Capacities and capabilities for transformative missions: Global perspectives

Thinking & Analysis

In a recent webinar as part of our Open Learning Series, Petra Wagner from the Austrian Institute of Technology (AIT) and Simon Fielke as well as Amelia Olsen-Boyd from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) shared insights on the critical capacities and capabilities needed for pursuing transformative missions. 

The session shed light on how organisations are defining their mission orientation, translating it into organisational practices and the capabilities and capacities for doing so.

Understanding transformative missions

Transformative missions aim to tackle grand societal challenges by driving systemic change through research and innovation. Unlike technology-focused missions, such as moonshot projects, transformative missions address complex and “wicked” problems that require more holistic and integrated solutions and thus demand a different approach of science, technology, and innovation (STI). Transformative missions are becoming increasingly significant in STI policy research and practice globally. 

To effectively pursue transformative missions, organisations need to develop new capacities and capabilities that enable them to navigate complexity, foster collaborative ecosystems, and drive systemic change. The case studies of EIT Food and CSIRO offer valuable insights into what these capacities and capabilities look like in practice.

The European Institute of Technology (EIT) Food’s mission-led approach

Petra Wagner from AIT explained the collaborative process between AIT and EIT Food in developing their mission-led approach and the key capacities and capabilities needed to realise its missions. This process involved extensive stakeholder engagement, scientific evidence gathering, and the application of the Dynamic Ecosystem Capabilities framework. The framework focuses on three key areas:

  1. Ecosystem Sensing: Identifying new business opportunities and partners.
  2. Ecosystem Seizing: Realising value propositions and forming new partnerships.
  3. Ecosystem Reconfiguring: Adapting and reorganising the ecosystem to meet strategic goals.

The AIT led co-design process also emphasises the importance of developing clear pathways for achieving EIT Food’s mission: a balanced diet for people and the planet, protein source diversification, and improving nutrient density of food. 

Through this process, AIT also identified four key enablers (collaborations and partnerships, consumer understanding, knowledge & data, and regulation and policy frameworks) and three key domains (production, transformation, and distribution) for prioritisation.

By breaking down the overarching mission into actionable pathways, AIT together with EIT Food was able to provide a roadmap for ecosystem actors to contribute towards the overarching mission goals. 

Agency-convened mission-oriented science, technology and innovation at CSIRO, Australia

CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, has been on a journey to embed mission-oriented innovation practices across its research portfolio. Amelia Olsen-Boyd and Simon Fielke from CSIRO shared valuable reflections on the foundational capacities and new ways of working required for realising CSIRO’s mission oriented approach.

CSIRO’s portfolio of missions is situated within broader challenge areas, such as food security, health, and environmental sustainability. The portfolio approach allows CSIRO to experiment with specific mission agendas, without betting everything on a single mission, and to think about transformation in the aggregate, rather than expecting any one mission to achieve transformational change alone.

Amelia emphasised two core capacities that underpin CSIRO’s mission-oriented approach: humility and discipline. Humility enables genuine co-creation with diverse types of knowledge, democratising access to agendas and implementation, and supporting work towards a shared goal. Discipline ensures that missions remain focused on outcomes, implementation and are resilient to the tendency to fall back into old ways of doing. 

Amelia highlighted the potential for incorporating indigenous knowledge systems into this work. ‘In the Australian context, we have not even begun to scratch the surface of the ways in which 65,000 years of indigenous knowledge could be brought to bear on our innovation practice,’ she said.

CSIRO also identified the need for new capabilities and capacities, including foresighting, systems intelligence, futures thinking, strategic design, portfolio management, and collaborative governance and leadership. 

Learnings for building the capacities and capabilities for transformative missions

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to building capacities and capabilities for transformative missions, the experiences shared by the experts, in this Open Learning Series event, revealed common elements that were important for EIT Food and CSIRO:

  1. The importance of having people with the right mindsets and skills. As Petra Wagner of AIT emphasised, ‘You need the dedicated people, you need the diversity of the skills they bring in, but also this kind of shared understanding.’ This was echoed by Amelia Olsen-Boyd from CSIRO, attributing success to ‘a really extraordinary group of people who were very, very values-oriented’. Building mission-oriented teams requires not only diverse skill sets, but also a shared commitment to the mission and the ability to adapt and learn continuously.
  2. Cultivating boundary organisations and intermediation capabilities. Both case studies highlighted the importance of organisations and individuals who can bridge different stakeholders and facilitate collaboration. EIT Food serves as a boundary organisation, bringing together industry, research, entrepreneurship and other partners to co-create and implement its missions. Similarly, CSIRO’s missions program acts as an intermediary, convening diverse actors around shared challenges. As Simon Fielke described, CSIRO’s missions team evolved from being a ‘process intermediary’ to taking on a more strategic role in orchestrating the missions portfolio. Developing these boundary-spanning and intermediary capabilities is crucial for driving transformative missions that require cross-sectoral collaboration.
  3. Embracing experimentation and portfolio approaches. Contributors emphasised the importance of experimentation and managing a portfolio of mission-related activities. EIT Food’s approach involved testing different mission pathways and identifying key enablers and domains for action. CSIRO’s program similarly involves a portfolio of missions that allows for experimentation and learning. As Amelia Olsen-Boyd explained, the portfolio approach enables CSIRO to ‘test whether or not these specific mission modalities are more or less successful in achieving their goals.’ This experimental mindset allows organisations to navigate the complexity and uncertainty inherent in transformative missions, adapting and refining their strategies over time.
  4. Addressing knowledge integration and social learning. Petra Wagner highlighted the importance of ‘informal learning within the teams’ and ‘experiential learning and social learning’ in developing mission-oriented leadership and capabilities. Equally important is the integration of diverse knowledge sources, including scientific research, industry expertise, and indigenous knowledge. This is particularly relevant in the Australian context, where indigenous knowledge offers valuable insights into sustainable resource management and systems thinking. As Amelia Olsen-Boyd from CSIRO pointed out, indigenous knowledge systems are ‘adept at thinking through these questions of interdependency, thinking naturally in systems, and also thinking in deep time, and so there are ways in which indigenous knowledge systems could be brought to bear on an innovation practice.’

This blogpost was written by Christoph Brodnik and Senamile Sishi with the help of Claude Opus and Chat GPT 4.o

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