Movements with missions make markets

by Charles Leadbeater

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

The contraceptive pill is arguably one of the most significant innovations of the second half of the 20th century.

Until the 1960s contraception was crude, clumsy, unreliable and for the Catholic church controversial. For women sex came with an inescapable risk of pregnancy. For many married women, pregnancies came in such fast succession they could barely cope. If you were unmarried and became pregnant the choices were stark: abortion was illegal and potentially life threatening; life as a single mother was unthinkable for most women.

The Pill was approved as a form of birth control in 1960. Within five years millions of American women were using it to give them more control over the most fundamental aspects of their life. The Pill helped to spread wealth and opportunity by allowing more women to play a much fuller role in society: earning a living, pursuing a career, being able to plan and shape their lives by choosing when to become a mother and a wife.

The Pill was as as much a social and cultural innovation as it was a scientific and commercial one.

The Pill was a breakthrough: a social and cultural innovation as much as it was scientific and commercial, it shifted power relations in society, allowing women much greater choice and far wider opportunities to play a role in society.

The recent research on missions addresses the critical issue of who sets the mission and purpose for innovation and how is a mission established that is not just compelling but legitimate, especially when the goal is societal change? Who set the mission to create the Pill and why did a wide group of scientists, philanthropists, medics and regulators respond to that mission?

In some cases an innovation mission is set by government: the classic example is John F Kennedy setting the mission to get a man to the moon and back. Lately, rich, entrepreneurial philanthropists such as Bill Gates have set global missions to eliminate malaria or reduce poverty. Many world changing innovations have emerged from the very broad mission of blue sky research set for academic researchers.

This story of the Pill focuses us on a different kind of actor, one which is involved not just in setting missions but also mobilising people, resources and knowledge in their fulfilment: social movements. If Kennedy’s man on the moon programme delivered by NASA is the classic case of an innovation mission set by government, in part to project geo-political power, the Pill is a classic case of a social-movement-driven innovation mission to shift power and social relations.

That is not obvious at first sight. The creation of the Pill looks like a straightforward story of corporate innovation. The original contraceptive pill was introduced by an innovative, family run pharmaceutical company called GD Searle which had helped to fund the research and product development. Yet GD Searle was just the corporate tip of a very large iceberg. The iceberg was not a company, but the overlapping social and scientific communities that produced the innovation.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

The Pill emerged from a movement in society bringing together scientists, doctors, philanthropists and social activists. For the sake of this innovation, the scientific and medical communities were nested within a larger social movement, the women’s movement, which provided the overarching mission.

The Pill then was not the product of a single organisation, with a single mission. Like all significant innovations it was a complex undertaking. It required contributions, resources, knowledge and ideas from many different sources, from science and medicine, to public policy, ethics and sociology. Each of these contributions came from people who were part of a different community animated by a slightly different version of the overall mission. It was not mission-driven innovation so much as missions-driven.

The Pill changed the lives of hundreds of millions of families across the world. The contraceptive products they used were made by companies and dispensed by public health systems, yet the innovation came from a cumulative, collective endeavour: the best way to describe this is as a movement.

Movements bring together a significant group of people to pursue a shared cause. Movements are often by their nature somewhat emergent, bottom-up forms of organisation with porous boundaries.

What is the relevance of movements to mission-driven innovation?

Innovation movements play four important roles in mission driven innovation of the kind now being pursued in many countries to ensure that innovation efforts contribute to meeting significant social challenges.

First, movements help to create, contest and shape the mission and purpose of innovation. They can challenge the direction of innovation in a dual sense. Movements often stem from frustration with how things are. They challenge a status quo which is regarded as unacceptable. But they also set a challenge to find a better solution. The Pill emerged from this dual sense of challenge, both negative and positive.

Second, movements help organise the supply side of innovation through the generation and circulation of ideas, knowledge and technology. Innovations often develop and spread within communities of scientists, engineers, and technologists who cooperate, emulate and compete in devising new and better solutions to solve shared challenges.

In the case of the Pill the scientific community played the critical role in developing basic science, testing out prototypes and refining the product. That community drew in people from academia, corporate research labs and government agencies. Movements of ideas can orchestrate the supply side of innovation, developing and spreading new knowledge. They can also work on the demand side at the same time. This is their third contribution to innovation.

Innovations need to be seen in a wider social and cultural context to understand what makes them possible.

Movements with missions can make new markets when they crystallise consumer aspirations for better ways to live. The fact that the market was ready to take up the radically new product when it arrived was due to the way the women’s movement prepared the way by articulating this deeply felt aspiration. Innovations often fail because they are too early for the market; consumers are not ready to take them up and do not know how to integrate them into daily life. That was not true for the Pill and that was because social movements made the market. That means they need to be seen in a wider social and cultural context to understand what makes them possible.

When the FDA approved the Pill as a form of birth control in 1960, deference to authority was waning. Women were expecting more to life than being a wife and mother stuck at home with little choice and no career to speak of. Attitudes to sex and pleasure were loosening up. The Beatles were just about to arrive and the 1960s were just around the corner. A social and cultural shift made the market which the Pill then satisfied. Mission-driven innovations take off when they catalyse and embody larger forces of social change at work in society: that is what the Pill did.

Finally, the movements perspective provides a way to understand how entire systems change. Systems change is far more powerful as a form of innovation than the creation of a standalone product or service. Systems change is never due to a single company acting on its own. It always involves coalitions of players, private and public, entrepreneurs and incumbents, investors and regulators, creating change together often over long periods through overlapping waves of investment.

Shifting a system from an old to a new operating system often involves creating coalitions in which supporters of the new win over former adherents to the old system. One way to think about this process is that it is akin to creating a movement.

The Pill too required systems change. It needed to find a route through systems of pharmaceutical development and approval which were not set up with it in mind. The innovators needed to engage with this system and win over supporters from within it to succeed. People inside the system needed to be part of the innovation coalition to bring about change.

The time is surely ripe for breakthrough innovations to take us into a new phase of growth which is more equitable, sustainable and creative.

Governments are increasingly turning to mission-driven innovation to tackle the biggest challenges they face as a society, from food to energy to housing and ageing. Many people believe with good reasons that current models of capitalism are failing. In much of the world they are delivering slower growth, greater instability, rising inequality and environmental degradation, without providing enough people with secure, decent and rewarding work.

People all over the world are searching for better alternatives. The time is surely ripe for breakthrough innovations to take us into a new phase of growth which is more equitable, sustainable and creative. Incremental innovation is not enough to meet these challenges. Disruptive innovation offers superficially radical change but at the cost of dislocation and rising inequality as it rewards monopolists who take the lion’s share of the profits in a new market. That is why people are turning to the idea of missions-driven innovation to propel innovations that will allow people to live better lives by creating new, better, different ways for people to live and work.

Such missions can come from government and entrepreneurs, but social movements will play a vital role too in mobilising, harnessing, directing forces of change in society. Not only can they set and define missions but they can mobilise people, resources and ideas behind them to reach the missions.

This is an extract from the latest IIPP working paper — to find out more about the social movements that led to the development of the Pill, read ‘Movements with missions make markets’ on our website. Charles Leadbeater is a Visiting Professor at IIPP and is the author of ‘Living on Thin Air’ and ‘We-Think: mass innovation not mass production’.

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