Whither Social Innovation? Is the next stop “Missions”?

Photo by NanoStockk

By Tim Draimin

Ideally social innovation should be an integral part of any country’s national innovation policy. In Canada, social innovation (and its allied fields such as social finance) is hived off and made the responsibility of Canada’s social benefits funder for pensions and employment insurance, Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC). 

Most other federal innovation programs (and practically all of the innovation spending) are found at Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) and directed to businesses and some research partners like post-secondaries. The policy assumption at ISED is that innovation support is mostly science and technology innovation that will translate into economic growth and, presumably, prosperity.

In some other industrialized countries this historic pattern of S&T government innovation policy and spending has begun to shift to a “mission” focus. The OECD describes missions as “initiatives that address grand societal challenges that are cross-sectoral, ambitious, time bound and measurable.”

Could a mission approach to innovation policy provide a more logical entry point for integrating social innovation into the framework for Canada’s innovation policy?

The field of mission-oriented innovation has been almost single-handedly driven by academic Mariana Mazzucato, the founder of the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at University College London. Mazzucato has written numerous books including Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism. IIPP has captured her ideas in various reports, most recently MISSION CRITICAL 01: Statecraft for the 21st Century, that lays out six principles for a mission-driven government in the UK.

In fact, the UK Labour Party has picked up a mission approach as the basis for its 2024 election platform. Under the heading 5 Missions for a Better Britain, it commits to: improving UK’s economic growth, making Britain a clean energy superpower, improving the NHS, creating safer streets, and improving opportunity for all citizens through improvements in childcare, schools and lifelong learning. (The Institute for Government has produced a backgrounder on missions and Labour’s commitment here.)

On July 4th Britons go to the polls with the likelihood that Labour will form the next government and make the UK the first G7 country committed to a Mission agenda.

In a desultory way, fragmented parts of Canada’s innovation program spending have moved towards missions but without using the moniker. For example, Canada’s Strategic Innovation Fund uses a challenge-based approach for some funding programs, the Clean Growth Hub is a de facto mission program, New Frontiers in Research Fund includes a “transformation” stream for projects addressing major challenges, etc.

In an attempt to explicitly shift Canadian policy, in 2022 TMU’s Brookfield Institute (now merged into Dais) produced a major policy paper, advised by a pan-Canadian Expert Advisory Panel, entitled Canada’s Moonshot: Solving Grand Challenges through Transformational Innovation. Among its insights, Canada’s Moonshot recommends:

  • “Moving from an unintentional to an intentional innovation system.” Meaning we shift the focus from inputs to impact by committing to purpose.
  • ”Centering inclusion and reconciliation in innovation.” In other words, “Canada has failed to build an inclusive innovation system and fails to engage with Canada’s full diversity of people, perspectives, and ideas. Deep and persistent inequities in the distribution of opportunities and benefits for innovation highlight the need for moonshot innovation policies that ensure inclusion and reconciliation are centred as key tenets of their design.”
  • “Connecting a complex innovation-actor landscape.” We need to overcome a congested ecosystem of actors too often working in silos and disconnected.

As Canada enters the last year of the current federal government, now is an opportune moment to ask: how do Canada’s political parties envisage the future of Canada’s innovation policy framework? Reform is desperately overdue. 

Our innovation policy will ultimately determine how well our country navigates a very complex global and national future buffeted by a polycrisis rippling with environmental, social, economic and geo-strategic challenges. 

Mission-oriented innovation’s time has come.

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