction of missions into Horizon Europe, “missions provide a solution, an opportunity, and an approach to address the numerous challenges that people face in their daily lives”.

Collaborations driven through missions

On the surface it might appear that mission- or challenge-oriented approach puts away all the previous efforts in some dedicated activities high on the policy agenda, for example, supporting business-science cooperation. In the report “Enhancing the efficiency of the cooperation between business and science – Moving away from silos through a mission-orientated STI policy” we argue that this is not the case. This work by EFIS Centre together with partners for the European Commission’s Directorate General for Structural Reform Support (DG REFORM) offered guidance to the Lithuanian Ministry of Economy and Innovation as well as other national stakeholders for the design and implementation of R&D programmes aimed to improve and stimulate business-science cooperation.

In July 2021 the Lithuanian government adopted the “New Generation Lithuania” Recovery and Resilience Plan (RRP) in to the context of the Economic Recovery and Resilience Facility proposed by the European Commission. Among the reforms planned under the RRP one is called “Joint research and innovation missions in the Smart Specialisation areas”. The topic of missions in the STI policy is also central to the currently ongoing OECD review of the Lithuanian R&I policy. The options for mission-based policy presented by our team under the DG REFORM study were taken into account both in devising a new solution under the RRP as well as in the OECD study.

How do missions drive collaborations, one might ask? Artificially pushing agendas on to the stakeholders – be these researchers or private sector players – will not necessarily be effective in stimulating business-science cooperation. Opportunities for a more bottom-up approach need to be supported. Introducing a mission or a vision into the research and innovation policies make separate stakeholder groups think less in a competitive form (e.g. in terms of which sector receives more support) or question some of the support measures (e.g. if business-science cooperation can be encouraged just because there is a financial measure supporting it). More so, mission- and challenge-oriented approach brings not only the research base and businesses but also wider stakeholder groups, such as non-governmental organisations and citizens. In particular, broadening participant involvement and encouraging cross-sector and interdisciplinary involvement offers increased opportunities for innovation to flourish. It also helps to overcome many of the barriers facing the research and higher education community as well as private sector.

Missions as a long-term game

A key success factor for implementing the mission-driven STI policies is perceived to be patient investment that is not disrupted by political change, combined with constant review and flexibility. This is often challenging on a national level and is even more so on regional level when strategies of different countries need to be taken onboard. Challenging but possible as we have noticed when performing an intermediate review of the Nordic Co-operation Program for Innovation and Business 2018-2021. There where we tracked the development and impacts of three thematic innovation programmes – the Nordic Sustainable Business Transformation, Nordic Smart Mobility and Connectivity and Health, Demography and Quality of Life programme.

The interventions funded and supported by Nordic Innovation fit the trend towards mission-oriented innovation policies. A co-ordinated package of policy and regulatory measures was in place tailored specifically to mobilise science, technology and innovation to address well-defined objectives related to a societal challenge, in a defined timeframe. These measures span different stages of the innovation cycle from research to demonstration and market deployment, mixing supply-push and demand-pull instruments, and cutting across various policy fields, sectors and disciplines. The key aim with long-term impact in mind was to ‘anchor’ the activities of these programmes in national priorities across the Nordic countries.

These are still early days yet for assessing impact of the Nordic Innovation programmes but some promising results are emerging that will require some form of ongoing support and long-term commitment. As one of the programme participants noted: “Trust building in ecosystems takes time”. We cannot agree more. And when building this trust and engaging in this long-term game of transformative changes, we all – active research and innovation stakeholders – need some time to reflect and not to lose one’s sense of humility. Or in the words of the most famous mission in human history: “If we’re late in answering you…”.