Embracing complexity — how cities are navigating uncertainty along their mission-oriented innovation journey


Photo by Santiago Lacarta on Unsplash

By Ryan Bellinson

In a recent conversation with Sheila Jasanoff, a pioneer in the field of science, technology and society, she said, “scientists are too focused on creating the solutions rather than considering how their solutions will be received by society.”

For decision-makers and civil servants working to address wicked problems, it is vital to concentrate just as much on how their policies, initiatives and ideas will be understood and interacted with by the public as it is to design the potential ‘solutions’ themselves. If the perfect evidence-based policy is too slick or complicated to be useful to the stakeholders it was intended to influence, what utility does that solution really offer? How different actors recognise a solution — and the relationships those actors have with each other about the solution — is vitally important to examine and consider if the root issue is to be addressed.

Practitioners and public sector leaders utilising mission-oriented innovation recognise the need to prioritise how other stakeholders understand their missions through different aspects of their work, such as how their missions are being collaboratively governed or embracing emergent storytelling methods for creating inclusive collective narratives. Despite this, wicked problems, by their inherent nature, are defined by uncertainty. The intrinsic character of the complex challenges that missions are being used to address requires civil servants to engage with deep uncertainty throughout their work. Without grappling with the uncertainty ingrained in the process of leading a mission and the context in which it exists, any potential resolution missions may offer will fall flat.

The Mission Oriented Innovation Network’s (MOIN) Cities Community of Practice recently hosted a discussion with local government decision-makers to explore how uncertainty has emerged whilst leading their cities’ missions and examine the tactics and strategies used to move forward. Professor of Planning Stefano Moroni, whose current work explores how uncertainty impacts city planning departments and urban planners, joined us in this session. A few key takeaways emerged following this discussion, which explored the concept of uncertainty in the context of missions.

Justifying what’s unknown

In conventional local government cultures, civil servants are often expected to devise solutions with clearly justified explanations. When a public sector organisation makes a decision, it’s reasonable to scrutinise how public resources are being used and expect civil servants to operate transparently, act impartially, rationalise their selections, and make judgements fairly.

However, public sector organisations and leaders must recognise that missions must encourage experimentation, risk-taking and creativity. For dynamism and innovation to flourish, civil servants must be granted the space to articulate, express and explore the uncertainty that exists within their work. Without permission to explore this space, civil servants are disincentivised or even disallowed from working on initiatives with a high degree of ambiguity, lacking the ability and independence to engage honestly.

Losing the signal through the noise

Local governments are responsible for delivering a vast range of critical services, from waste collection and planning permission to police and fire services and public transport to maintaining public infrastructure and running schools. The sheer expansive range of services local governments are responsible for administering is a source of uncertainty. What’s more, local governments coordinate and partner with many public, private and third sector organisations to deliver these services, creating further complexity for civil servants.

Local governments, as with public sector organisations in general, are responsive to political cycles. This means the capacity of civil servants and the bureaucracies they work within are frequently told to shift their attention toward short-term, immediate problems. Missions alternatively are aimed at fundamentally long-term societal challenges that span beyond political cycles. This dynamic leaves civil servants in the difficult position of needing to illuminate and examine the strategic uncertainties they uncover whilst leading a mission and simultaneously being expected to prioritise short-term objectives with a relative degree of certitude.

Super-charging collaboration to reach break throughs

The power of urban agglomeration — a city’s density of population and built environment infrastructure that produces economic, cultural and social advancements — has long been explored by urban theorists. The group highlighted that local governments have historically played an important role in leveraging the forces of urban agglomeration to shape a city’s innovation trajectory toward specific long-term goals. For instance, strategic urban planning and master plans are policy tools local governments use to steer the strategic direction of a city’s building and social infrastructures. Missions are now being used in a similar vein and have a significant potential role in helping the diverse local stakeholders collectively take action to advance their city’s mission to embrace and navigate uncertainty together.

The group highlighted several concrete examples of missions being used to accelerate collaboration as a vector for breaking through uncertainty. Open innovation challenges like that being led by the Greater London Authority can be used as platforms to bring together citizens, the private sector and public sector to advance through uncertainties toward public-purpose goals. Some participants discussed evaluation dashboards their cities are developing to help ‘visible-ise’ where uncertainty exists within their missions to create opportunities for recognising and prioritising addressing uncertainty at multiple administrative levels. Others like Camden Council and Greater Manchester noted the importance of sharing ‘the decision-making pen’ to co-design missions with diverse stakeholders to perceive the mission from multiple perspectives, viewing uncertainty through different lenses.

Proactively developing capabilities to handle uncertainty

Addressing a challenge often requires a specific skill set. Uncertainty is no different and the group highlighted that whilst certain capabilities can be effective when dealing with uncertainty in local government processes, they are skills and abilities that are rarely explicitly discussed. By recognising and proactively building particular capabilities for navigating the uncertainty that will inevitably be confronted, local governments can prepare themselves to handle the future obstacles and barriers their missions will evoke.

The group discussed three broad capabilities that have helped navigate uncertainty whilst delivering their missions. First, prioritising workforce development through inviting early career civil servants to join many conversations — even those outside their direct scope of work — is an effective tactic for widening these individuals’ perspectives and gaining a deeper understanding of how their actions might impact colleagues in other teams and departments. Second, cultivating a culture that imparts civil servants with the courage to honestly reflect upon their objectives and discuss their uncertainties creates space for collaborating in teams to reach breakthroughs collaboratively. Third, every staff member should work with their manager and colleagues to consider and identify the individual skills they need to develop for handling uncertainty within their work.

The need to confront uncertainty is a reality that exists in many public sector initiatives but often goes overlooked. Because of their inherent societally relevant nature, requirement to foster deep collaboration and need for sparking experimentation, missions invite uncertainty. We hope the themes from this discussion can help other practitioners and civil servants leading missions grapple with how uncertainty emerges within their work and proactively consider how to effectively address that uncertainty.

You can learn more about the Mission Oriented Innovation Network if you are interested in how we are supporting the global community of public sector organisations experimenting with mission-oriented innovation.

You can learn more about our work with local governments through our Cities Programme.



UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

Changing how the state is imagined, practiced and evaluated to tackle societal challenges | Director: Mariana Mazzucato