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From siloed operations to dynamic ecosystems: How cities are driving mission-oriented innovation

By Ryan Bellinson

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

This blog is part of IIPP’s series on mission-oriented innovation in cities, part of the Mission Bootcamp programme. The first blog in the series can be read here.

A s recent societal crises have emerged and unfolded — from the pandemic to systemic racial injustices to climate breakdown — cities have found themselves on the frontlines of the response. This raises serious and consequential questions for local governments. What type and scale of action can they deliver on their own without additional policy and funding support from national governments? How can they break down traditional silos that constrain creativity and experimentation? What are the engagement and collaboration frameworks they can utilise to build strong partnerships with other actors to deliver widespread action? Cities recognise many of the challenges they need to overcome, but ‘how’ these questions might be done in practice is much more challenging.

The systemic challenges cities are facing require local governments to navigate intrinsic complexities: the upstream drivers of the problems are multiple and interconnecting with unpredictable feedbacks, the issues are characterised by non-linear processes and there is a demand for urgent large-scale action in a content where there are no clear fixes and activity is difficult to marshal. Overcoming these deep entanglements to design and trial solutions mean that local governments must work in new ways, both internally and externally. It’s necessary for local governments to recognise and evaluate the complete spectrum of knowledge to fully analyse systemic societal challenges and to design holistic solutions that can spark transformative change.

Organising and mobilising a diverse network of organisations and interests towards integrated systems change is a complex endeavour. However, by their very nature addressing societal-wide challenges requires deep collaboration with a range of organisations and interests. In other words: cities must traverse the obstacles of creating durable partnerships with diverse local actors and community interests to cooperate within a dynamic urban innovation ecosystem.

“by their very nature addressing societal-wide challenges requires deep collaboration with a range of organisations and interests”

An urban innovation ecosystem is made up of the synergistic set of relationships between residents, private and community organisations and local government institutions, as well as the political-economic conditions and built environment of a particular place. When these individual components have the capacity to dynamically operate independently and then collaborate within a risk-taking, supportive culture, they can form a vibrant urban innovation ecosystem.

An entire innovation chain, with all of its complexity, is extremely difficult to orchestrate. These systems are based upon intricate interdependent connections that create and perpetuate a myriad of challenges. The systemic challenges facing many cities like the lack of affordable housing and economic inequality require a transformative scale of action potentially mobilised through urban innovation ecosystems. Rather than attempting to design large-scale interventions that must be choreographed across an entire urban innovation ecosystem among a wide network of diffuse actors, city decision-makers may be well served by instead considering nimble, dynamic and small-scale interventions that can be initiated quickly and gain momentum over time via a snowball effect.

At the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP), we are working with a number of cities that are using mission-oriented innovation to address their wicked challenges. Through this approach, the cities we support are trying to bolster their urban innovation ecosystems by developing new capabilities, creating new institutions and fostering new cultures. Missions provide cities with a purpose-oriented framework to address societal grand challenges, but they are being deployed in a variety of ways to shape their urban innovation ecosystems to fit their specific place-based context. While every urban innovation ecosystem is unique and inherently shaped by local geographic and political-economic factors, there are a few emergent insights that may have broader relevance.

“Missions provide cities with a purpose-oriented framework to address societal grand challenges”

For example, the London Borough of Camden, which has designed four missions to overcome deep-seeded inequalities, has taken the initial steps to begin collaborating with organisations and residents across the borough to undertake coordinated innovation activities. The missions approach is changing how Camden is structuring partnerships with different types of actors through initiatives such as developing a small grant scheme to fund community initiatives that contribute towards the missions. This has required Camden to build new capabilities for testing different methods and approaches to public engagement so that a relatively simple community grant programme will lead to the building of durable trust between communities and the Council, establishing new innovation ecosystem linkages.

Meanwhile, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority — a city-regional government body in the Northwest of England — has used mission-oriented innovation for addressing climate change and promoting the transition to a clean growth local economy. Greater Manchester’s mission has required the city-region to design a new governance institution in the form of cross-actor ‘Challenge Groups’ to drive forward innovation activities in co-equal collaboration between the public sector, private sector, academia, and civil society. This has required new cultures of working to enable deep forms of collaboration and create new capacities for collaboratively coordinating a new governance body composed of over 225 members.

In both Camden and Greater Manchester, the use of mission-oriented innovation to develop urban innovation ecosystems has been key to each city’s initial progress. This has been enabled by a strong mandate behind the missions from the Council Leader and Mayor respectively to provide buy-in for clearly established, long-term agendas with high-level political support. While political backing is significant, it is not enough on its own. Once Camden and Greater Manchester’s missions were formally endorsed by political leadership, the agendas rapidly gained firm traction internally within the administrative authorities, enabling the civil servants to gain confidence and legitimacy to operate differently in order to build new capabilities and begin working across departmental silos.

It is yet to be determined whether the advancing urban innovation ecosystems in Camden and Greater Manchester will ultimately produce outcomes to enable the achievement of their stated missions. However, the approach has led to swift changes in each city to mobilise broad cross-sectoral, cross-actor innovation activities towards a clear ambition. The ability to marshal a challenge-led, purpose-orientation quality within an urban innovation ecosystem is ultimately a fundamental factor that will help determine the success or failure of a city-led mission.

Through IIPP’s recent Mission Bootcamp, we worked with ten cities from around the world to teach the cohort of mayors and senior administrators about missions and explore how the approach might be applied to address their key local challenges. During the programme, cities learned about how missions can be used to shape their own urban innovation ecosystems.



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