Equitable Spaces

On a mission: helping Camden build back better

How can we harness the public sector’s entrepreneurial potential to tackle inequality in UCL’s home borough?

Wealth disparity is everywhere. Camden, the London borough home to UCL and The Bartlett, is no different. Not only is there a gap between the wealthiest and the poorest residents but there is also a huge gap in the wealth of local institutions. The distance between the Crick Institute and the Chalcots Estate, for instance, is short in geographical terms but in other senses vast. This juxtaposition between proximity and prosperity can remain negative – reproducing a world in which these differences are willfully ignored and left to deepen – or, as the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP) see it – it can be a positive call to action.

Even before the lockdown, Councillor Georgia Gould, the Labour Leader of the London Borough of Camden, had been interested in the work of the IIPP. She was keen to address the fact that Camden has some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country and some of the deepest social problems, such as high levels of knife crime. It is also a place that prides itself on its independent spirit. Under Founding Director Mariana Mazzucato, the IIPP has built an international reputation for its teaching but also its consulting on public policy. It has had conversations with government bodies around the world but in early 2020, Gould and Mazzucato held discussions on how to harness the public sector’s power to cultivate social entrepreneurship on its doorstep.

Mariana Mazzucato talks with woman in urban wildflower meadow

By this time, world leaders understood the pandemic would have long-term implications and began to develop the narrative of Build Back Better. The phrase, coined in the UN to describe disaster recovery, was popularised by Joe Biden’s presidential election campaign yet quickly captured the public policy imagination the world over – a vision for a healthier, more resilient, equitable and socially just post-pandemic world.

In Camden, the Build Back Better slogan was to inform pioneering policy experimentation. Mazzucato and Gould realised they had an obligation to give concrete definition to the policy mantra and to act on it. The question was how, and with what means. In consultation with their teams, Gould and Mazzucato decided it represented an opportunity to address the borough’s deep-seated inequalities, through what Mazzucato calls mission-oriented innovation. “This was a model that Georgia understood, and it really resonated with her,” she says.

Missions are the central idea of the IIPP’s most recent work. The huge challenges facing us today, from growing inequality to the coronavirus pandemic, to climate breakdown, can only be resolved through concerted government action across all scales, from the global to the local. This means increasing the core capabilities of the state – national, supranational and local – to intervene in the economy and redesign public policy around ambitious yet achievable missions with clear public purpose. Mazzucato’s project is to renew the state ambition of the moonshot era but for earthbound problems; to learn the lessons of the successful Apollo mission of 1969 for contemporary challenges. And what better place to apply these lessons than in the IIPP’s own backyard, in Camden?

 Mariana Mazzucato in a kitchen with two other women, all are wearing facemasks

Working closely with the IIPP, Gould is applying a mission-oriented approach to many of the borough’s public policy problems – from social polarisation and housing deprivation to political participation. It involves local government taking a leading role in repurposing public-private partnerships and in refocusing public services, planning policy and other place-based tools away from reactively fixing market failures, redistributing resources or solving problems downstream, towards more proactive interventions in socioeconomic flows upstream. “The state is not just there to fix market failures,” Mazzucato says. “It’s there to shape and create a different type of economy.”

In The Entrepreneurial State, Mazzucato analyses the impact of the US Government body, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on innovation in Silicon Valley, and asks: “What did it take for someone like DARPA to foster a revolutionary business sector? It’s not just they were publicly financed, it was they were providing answers to questions. GPS was the answer for a specific military need to understand the location of its assets. Why do we only do that with military and technology? Why don’t we do that with social missions? How about instead of locating navy vessels, it is delivering zero knife crime?”

These are the big questions that inspired Camden Council to establish the Camden Renewal Commission. Co-chaired by Gould and Mazzucato and supported by several researchers at IIPP and a small secretariat within the council, the Commission is developing a mission design process to solve Camden’s social problems.

The Commission was constituted from several local leaders, some from anchor institutions – large organisations with place-based commitments, a civic purpose, a big employee base, and substantial procurement budgets that can be leveraged locally to generate public value and shape supply chains. Members include Marcel Levi, Chief Executive of University College London Hospitals, and Sir Michael Marmot, Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at UCL, and the performer George Mpanga, also known as George the Poet. Community-based organisations, activists and community leaders are centrally involved.

Georgia Gould points something off-camera out to Mariana Mazzucato

All these various stakeholders met for the first time at the end of September 2020. Their mission was to focus less on specific sectors and more on cross-cutting problems that matter to all. Mission thinking does not specify how to achieve success, just the direction to take. While technological missions, such as Mazzucato’s example of GPS, are often created by government agencies, social missions rely on the widest possible number of stakeholders to define and implement. Missions are a collective art, not a scientific formula. They must be big enough to inspire the public and attract buy-in across all sectors yet specific enough to involve industry and achieve quantifiable success.

Following this mission thinking process, the Camden Renewal Commission has co-designed four locally embedded multi-sectoral missions, with clear and ambitious yet achievable goals:

1. By 2030, those holding positions of power in Camden will be as diverse as our community – and the next generation will be ready to follow.

2. By 2025, every young person will have access to economic opportunity enabling safety and security.

3. By 2030, everyone will eat well every day with nutritious, affordable, sustainable food.

4. By 2030, Camden’s estates and streets will be creative and sustainable.

It is now in the hands of Camden Council to take the lead on delivering these missions across public services and through partnerships with organisations across the borough. To incentivise popular participation, residents and community groups can apply via Camden Giving to receive up to £1500 to deliver ideas that contribute to achieving Camden’s four missions. Missions are there for the making, just as Camden’s future is there for the shaping.


Prof Mariana Mazzucato

Professor in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value, and Founding Director of the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

Ryan Bellinson

Senior Research Fellow in Cities, Climate and Innovation, UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

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