We Are Leading, We Are Not Alone, and We Have the Potential

Key Takeaways from the Mission Oriented Innovation Network Gathering in London, England

In June, I was privileged to attend the Mission Oriented Innovation Network gathering in London. Hosted by the University College London’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP), the gathering brought together organizations from around the world working on how to achieve meaningful results for communities and society as a whole. The top takeaways I brought home from the three days of events and discussions were:

  1. We are leading: Nova Scotia is ahead of the curve in how we identify, fund, and work intentionally with research to achieve results for society;
  2. We are not alone: The same tensions and challenges we face in balancing the needs of society with the way the research system functions are present in other sectors and other ways of pursuing public benefit;
  3. We have the potential: This province has the opportunity to achieve outsized results for our modest size. Nova Scotia has the bench strength and willingness to achieve great things through research.

When Research Nova Scotia launched in 2019, its purpose was clearly conceived: to support, organize and coordinate research that mattered to Nova Scotia. We needed to develop the how: with a wide and varied research landscape, limited funds to go around, and competing priorities and pressures, how could we ensure that public funds were appropriately invested in the research that would make the greatest difference to the province?

Within the first year, the inaugural CEO was hired and the RNS board endorsed a mission-oriented approach to our strategy. Drawing upon the innovation and financial principles developed by Dr. Mariana Mazzucato, mission-oriented strategy starts with what we want to accomplish, and builds the resources, projects and teams to get us there. It focuses on outcomes and public benefit rather than research excellence alone, although scientific merit is a fundamental requirement for all that RNS funds.

Heather Desserud, Director of Strategy at Research Nova Scotia

In building the strategy and designing implementation plans, we drew upon the IIPP’s extensive body of work as well as that of the OECD’s Observatory for Public Sector Innovation, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and the strengths and successes of the research community in Nova Scotia. The result was our research strategy, which we launched publicly in October of 2020.

Over the last three years, our strategy has guided our work to uncover and invest in the best and most salient research for Nova Scotia. As we grew and coalesced into a fully fledged organization, we have continued to engage with the Mission Oriented Innovation Network and the Observatory for Public Sector Innovation (OPSI) to learn from other organizations’ mission implementation, develop improved approaches and innovative mechanisms, and share what we’re experiencing through our own growth.

As with most events, COVID prevented us from meeting our peer organizations until this June, when I joined more than fifty in-person participants and hundreds more online to celebrate achievements and discuss challenges. Mission innovation encompasses more than research: we heard about economic development triumphs in once-struggling communities, innovation and growth in different industrial sectors, the work of governments to embed mission-focused goals into public financial systems, and (most exciting for RNS) the use of missions in research and innovation agencies around the world.

60 Members of IIPP’s Mission-Oriented Innovation Network at BMA House, London in June. (Image from UCL blog post)

A highlight of the event was meeting and hearing from Dr. Mazzucato and her talented IIPP colleagues. The gathering coincided with the 10th anniversary of Dr. Mazzucato’s book, The Entrepreneurial State, which has catalyzed mission innovation across sectors, disciplines and countries worldwide. Participants heard about life-changing social services implemented in Colombia, groundbreaking innovative programming in Australia, design thinking in Denmark, and reimagined public policy right in Camden Borough, London. There is exciting work happening worldwide, and it was a privilege to meet some of the people making it happen.

With reams of notes and three days of presentations to digest, I’ve spent the last six weeks thinking about how to apply what I heard in Nova Scotia. A guiding philosophy of RNS is dedication to iteration and refinement—as any participant of our Intentional Research Program is well aware. We don’t always get everything figured out perfectly the first time, but through a constant evaluation of what we want to accomplish and how close we are to getting there, we can ensure that we invest public funds wisely and effectively. I’m proud of what we have accomplished together with you over the last few years.  

-Heather Desserud, Director of Strategy