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Modern Industrial Strategy Should Embrace Moonshots

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Economists at The Bartlett are leading a commission advising UK government on how to build mission-oriented industrial strategy that's as bold as putting a man on the moon.

Modern Industrial Strategy Should Embrace Moonshots

Members of the Commission for Mission-Oriented Innovation and Industrial Strategy (MOIIS) at a meeting in 2018. MOIIS Commissioners meet monthly at IIPP's offices.

Credit: Kirsten Holst

Modern Industrial Strategy Should Embrace Moonshots

Professor Mariana Mazzucato, IIPP Director, co-chairs the MOIIS Commission with Lord David Willets.

Credit: Kirsten Holst

Modern Industrial Strategy Should Embrace Moonshots

Mapping out missions at the MOIIS Commission workshop on clean growth in 2018.

If your company can make British industry greener, then the government wants to hear from you. There is £170m on the table for any company that can seriously shrink carbon emissions from our heaviest industrial clusters – Grangemouth in Scotland, Humberside or Port Talbot in Wales.

It’s big money to meet a big problem: industry accounts for 25% of all the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. There is also a bold deadline: the world’s first net-zero-emissions industrial cluster is expected by 2040.

Although these are UK government pronouncements, their inspiration comes from The Bartlett’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP). The IIPP’s competence was recognised a year ago when it set up the independent Commission for Mission-Oriented Innovation and Industrial Strategy (MOIIS) to advise government on how it could turn the four ‘Grand Challenges’ set out in its industrial strategy – AI & Data Economy, Clean Growth, Future of Mobility and Ageing Society – into concrete ‘missions’. These missions target problems facing UK society, which demands that different sectors come together in tangible ways, rather than supporting individual sectors or technologies.

On 21st May 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May cited the commission’s work on bringing a mission-oriented framework to the UK Industrial Strategy in a speech at Jodrell Bank. And with the net-zero-emissions industrial cluster, MOIIS has already been highly influential in developing the second mission to be announced in the Clean Growth Grand Challenge.

Modern Industrial Strategy Should Embrace Moonshots

Professor Paul Ekins, Director of The Bartlett's Institute for Sustainable Resources, is one of the MOIIS Commissioners.

Credit: Kirsten Holst

A collaborative commission

This is an admirable accolade, given that IIPP was only established in 2017 and, in staffing the Commission, The Bartlett’s and UCL’s wider array of talent has been drawn upon. In total, MOIIS counts 15 professors among its number, including Mariana Mazzucato, IIPP’s Director, and Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Advisor to UK government. Mazzucato co-chairs the commission with Lord David Willetts, a former Minister for Universities and Science.

Unlike many commissions, however, MOIIS does not work in isolation on how to make British business work better, and then report those findings to civil servants. This commission is interactive, with representatives from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy sitting down with MOIIS working groups to debate and progress together. Such collaboration should come as no surprise to those who know how missions succeed: IIPP promulgates the value of the best minds from different disciplines, industrial sectors and occupations – all coming together to solve problems.

But what should those problems be? Often in innovation, policy-makers fixate on success rather than problem-solving, on the basis that success begets success, which makes them look smart. This is forgivable, but risks avoiding the more difficult challenges of rebalancing the economy or addressing truly ominous challenges such as climate change. IIPP and subsequently MOIIS thus argue that, “instead of using vertical policies to ‘pick winners’, the vertical aspect of missions picks the problem”.

Which brings us back to cleaning Britain’s smokestacks. In mitigating climate change, there are easier gains to be made in building wind-farms and promoting energy efficiency to individuals. The reality, however, is that heavy industry will persist – it secures 1.5m jobs in the UK currently – and so the problem is how to purify its emissions as much and as quickly as possible.

How to set a mission

More mission theory here: the government’s £170m contribution has to be backed by industry, which means heavy polluters themselves have to get involved rather than let the State pick up the tab. Second, the money is being presented as a prize to innovators in order to encourage bright minds, rather than send out a message that this is on offer only to established businesses or experienced entrepreneurs.

What happens over the next 20 years is anybody’s guess. But in general terms, the best description of how to set a mission may be contained in the forthcoming interim report MOIIS is publishing this month (a full report is forthcoming in 2019).

Missions, says MOIIS, should be broad enough to engage the public and attract cross-sectoral investment, but remain focused enough to involve industry and achieve measurable success. Projects also need to be chosen to address clear challenges that stimulate the private sector to invest where it would not have otherwise invested – often referred to as ‘additionality’ in business terms.

Moreover, the commission is clear that missions will not normally be achieved by following a single development path or by a single technological fix; rather, a mission-based approach means being clear on the expected outcome but open to being addressed by different types of solutions. And the trajectory to reach the outcome must be based on a bottom-up approach involving multiple potential solutions – some of which will fail or have to be adjusted along the way.

The Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose has a mission to change how public value is imagined, practiced and evaluated to tackle societal challenges and achieve economic growth that is more innovation-led, sustainable and inclusive. It is part of The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty of the Environment. Find out more:

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