‘It’s a break from the norm’: how moonshot approaches can drive government innovation

By on 29/11/2022 | Updated on 29/11/2022
An illustration of the moon going through a\ basketball hoop
Photo: Anja from Pixabay

At a time of unprecedented crises, governments need to innovate to meet massive – and fast-changing – challenges. In a Global Government Forum webinar, panellists looked at whether mission-based approaches could help unlock progress

It is what has become known as the age of permacrisis. Governments around the world face huge challenges, from efforts to rebound from the coronavirus pandemic to the development of solutions to the growing impact of climate change, that require responses of speed and scale.

This requires innovation – and to help unlock innovation, many governments have begun to experiment with using missions or moonshots.

These are grand challenges created to address public policy problems that act as a framework for innovation both across government and in how central government works with other public authorities, and the private and third sector.

This Global Government Forum webinar – supported by knowledge partner IBM – brought together a panel of experts to look at how governments can use these mission-based approaches to drive innovation – considering what they can be applied to, how staff can be trained for them, and how governments can fund them.

Here are the key points discussed during the webinar, with clips from relevant sections.

‘Missions necessitate an all-hands-on-deck approach’

Amanda Wilson, the director general of the Office of Energy Research and Development, Natural Resources Canada (NRCAN), set out how the organisation is using a mission-based approach.

She first covered how to define a mission and what using mission-driven innovation looks like in government, calling it “a break from a conventional focus on fixing market failures” and adding: “It means that we need to focus on problem-specific complex challenges. Missions necessitate an all-hands-on-deck approach, centred on collaboration.”

She highlighted that Natural Resources Canada has worked to find the balance between missions that are broad enough to engage the public and attract cross-sectoral investment, but also focused enough to achieve measurable success.

“We talk about finding the shared objective. What are the things where we can all agree on what the outcome needs to be, and then how do we work together to aim toward it.

“By doing this, we find we’re better able to discover new and novel solutions. Mission-driven innovation requires us to pick the problems rather than focusing on picking the winners.”

Natural Resources Canada has identified four missions: improving energy efficiency and processes to reduce emissions from energy end use; accelerating electrification and maximising the benefits of low emitting heat and power; developing cleaner fuels; and maintaining safe and resilient energy systems and protecting Canadians in a changing energy landscape. All of the department’s work is orientated towards one of these missions, and Natural Resources Canada has also developed impact challenges – specific targeted timebound missions to drive innovations in key areas such as sustainable aviation fuel or energy storage. “They enabled a more focused orientation of research and development efforts and towards solving some of the most challenging technical problems by convening not just government players but external organisations as well, [to meet] this notion of really coalescing around shared objectives that I talked about earlier,” Wilson said.

So far, NRCAN has completed six challenges which in total have engaged more than 1,500 stakeholders and received more than 500 applications, and funded more than 70 organisations. “So, we found that this really helped us unlock new opportunities, helped us identify non-conventional solvers and solutions, and provided more opportunity for economic growth.”

Missions ‘change the narrative of innovation’

Rowan Conway, a policy fellow and visiting professor at University College London’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, has been working on mission-based innovation and design for the last eight years as what she called an “observer of government and government action”.

“It is a break from the norm,” she stressed. “Mission innovation is innovation through government. Sometimes it’s seen as [purely] innovation within government, but it is actually about how government can act to catalyse markets. And this is very non-normative for government behaviours across the world. And so in many instances, it is a challenge.”

Missions “changed the narrative of innovation and the language we use,” she said, adding that government always directs the actions of others through its own actions. “You can market shape by mistake, as well as market shape on purpose. The fundamental role of mission-oriented innovation is that you are setting direction on purpose and you’re seeking then to actively co-create markets with the private sector and civil society.” This requires a lot of thinking about how to measure what government does, including changing the rules around static cost benefit analysis and how projects are appraised.

Missions are “always about bringing science and technology together with a problem, and together with innovators to try and create new markets”, Conway added.

This creates a need for “entrepreneurialism in government. So, what is it to be a public entrepreneur, understand effectuation and build effectuation skills? Fundamentally, what that means is attracting new markets, not just deploying causal reasoning… you need to therefore attract resources, which is a fundamentally market-shaping challenge”.

‘Moonshot innovation thinking is the right approach for governments’

Cristina Caballe, the executive director of IBM Global Public Sector, discussed the development of the IBM Garage, an end-to-end model for accelerating digital transformation and innovation for governments, focusing on how to generate innovative ideas and how to rapidly turn those ideas into business value.

Caballe highlighted that many disruptive forces are reshaping society at the moment, and that government has to respond to regain trust and innovate in government. This means that moonshots are of increasing importance to help drive rapid innovation.

“Transformation in government is a journey and not an event. A different and thoughtful approach is required, where we will start small and scale after subsequent iterations. And above all, we learn that building trust is the key success factor, so every iteration needs to deliver quick wins.

“In this context, moonshot innovation thinking is the right approach for governments to start with these small iterative steps and target-ambitious goals.”

She agreed with previous speakers that a moonshot- or mission-based approach “shifts the mindset” in government and empowers people to look for unconventional solutions, starting from first principles.

The IBM Garage is the recipe to unlock the innovations that governments have, she said. “Our model involves having this physical location which inspires the ‘art of the possible’ and creates an environment to share openly, and also gives us collaboration tools to co-create with our government clients.

“And rather than being an IT shop, like spitting out random acts of digital transformation, the IBM Garage is a vehicle to create a partnership with the government and with this broader ecosystem around the government. And we are looking to help governments drive the transformation throughout core processes.”

Caballe pointed to a specific example of innovation – the work IBM and other technology companies have done with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the US Department of Energy to develop the COVID-19 High Performance Computing consortium. This provides unprecedented computing power to help researchers execute complex computational research programmes around the pandemic.

“We’ve given researchers worldwide free access to powerful computing resources that they normally wouldn’t have. And the construction process sped up and enabled dozens of projects around the world – from drug design, analysing the propagation of the virus to [the efficacy of] splitting ventilators between multiple patients, to optimising healthcare services around the world.

“I’ve learned personally a lot during the last five years, and especially during this global pandemic, about how to address the big problems of humanity in collaboration with governments. And in my mind, one lesson that cannot be ignored is that we have the need for more innovation, and strategic collaborations across institutions and sectors. And the right approach is moonshot-based innovation,” she concluded.

The panel also discussed…

How public sector organisations can determine what missions should be:

How mission-based innovation can work with four-year budget cycles:

What skills public servants need to embrace mission-orientated innovation:

The role for international collaboration in mission-orientated approaches:

To learn all this and more, you can watch the full Mission critical: using moonshots to drive innovation in government webinar on our dedicated event page. The webinar was held on 8 November 2022.

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About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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