EU mission-oriented innovation: the past is for learning, not reliving

In 1962 Armstrong was the first man on the moon. The Apollo mission was symbolic of America’s ascent to the summit of global wealth, technological excellence and power. However, it was also the product of a country whose policy makers, innovators and financiers were united in purpose (in part as a result of the perceived threat of Communism and the Cold War). For years the nation’s leaders of industry and politics were fully united behind the mission; investing billions of dollars for one goal. In a time of almost unprecedented rapid technological change the mission triggered a vast array of inventions, many apparently unrelated to space exploration, and many that we still enjoy the benefits of today. That period of collective enterprise brought the memory foam mattress, satellite TV, even modern artificial limbs are an adaptation of NASA robotics, among many other inventions.

The Apollo mission is the archetype of ‘mission-oriented innovation’, the innovation policy framework that the European Commission is considering relaunching. The aim is to overcome past failures. As noted in the RISEgroup’s March 2017 publication ‘Europe’s Future’, historically the EU has failed to compete in terms of R&D investments with the US and Japan (e.g. the Lisbon strategy was never fully achieved). In recent years the EU has reversed this trend, out spending Japan, US and China in both relative and absolute terms, however they have failed to leverage the same levels of private R&D investment. Although it is early to judge, currently the EU shows no signs of closing the productivity gap with the US or Japan. Equally this increase in public spending on R&D is yet to bring about the shared prosperity Europeans experienced in past generations, and expect today.

This policy framework was the main topic of the last meeting of RISE (the expert group composed of academics advising the EU Commissioner for Research and Innovation) that I attended in Turin on Thursday last week. It’s likely to become the innovation policy of the European Union from 2020 onwards.

The idea of a ‘back to the future’ return to mission-orientated innovation is attractive, and the prospect of rallying research, politics, business, philanthropy and all the people of Europe behind a common mission for growth and prosperity won’t find opposition. Who would be against the decarbonisation of the economy or healthy life at all ages? However, it is 2018, not Cold-War America, is this vision realistic today? Academics and policymakers appear ready to jump wholeheartedly at the new mission, but I have some questions that should be addressed before moving ahead with the plan. Who decides the mission? Who is the mission for? How will it be executed?

Who decides on the mission?

In 1962 JFK was the de-facto leader of the free world. He mustered resources and support from across sectors within a nation determined to defeat the communist threat. Such unity of intent and concentration of power and legitimacy is now a distant memory. To paraphrase the title of this year’s WEF; we face a shared future but live in a fractured society.

In Europe this problem is particularly acute: the EU is losing legitimacy vis-à-vis citizens. It clashes with Member States and (in the perspective of new generations) looks increasingly like a remnant of the past. I doubt that any mission decided in Brussels, Berlin or Paris would rally all Europe for a joint effort.

The situation is undoubtedly more complex than it was in the old good days. Today there are men leading ambitious and inspirational space missions, but they are not democratically elected presidents. Richard Branson ‘boldly went where no man had gone before’ when he launched the first private space mission and, today, Elon Musk is the captain of SpaceX and plans to enable people to live on other planets. Even the public private partnership in scientific missions is a challenge as proved in the case of Human Genome Project: private sector partners capitalising on achievements of public sector partners for private gains.

This points at the fundamental difference between 1962 and 2018, today the power and resource needed for mission-oriented innovation is no longer in the public domain. On the contrary, multinational corporations are leading on innovation — although they often tap into public funding. Success and failure of innovation policy is to some extent judged by its ability to deploy private resources. In 2018 winning a presidential election does not entitle one to decide the mission, nor does it entitle one access to the resources to pay for it.

Finally, public engagement has become a tricky business in the time of social media, just ask Justin Bieber for whom a poll asking his fans the question as to where he should perform his next gig left him red-faced and forced to backtrack as ‘North Korea’ was the runaway winner. On more serious political issues there have been suggestions that democracy has been ‘hijacked’ and firms such Cambridge Analytica have sabotaged the process. Imagine consulting Europeans on the next mission for European research and innovation, the number of vested interests attempting to influence the result would be vast. The perceived contrast between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ has never been starker in politics.

Let me clarify, I certainly do not yearn for a return to the Cold War, but an external threat does have a unique way of uniting a society — although climate change hasn’t done the trick like the Soviet Union. Today in an open and global society, forging consensus across interest groups, rallying resources and steering collective action is a major obstacle in deciding on the mission. The top-down centralised command and control paradigm cannot work anymore, but we cannot waste years in consultations either.

The mission for whom?

A second major obstacle to the mission-oriented approach is the definition of the beneficiaries. 2018’s Europe is the manifest of a fractured society in which consensus across classes and generations is broken (not to mention geography, race and religion). Social mobility is low, and the rise of populist movements is a concerning trend throughout the continent.

The main clash is between an older generation which enjoyed the proceedings of sustained economic growth and the shared prosperity it brought with it (enshrined in constitutional rights and proactive e policies) versus new generations who in many cases are unable to access the opportunities their parents took for granted and therefore are becoming increasingly disconnected and disenfranchised. New talents are also mobile and connect beyond the Nation State that, therefore, fail to express their interests and aspirations. Furthermore, despite migration being the main driver of demographic growth in Europe, in large part migrants remain unable to access the same economic benefits and political representation as the rest of the population, resulting in feelings of marginalisation and discontent.

Balancing the interests of these social groups within the current political system is proving far from simple. But Europe must look forward, not back, to do anything else is collective suicide.

What’s the mission without execution?

Despite these not insignificant challenges, the single greatest obstacle to mission-oriented innovation is the execution.

There is no sense in announcing take-off of a grand mission when there is neither suitable crew nor adequate vessel. More than ten years of lofty statements about the relaunch of the European enterprise with limited action leaves me sceptical. The European Union has significant resources, but the means to deploy them such as the structural funds and Research and Innovation program fall short when compared to vested interests and the institutional status quo. I do not see how this is going to change in the near future without a clear operational plan to tackle procedural barriers.

That is not to say there are no positive signals pointing in the direction of substantive change. In Europe we see a mushrooming of local initiatives. Europeans are experimenting in every sector. in today’s Europe proximity is the key to mobilizing stakeholders and people as a whole towards positive goals. When you engage people to improve their neighbourhood, city or community then they act. This local dimension can be bootstrapped by European programs like the Juncker Plan (which has been remarkably successful in catalysing private investment and is now in its second phase and mobilizing 1tr euros of public money). This could be the funding bazooka needed to accelerate European growth turning every infrastructure and urban transformation project into a lab for research and innovation to which all local stakeholders feel connected to and can be a part of. As Prof Soete mentioned in chapter 5 of RISE’s ‘Europe’s Future’ document; policies such as the Lead Market Initiative can be scaled up, and the scaling up can be at the local level, giving opportunity for experimentation. As he notes ‘The EU has plenty of internal borders which could become ideal experimental zones’.

Finally, a new paradigm for public policy is emerging within the European institutions: outcome payment contracts and prizes. European funding such as structural funds should shift from reimbursing incurred inputs to pay for results. This is the change that can turn public budgets into accelerators of innovation across Europe certainly when funding for research is designed to partner with investments for growth. However, public institutions need the right people and tools to embrace the new paradigm and unleash the potential of Europeans in the pursuit of scientific and technological innovation.

To conclude, the idea of mission orientated innovation policy is both attractive and exciting, however in 2018 I do not see the necessary pre-conditions for a grand European mission-oriented strategy unless these questions are addressed thoroughly. On the contrary Europe needs a shared vision for the future, and a multiplicity of micro and local missions that respond to the vision and capitalise on Europe’s strengths as a multi-cultural, multi-governance, multi-agent union and an open and multi-labs for innovation. A future of innovative, sustainable, inclusive communities in Europe will emerge through a great number of trial and error experiments, not a recreated space race for the 21st century.