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For R&D missions, the process is as important as the goal


Successful programmes show an ability to learn and adapt as they go, says Harald Rohracher

It is hard to dispute that making cities climate-neutral is a good idea. But as soon as one tries to spell out what this means in practice, and how to get there, uncertainties and rows rear up. 

In other words, how to give the EU 100 climate-neutral and smart cities by 2030—one of the missions set out in the Horizon Europe R&D programme—is a ‘wicked’ problem: complex, uncertain, controversial and involving many parts of society. 

This sets it apart from earlier mission-oriented innovation policies, such as the Apollo programme or the Human Genome Project. Instead of aiming primarily at technological breakthroughs, Horizon Europe’s missions grow from the insight that dealing with grand challenges such as climate change, ageing societies or growing inequality will require transformations in every area of society—from work, to food, to transport. 

Modern mission programmes aim to spur transformation by integrating research and innovation with regulatory measures, other policy fields, and the mobilisation of a broad range of actors in business, civil society and the wider public. But this is, unsurprisingly, not straightforward and Horizon Europe’s approach to implementing its mission programme has been criticised as lacklustre and confused. 

More creative thinking needs to go into translating the missions’ ambitions into concrete actions. Most of Horizon Europe’s missions have high-level goals. But even as they aim to deliver results by 2030, achieving climate-neutrality, restoring oceans or beating cancer will take decades and needs buy-in at all levels of government, business and civil society. 

Implementing long-term, transformative programmes poses different challenges to traditional policy cycles. Missions have to sustain momentum and relevance, handle tensions and conflicts, and adapt their goals to a changing environment and sociopolitical context. These are formidable problems, but looking beyond the usual suspects, there are examples of mission-oriented policy programmes that have achieved a successful balance. 

Mission critical

My colleagues and I have studied two examples of national mission-oriented innovation policy programmes that highlight some of the critical issues. One is Austria’s Buildings of Tomorrow, an innovation-policy programme established in 1999 to make the building sector more sustainable. The programme was not explicitly designed as a mission, but it has evolved into one, stretching from a planned five-year lifespan to over 20 years, varying its focus and scope in the process. It has been highly successful, spurring the spread of ultra-efficient passive houses, which minimise energy use for heating and cooling, halving the energy consumption of new buildings and putting the sector ahead of the curve on climate targets. 

One of the programme’s striking features is an absence of strict time-plans or long-term goals. Instead, it built up gradually, in collaboration with regional networks and communities of practice in the building sector, such as those around solar architecture, passive houses and sustainable materials. 

Buildings of Tomorrow has also re-invented itself several times, gradually becoming more complex in response to changing opportunities and priorities. From focusing on construction standards it moved to issues around on-site energy generation, digitisation and the design of neighbourhoods and cities. 

At the same time, a core group of administrators in government provided continuity and learning across different stages. They put particular emphasis on communication and demonstration projects, which turned out to be crucial to muster support from successive governments. How to maintain continuity and momentum was not set out and planned from the beginning but required careful management, curation and openness to changing contexts.

A second example is the effort to make Sweden’s food system more sustainable, a mission run by the country’s innovation agency, Vinnova. This programme demonstrates the importance of making monitoring and evaluation as much about learning as it is about measuring

A mission’s long timeframes and complexity mean that judging a programme by its outcomes is no longer enough. Formative approaches to evaluation are also needed to adapt and re-orient programmes by revealing their progress and dynamics.


The lesson for European mission programmes from these examples is not that there is a particular approach that should be copied. Rather, new approaches and instruments are needed for more flexible, open-ended and learning-oriented implementation. Horizon Europe’s missions need to create their own space, in collaboration with practitioners and stakeholders. 

Harald Rohracher is professor of technology and social change at Linköping University, Sweden

This article also appeared in Research Europe