Best of both worlds: how responsible innovation might contribute to mission-oriented innovation

February 6th, 2023

New research from the Responsible Innovation Future Science Platform led by DR SIMON FIELKE has explored the question of ‘how responsible innovation and mission-oriented innovation might work together’.

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Whether they’re ‘moonshots’ or ‘major scientific initiatives’ – they’re some of the terms you might hear associated with ‘mission-oriented innovation’.

It’s a strategy framework that many governments and organisations, including CSIRO, are starting to embrace. Missions take the form of large-scale research initiatives like carbon reduction, or ending plastic waste. Collaborative at their core, these initiatives are aimed at making significant breakthroughs with a tangible end goal. Missions work towards solving identified ‘grand challenges’ or societal problems, as opposed to more specific domain-based problems or policy development needs.

In the agri-food sector in particular, mission-oriented innovation is underway with many organisations seeking to rally their research programs around ambitious goals like ‘increasing farm output with fewer resources’, with many investing in innovative, future-facing transformations such as digital technologies, synthetic food, and circular economies.

The challenge of ‘grand challenges’

Mission-oriented innovation shares a similar end-goal with the field of responsible innovation: that is, to deliver positive impact through innovative science and technologies. 

But with multiple research organisations launching multiple programs and research agendas—that require coordination and tackle ambitions beyond one organisation alone—there is a risk that fragmentation and disconnect hampers potential benefits. Such dispersion could result in increased transaction costs without collaborative buy-in across necessary organisations and sectors. This would particularly be the case where competitive innovation was the dominant culture of an innovation system.

New research from the Responsible Innovation Future Science Platform has explored the question of ‘how responsible innovation and mission-oriented innovation might work together’.

The short answer to the question is that responsible innovation practices could indeed successfully work alongside organisations’ mission-oriented innovation agendas. And better yet, there has been more than 10 years of research on responsible innovation practices and activities that can be utilised within mission-oriented innovation development processes.

What is the value of integrating RI and missions?

The Responsible Innovation FSP’s Dr Simon Fielke led a diverse team to explore the value of integrating responsible innovation, as part of mission-scale agendas, with a specific focus on agri-food missions.

The authors, which represented different business units from across CSIRO, as well as one colleague from the University of Tasmania, drew on experience in developing and delivering short courses to build Responsible Innovation capacity. They extended that learning to include research to better understand emerging mission-oriented innovation in the context of Australian agri-food organisations and collective sustainability and productivity agendas.

Their findings, published in the Journal of Responsible Innovation, highlight that it is important to consider the process, inputs and proposed activities of mission-oriented innovation investment.

Dr Fielke said that there is much to learn from responsible innovation when it comes to delivering future-oriented science and technology in complex socio-technical systems, and vice versa.

“It’s clear that a mission-oriented approach to innovation creates an imperative to package up research activities in ways that deliver to overarching ambitions to overcome grand challenges with our partners,” said Dr Fielke.

Missions as opportunities to think bigger

The authors proposed three key areas of overlap between responsible innovation and mission-oriented innovation, as simplified in the diagram below:

  • challenges and the missions that address them are products of existing innovation system interactions (past)
  • missions are temporary investments in the direction of innovation (present)
  • the missions’ activities and subsequent learning and capability development build the innovation systems of the future.

A responsible mission-oriented innovation cycle.

Co-author Alex Cooke, Missions General Manager, says involvement with this paper and an associated project, Mission Responsible, have influenced CSIRO’s approach to its pipeline of Missions.

“Australia’s challenges are becoming larger and more complex – and require innovative technologies and applications. This requires us to bring in larger, multidisciplinary teams around technologies like AI and ML, quantum and new materials, but also means we need to invest in the social-technical processes pertaining to their development.”

“With accelerated investment in disruptive technologies comes an increasing need to bring in responsible innovation methodologies from the start – to ensure that our mission-oriented solutions are rightly targeted for maximum national benefit.”