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March 10, 2022updated 29 Apr 2022 9:32am

UK public sector turns to ‘mission-oriented’ innovation

A new IBM accelerator reflects a growing impetus to place purpose-driven technology at the heart of public sector procurement.

By Sophia Waterfield

IBM has unveiled a new accelerator scheme to help UK SMEs develop technology solutions that tackle the issues facing society. The scheme reflects the growing focus on so-called ‘mission-orientated’ innovation in the public sector, which is increasingly guiding the way budgets are allocated and technology is deployed. More work is needed, however, to feel the full benefits of this approach.

Mission-orientated innovation uses new technologies to tackle big issues in society such as the ageing population. (Photo by BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

IBM founded the “Mission Technology Integrator” alongside innovation consultancy Plexal. The companies have already helped two SMEs build proofs of concept to tackle government technology priorities, and more projects are in the pipeline.

One concept, created with AI start-up Pimloc, is a system that generates readable reports describing events captured on video feeds. The other, developed with data integration SME Telicent, provides advanced pattern-of-life analysis, in which an individual’s behaviour is determined from surveillance data. Telicent’s current partners include the Royal Air Force and British Army.

“It’s essential that big and small companies across the private sector collaborate and build technology together,” said Andrew Roughan, managing director at Plexal, of the partnership’s launch. “Not just technology for its own sake but technology that the UK needs most to keep society and our economy safe and to gain a competitive advantage when it comes to mission-critical capabilities.

“We’re extremely proud of the collaboration model we’ve built for IBM, which has fairness at the heart and is challenge oriented.”  

What is mission-orientated innovation?  

Mission-orientated innovation describes when a technology or policy addresses complex and pressing social and technological challenges. Sometimes referred to as ‘purpose-based innovation’, it can also provide direction for economic growth.  

The concept was first put forward by Professor Mariana Mazzucato, who is now director of UCL’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose. In a report the professor penned in 2017, she wrote:  “Governments are increasingly seeking economic growth that is smart (innovation-led), inclusive and sustainable. They are trying to achieve this in a context of major social and environmental challenges such as tackling climate change, improving public health and well-being and adjusting to demographic changes.

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“Mission-orientated innovation policy responds to these ‘grand challenges’ by identifying and articulating concrete problems that can galvanise production, distribution, and consumption patterns across various sectors.”  

Her report also explained that this approach gives economic growth a direction, as well as a rate, and encourages risk taking by both the private and public sectors.  

As the approach moves from narrow to system-wide, proponents of mission-orientated innovation say it enables the state to co-create and shape markets, allowing public sector bodies to take on more of an entrepreneurial view, normally seen in start-ups and SMEs, over market-fixing mentalities and risk-averse mindsets.   

How is the UK government using mission-oriented innovation?  

An example of the UK public sector applying this mindset is in the government's Grand Challenges, which form part of the UK Industrial Strategy. The approach is developing “ambitious missions” and focusing on a specific problem. Then the government will bring together businesses and organisations from the UK together in a bid to make a “real difference to people’s lives”.  

Areas of focus include using AI to transform the prevention, early diagnosis and treatment of chronic diseases by 2030, and halving the energy usage of new buildings over the same period, while the majority of funding is being put towards helping all UK vehicles reach net zero by 2040.

The government is also in the process of setting up a new innovation agency, Advanced Research and Innovation Agency (ARIA), which will fund high-risk projects and has been designed to take an entrepreneurial approach to problems.

Dr Tanya Filer of the Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge and CEO of StateUp, says that technology role in addressing major public needs is growing. But, she says, there is a gap between technology and policy.  

“There remains a huge gulf in knowledge and understanding between policy decision makers and technology developments,” she explains. “Governments typically do not have the internal capacity to digitalise every system and service for which they are responsible alone – nor would this be desirable [as] it would limit who gets to have creative input into technologies whose outcomes will impact diverse lives.  

Much of the digital innovation that public sector bodies need already exists, Filer continues. “The applications are novel, not the technology development itself," she says. “One of the key barriers to enabling the kinds of technologies that startups are developing to be adopted at scale is disconnection [between SMEs] governments and policy decision-makers, who have a critical role to play in engaging their public procurement budget, R&D funding, and in policy setting.” 

Work must be done to identify "unexplored public-good use cases for specific digital and emerging technologies", Filer says, to ensure that we "are using the full toolkit at our disposal," rather than focusing on specific disciplines such as AI. She adds: "Policymakers around the world, assisted by organisations focused on responsible technology usage, are setting AI-specific stimulus packages, innovation policies, standards, and regulations. 

“But it may serve to cast the net wider if we are to reap the benefits of a broader range of currently available and emerging technologies.” 

How can the public sector succeed with mission-orientated innovation?  

According to Dr Filer, the use of mission-orientated technology is still at an early stage, so assessing how successful this approach will be in the long run is difficult. However, there are definitely things the public sector and its partners can take heed of when it comes to mistakes.  

“It tends not to go well when purpose-based innovation is implemented through direct policy or technology transfer, with little appreciation of local context,” she explains. “Scaling up always requires diversification.  

“International lesson learning is highly beneficial, but the risk of technological universalism – what researcher Anita Say Chan calls 'the sense that the same technology can serve as a multifunctional, universally common solution for all users' – should not be underestimated." This "can lead to govtech policies and projects that are expensive and ineffective, even harmful," Filer warns.

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