Changing the Way we Innovate: Mission-Led Challenges and Capacity Development

The way most nations fund research teams is through highly competitive processes that select winners from a plethora of ‘bottom-up’ project proposals.  Mission-led research programmes have become a new, prominent way to try to align researchers with important grand challenges.  But how do you change an innovation system to form multi-disciplinary mission-led teams?  One approach is that designed by the ‘Science for Technological Innovation’ (SfTI) National Science Challenge (NSC) in New Zealand, which appears to be changing research capacity to work in very diverse teams to address important missions.

Why is Change Needed?

Afterall, hasn’t our research system served the world well?  There are two probable reasons for why the shift to mission-led research might be gaining traction.  First, there is a perception in many countries that, while the public support of research is at a high level, the economies are not necessarily getting the corresponding output that would be expected.  Evidence for this can be seen in the differences for many (but not all) countries in their Global Innovation Index (GII) input (education, R&D input, infrastructure, etc) and output (patents, high-tech exports, new business/population) sub-indices scores 2.  These indicate that many countries are not good at translating their high-quality research into economic and well-being impacts.  Put simply there is a perception (much disputed by researchers of course) that a lot of value remains in the laboratories? 1
This on-going frustration coincides at a time when challenges to our world are occurring at a global scale that one individual country is unable to substantively tackle.  The seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) epitomise these challenges.  Our traditional, largely investigator-driven, bottom-up processes are unlikely to address these goals at the scale and speed required to shift the dial on the impending impacts.


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Perhaps the most vocal and prolific writer on the need to address grand challenges through mission-led research is Professor Mariana Mazzucato, from the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, University College London 3.  An economist, Professor Mazzucato has long argued that we hugely underestimate and undervalue the contribution of publicly funded research to our frontier technologies 4.  More recently, her team have written numerous reports for the OCED that are great reading for those interested in how to implement mission-oriented research 5.
As might be expected, missions are akin to the ‘moon-shots’ of old.  As Mazzucato states, innovation has not only a rate but also directionality.  “A key lesson is that missions must be bold, activating innovation across sectors, across actors, and across disciplines. … by harnessing the directionality of innovation, we also harness the power of research and innovation to achieve wider social and policy aims as well as economic goals” 6.
Professor Mazzucato is not alone in wanting the world to take action over grand challenges.  UCLA, for example, has been instrumental in seeding a Community of Practice for University-Led Grand Challenges, having had success in their 2013 Sustainable Grand Challenge to transition Los Angeles to, amongst other things, 100% locally sourced water 7.
Grand Challenges are the subject of academic writing as well, such as two examples entitled “Tackling Grand Challenges Pragmatically: Robust Action Revisited” and “Understanding and Tackling Societal Grand Challenges through Management Research” 8.  No matter what the vehicle or the audience, there are consistent messages about needing to collaborate across discipline and organisational boundaries, about being flexible and about enabling experimentation.

Are Our Innovation Systems Fit for Mission-Led Research?

No one would disagree that innovation systems should be flexible and enable experimentation and collaboration.  Saying it though is a lot easier than doing it!  Most national research systems seem to be designed with exactly the opposite intent.  Funding programmes have very strict rules, expected outputs are set well in advance and researchers are made to compete against other, rather than collaborate.
Most projects must conform to the generic funding policies that don’t usually allow for experimentation as that is deemed too risky to embrace politically, let alone practically.  There are a lot of cost-benefit analyses and promises of economic impact but little thought about public value generation.  Does this sound familiar?  It’s been obvious for years, but little appears to change.
Perhaps the move to addressing grand challenges might facilitate a fundamental change in behaviour in our research systems?  The grand challenges are probably the easiest thing to identify – those wicked, complex problems that persist globally – such as those embodied in the SDGs.  But what about the missions?

Doing Mission-Led Research?

Missions come in different shapes and sizes so not all will fit one approach.  There are probably many opinions around the globe as to what mission-led research is, but New Zealand has been experimenting with a mission-led approach, so may be one example from which implementation lessons can be learnt.
Professor Mazzucato gives guidance in her 2017 Mission-Oriented Innovation Policy report 9 about what is required to develop mission-led research, and she outlines seven practical steps.  There are no arrows between these steps, as these aren’t sequential, but all are aspects that need to be addressed.

  1. Mission selection: How to select the missions that have enduring and democratic legitimacy.
  2. Co-production: How to engage public, private and third sector actors in mission selection, implementation, learning and evaluation processes.
  3. Mission Definition: How to define missions concretely but with sufficient breadth to motivate action across multiple sectors of the economy, enabling new types of interactions between public, private and third sectors, and over different time horizons.
  4. Dynamic Capacities: How to develop new competencies and capabilities for dynamic change: ability to envision new futures and to accommodate risk-taking, experimentation and underlying uncertainty of the discovery process.
  5. Decision Tools: How to develop new indicators and assessment tools to aid decision-making and evaluate impact, beyond the static cost-benefit framework.
  6. Managing Failure: How to manage inevitable failure as well as success by taking a portfolio approach.
  7. Sharing Rewards: How to ensure rewards as well as risks are shared so that the growth generated is inclusive as well as smart.

The New Zealand SfTI NSC team came across this seven-step framework three years after we launched, but our mission-led programme has actually put in place many initiatives that align with these steps, so we can use this framework to describe the ‘how’ in our case.  Professor Mazzucato’s terminology doesn’t always overlap exactly with that used in New Zealand but it is a useful way to describe our work.


  1. Mission Selection
    The first step in the New Zealand process was to identify the challenges that our research community should address that are particular to our nation, values and culture.  So, these are not quite at the scale of the global challenges of all of the SDGs, but concentrate on those that face New Zealand as a country.  Ideas were ‘crowd-sourced’ throughout New Zealand (4.5m people) and submitted to a panel led by the Prime Minister’s Chief Scientist to collate.
    Not surprisingly, the main ideas were very much wrapped up with New Zealand’s societal and environmental values.  Eleven NSCs were eventually identified; four environmental, three health, and four economic/Infrastructure challenges 10, each with their own mission.  Each Challenge must encourage proposals from New Zealand’s ‘best team’ and look for additionality, that is, new ways of doing things over and above ‘business as usual’, in terms of scientific approaches, collaboration between researchers, disciplines, and stakeholder organisations, and new ways to manage research activities.
    SfTI’s mission is to “enhance the capacity of New Zealand to use physical sciences and engineering for economic growth”.  SfTI takes very seriously the opportunity that has been delegated to us to explore how to ‘innovate’ the processes for successful mission-led science and for enhancing capacity.  That ‘capacity’ word has turned out to be critical to our challenge, which we will return to later.
  1. Co-production
    Co-production of research is a goal often cited but very hard to achieve. SfTI developed a “Mission Lab” approach to co-production whereby we invited industry and Māori leaders 11 who can think strategically about New Zealand’s needs, to a facilitated workshop to identify high-level missions that are stretchy but sensible for New Zealand researchers to pursue (or ‘sticky’ to NZ).  There doesn’t have to be much detail in the mission at this stage, for example our early missions were wish statements like “Intelligent Oceans” or “Flexible Robots for Rugged Environments”.  We are also experimenting with a young researcher/entrepreneur-led mission (18-35 year olds) whereby they gather ideas for their own mission and SfTI will support that with funding and mentoring.


  1. Mission Definition
    SfTI’s mission definition phase closely follows the step 3 description.  Once we have a mission idea, we work with industry and other stakeholders to delineate the technology opportunity and what the scope of a Spearhead research project (NZ$1m/year for three years) might be.  Then we assemble interested researchers and industry/Maori to form ONE best NZ research team.
    What SfTI learnt was that the best way to do this Mission design phase was to put out at Expression of Interest call, to bring ‘capability to the table’, not a pet project.  Those interested join another facilitated workshop to work out the project scope and start developing a proposal.  This step is crucial as it means anyone with relevant capability can potentially join the project team so, at least anecdotally, SfTI is seeing greater diversity in discipline, experience and gender in our research teams 12.
    SfTI can allocate resources to support that up-front mission-design approach which is not a luxury available in many systems.  SfTI has been critiqued that this must be expensive, but we would respond that in the traditional system, all those researchers beavering away writing proposals for competitive grant systems, is also expensive if you look at the opportunity cost of their time, especially if they aren’t funded.
    Not every researcher likes this approach but those that have joined the experiment with us are relishing the challenge of forming a completely new, diverse team, with industry and Māori engaged early, that is very focused on a problem.  It takes a while for a new team to gel but, once they do, they find unexpected and exciting opportunities for additional projects.


  1. Dynamic Capacities
    SfTI has embraced two aspects of dynamic capacities.  First, as mentioned earlier, SfTI has focused on capacity development, as that is key to our mission.  We take a three-pronged approach to capacity development; technical, human and relational.  Technical capacity supports our direct impact through our research achievements, but we are also wanting to change behaviour.  Human capacity is the skills to undertake mission-led type research and relational capacity development supports the researchers’ abilities to engage with industry and Māori to co-create new technology.
    We have a separate fund that supports a raft of capacity development opportunities – either that we design, that we share with our partners, or externally provided that suits an individual’s needs.  Examples include relational leadership (individual and team coaching), pitching competitions, commercialisation processes etc, but also exposure to what, in New Zealand, is called the Māori economy 13.
    The second aspect is flexibility and change, embodied in the word “dynamic”.  Because SfTI’s decision-makers stay involved (most are members of the Leadership Team) we can lightly monitor and adjust as we progress and implement new approaches when something doesn’t work.  So SfTI very much embraces the need for experimentation and learning where it adds to our mission. We can also re-allocate funding to priority areas, develop projects between missions and generally alter our approach in real-time if considered appropriate.


  1. Decision Tools
    Flexibility also comes into step 5.  SfTI interprets decision tools more broadly as how we innovate our decision-making processes.  For example, with our smaller, riskier Seed projects (NZ$100k per year for two-three years) we run a ballot system, because we are over-subscribed with great projects.  Ballots are used overseas but are not common in New Zealand.  All projects that make a quality hurdle, go into the ballot and are drawn out in order, rather than spending time making a somewhat arbitrary ranking of great projects.  We have found that the researchers that miss out in this process are less dissatisfied than if they had disagreed with a ranking.Decisions are not always just one-off.  Decision tools also include other processes such as the mentoring we have put in place for our Seed projects.  Many of the Seed projects are led by emerging researchers, so SfTI’s Theme Leaders are allocated projects to periodically check up on by phone or in person.  We are finding that we are getting much better results in terms of progress towards outputs because of this, and think it is an example of the Hawthorne Effect 14.  Basically, our researchers modify their behaviour simply because they like being contacted and observed.  We know this from interviews with the researchers, that it is often the first time a senior researcher has taken such interest in an emerging researcher’s project.
  2. Managing Failure
    Innovation system advocates often talk about embracing failure as a learning opportunity, but it is really hard to do in our traditional research systems.  It’s very unlikely, for example, that any researcher is going to go back to their funder and say “sorry, here’s the rest of your money back as I failed”!  But if the innovation system wants to support risky research then it has to tolerate if not embrace failure.  SfTI runs a periodic science quality review which gives the NSC reason and permission to rethink the portfolio and provides a basis for taking projects forward or, in a few cases, stopping them – pursue or perish.
    With most projects though, it’s not a total perish scenario – just some aspects haven’t worked out.  So SfTI have woven the notion of a “pivot” into our contracts, particularly for the riskier Seed projects.  This allows researchers to negotiate with SfTI for a change in direction if needed.  This is not to allow an entirely new direction to be commenced, but an adjustment based on findings.  Even if SfTI does stop a project, the researchers still stay part of the community and are eligible for further capacity development and potentially new projects.
  3. Sharing RewardsMazzacato’s seventh step assumes that the mission has been completed, but SfTI would reframe this as sharing what we have learnt along the way and sharing the journey with partners. Again, we have two ways of doing this.
    One of our spearhead teams is an innovation team that study our science teams and SfTI’s efforts to innovate our innovation processes. The project is called “Building New Zealand’s Innovation Capacity” (BNZIC) and is a rare longitudinal study of mission-led technological research projects and how they undertake early collaboration with industry and Māori to secure a mission-led approach. Often studies of collaboration take a snapshot at a point in time (at the beginning or end) and tend to state quite self-evident characteristics of good collaboration, such as needing to set mutual expectations and having good communication. The BNZIC team are taking a more nuanced, longitudinal approach. They are feeding back their findings to the technical teams, so it also encompasses aspects of action research 15.
    Another sharing aspect is our relationship with the Māori organisation, the Federation of Māori Authorities (FOMA) – a collection of major Māori organisations that own a large asset base in New Zealand. These organisations are investing back into their iwi and whānau (tribes and families) and are now some of New Zealand’s largest organisations. However, they are not traditionally involved in research and innovation but are seeing this as strategically important. SfTI has supported the appointment of a FOMA Chief Adviser for Innovation and Research and is helping FOMA develop an innovation strategy. Thus, sharing our learnings is a much wider mission-led strategy than just commercialising our research.

So, is Mission-Led Research the Way Forward?

As with all research and innovation, there is no one right way for all countries, organisations and contexts to innovate.  But having a diversity of approaches must help address the varying needs of nations to attack local needs and the world’s grand challenges.  Bottom-up projects have dominated for several decades, so it is probably time to add more top-down mission-led research to the mix.  Mission-led research requires a change in attitude towards risk-taking, experimentation and collaboration on the part of both researchers and policy makers.  There is no one right way to do mission-led research, and certainly SfTI can’t claim total success – yet!  But perhaps our New Zealand experiments may help others to think about new ways of innovating our innovation processes 16.

1 This article is a synopsis of a keynote address given at the Triple Helix Conference, Cape Town, South Africa, 10 September 2019.
2 Outputs may also equate to outcomes, but we use the GII terminology.  The GII index  is compiled by Cornell University, INSEAD, and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO – a specialized agency of the UN):
4 M Mazuccato, 2013. The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths, Anthem Press, London.
5 ;
6 M Mazuccato, 2018. Mission-Oriented Research and Innovation in the EU – A problem-solving approach to fuel Innovation-led Growth, EU Commission, Brussels, p4.
7 ; ;
8 For example: Ferraro, F., Etzion, D., and Gehman, J. (2015). Tackling grand challenges pragmatically: Robust action revisited. Organization Studies, 36(3), 363-390; George, G., Howard-Grenville, J., Joshi, A., and Tihanyi, L. (2016). Understanding and tackling societal grand challenges through management research.  Academy of Management Journal, 59(6), 1880-1895; Kuhlmann, S., and Rip, A. (2018).  Next-generation innovation policy and grand challenges. Science and public policy, 45(4), 448-454.
9 M Mazzucato, 2017. Mission-Oriented Innovation Policy: Challenges and Opportunities, IIPPWP 2017-01.; Mazzucato, M. (2018). Mission-oriented innovation policies: challenges and opportunities. Industrial and Corporate Change, 27(5), 803-815.
11 Māori are the indigenous people of New Zealand whose organisations are major players in our economy thanks to substantial settlements redressing historic grievances and subsequent business success in many sectors.
12 SfTI’s Spearhead project development process is described here:
13 Learn more about SfTI’s capacity development programme here:
15 Daellenbach, U., Davenport, S., and Ruckstuhl, K. (2017). Developing absorptive capacity for midstream science in open innovation contexts.  International Journal of Technology Transfer and Commercialisation, 15(4), 447-462; Ruckstuhl, K., Haar, J., Hudson, M., Amoamo, M., Waiti, J., Ruwhiu, D., and Daellenbach, U. (2019). Recognising and valuing Māori innovation in the high-tech sector: a capacity approach.  Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 1-17.
16 You can learn more about SfTI here


Published by the Triple Helix Association  –  ISSN 2281-4515


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