What EU innovation policy can learn from professional cycling

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When Team Sky launched in January 2010, no British cyclist had ever come close to winning the Tour de France. Yet, they felt confident in establishing this ambitious goal, writes Simon Skillings. [EPA/GUILLAUME HORCAJUELO]

Mission-oriented innovation is potentially significant in tackling big societal challenges such as climate change. When establishing those missions, the EU could take a few lessons from Britain’s most successful cycling team, writes Simon Skillings.

Simon Skillings is senior associate at E3G, an independent think-tank operating to accelerate the global transition to a low carbon economy.

Ten years ago, in 2009, David Brailsford, the then performance director for the Great Britain cycling team, established a road cycling team, Team Sky. When the team launched in January 2010, Brailsford announced they would win the Tour de France within five years.

At the time, this seemed an incredible claim. No British cyclist, let alone British cycling team, had come close to winning this event in over one hundred years of history. And yet he felt confident in setting this ambitious goal.

The ability to set ambitious goals will soon be a challenge facing EU policy makers. The new ‘Horizon Europe’ framework, which is the EU research and innovation programme that will succeed the current Horizon 2020 programme, includes an intriguing new dimension. For the first time, it will establish ‘missions’ to help align and inspire researchers, innovators and the general public alike.

Mission-oriented innovation is an approach to policy-making which involves setting defined goals, with specific targets and working to achieve them in a set time. Whilst ‘mission areas’ have already been agreed, the specific missions that lie within these areas have yet to be defined.

There are two mission areas that relate to energy and climate change: ‘Adaptation to Climate Change, including Societal Transformation’ and ‘Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities’. The challenge for policy makers is to balance the need to set specific missions that are sufficiently aspirational without creating a ‘hostage to fortune’ that has little chance of success.

One example that has been suggested by renowned economist Professor Marianna Mazzucato is for a mission to ‘create 100 carbon-neutral cities across Europe by 2030’.

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Despite the many detractors who poured scorn on the lofty ambitions of Team Sky, Bradley Wiggins rode home through the streets of Paris wearing the yellow jersey in the summer of 2012 – three years ahead of schedule. Subsequently, Team Sky has come to dominate the event with wins by Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas.

So, what was it that Chris Brailsford knew back in 2009 and how might this help the EU in setting ambitious but credible mission objectives?

Firstly, Team Sky was very well-financed. Decisions relating to the funding of the Horizon Europe programme remain to be finalised as part of the multi-annual financial framework discussions. Adequate funding is clearly going to be very important, but it will not be enough. David Brailsford had an even more important reason to be confident. He had identified the power of adopting a ‘marginal gains’ approach to improving performance in cycling.

The theory of marginal gains is just as applicable in delivering ambitious research and innovation missions as it is in performance sports. It involves breaking a big goal into small parts and learning how to improve on each element. Huge improvements in performance can be achieved when each of the individual improvements are put together. In cycling, the elements include bike set-up, clothing, diet, training regime and even the quality of the mattresses on the athlete’s beds.

If the objective is to deliver 100 carbon-neutral cities, then the important elements relate to the ability to get energy consumers to adopt new technologies and behaviours. Key issues might involve the way the choices are presented, the consumer protection regime, the ability to continually update technology, peer pressure and the financial deal. There are also likely to be many important dimensions that are not yet apparent.

The key point is that there must be a ‘guiding hand’ that identifies the aspects that need exploring, processes the learning, locks in improvements and moves on the next round of questions and further refinements. The innovations can emerge ‘bottom-up’ in response to a well-defined challenge but, unless they are corralled within a learning governance process, it is difficult to see how ambitious goals can be achieved by random and uncoordinated initiatives.

Mission-oriented innovation is important for the EU and is potentially significant in tackling big societal challenges such as climate change and energy system decarbonisation. Missions must engage EU citizens as well as the research and innovation communities. This means they must be ambitious, eye-catching and relevant to everyday lives.

However, they must also be deliverable, and this will depend critically on implementing a learning governance process that breaks the overall goal into parts and initiates projects to explore how these elements can be improved. Without a robust governance process in place, it is difficult to see politically-minded actors in the EU committing to the level of ambition that is required by challenges such as climate change. Establishing an appropriate governance framework is, therefore, the critical next step for the European Commission.

As a post-script to the early success of Team Sky, more recently it has become mired in scandals over excessive use of medications and has changed sponsorship and branding to the chemical and fossil-fuel company Ineos.

As with all innovation processes, there is as much to learn from failures as there is from success.

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