How “missions” coordinate policy, research, and stakeholders to solve pressing societal challenges

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Photo: mauromora/Unsplash

More and more, innovation efforts to solve pressing societal challenges like the energy transition are focused into state-led “missions”. However, governments themselves often lack the capacity and flexibility to prioritize and accelerate innovation: they are highly dependent on others. In new publication in Science and Public Policy, the Copernicus Institute's Matthijs Janssen, Joeri Wesseling, and their co-authors present a new way of thinking about how missions mobilize and align stakeholders across society.

When talking about innovation for societal change, a mission is more of a coordination mechanism than a carefully planned policy program, according to the researchers. Such missions already exist at different levels: in the EU, but also nationally in the Netherlands. In 2019, 25 Dutch missions were launched to bring together the government, companies, researchers and societal sectors to collaborate on important societal themes, including the energy transition, circular agriculture, and human health.

Best understood as boundary objects

The authors suggest that missions are best understood by looking at them as ‘boundary objects’: flexible concepts that are open to interpretation by different actors. “Stakeholders might adhere to different views on the mission strategy, the key problems that need to be solved and the best type of policy to achieve shared goals,” says Janssen. When considered a boundary object, different stakeholders can work together towards a shared goal while keeping their specific beliefs and interests at heart.

The promise of missions lies in bringing together diverse actors, public and private, to solve prioritized challenges

Photo of Matthijs Janssen
Assistant Professor, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development

While this approach is common, Janssen emphasizes that it is not without risk. “Efforts of stakeholders might miss the mark, for instance if actors relabel their efforts without really changing anything”.  At the same time, he continues, you can expect little progress towards achieving mission when societies have unrealistic expectations about how directive governments can and are willing to be.

The authors argue that it is better to acknowledge that policymakers and other actors are limited by the budgets and legal tools at their disposal. “The promise of missions then lies in bringing together diverse actors, public and private, to solve prioritized challenges.” Based on an analysis of the missions strategy of the European Union, the researchers also presented several methods that could help bring actors in missions together.

From small changes to large impact

“Perhaps the changes missions bring about are only marginal, but the sum of many marginal changes could still lead to a large impact,” reflects Janssen. That is, as long as these small changes move in the same direction. “Our ‘boundary object’ view explains how this might happen even without there being a strong orchestrator or clear agreements on what the scope of the mission is and who should be driving it.”


Janssen, M., Wesseling, J., Torrens, J., Weber, M., Penna, C., & Klerkx, L. (2023). Missions as boundary objects for transformative change: Understanding coordination across policy, research and stakeholder communities. Science and Public Policy.