Mission Impossible: The Influence of Incumbent Industries on Mission-Oriented Innovation Policy Targeting Carbon Lock-In


  • Sara Hastings-Simon UofC
  • Eliot Tretter




In this paper, we explore how the power wielded by regional incumbents has impacted subnational innovation agendas. Our findings suggest that the design of mission-oriented innovation policies should be more attentive to regional innovation policies and their relationship to how innovation may serve to bolster incumbents and not undermine them. We use a case-study of innovation in fossil fuels.

Recently, innovation policy literature has explored innovation policy and global climate as a major topic. On the one hand, carbon lock-in has been used to explain why there has been such difficulty in reducing carbon emissions, in many cases, despite an increasing emphasis of mission-innovation policies. On the other hand, mission-innovation policies are believed to be a key to the development of disruptive innovations that could break this carbon intensive path dependency. Although the two literatures explore the same problem,

there could be more integration. While carbon lock-in is being considered in the mission- innovation literature, it nevertheless has been largely overlooked at the mission-setting stage. On the other hand, the lock-in literature has tended to overlook the findings of mission-oriented innovation literature in offering solutions, which suggests that there is

a more productive role for mission-oriented innovations in breaking free of previous constraints to serve in the low-carbon energy transition.

To make our case, we argue it is important to distinguish among the various impacts disruptive innovations have on the market shares of incumbents’. We propose the following three schema: new market, market rewarding and market destroying. By variegating the potential impact of innovations, we suggest that mission-oriented innovation polices may be designed to only support certain types of innovations that do not directly undermine the market share of incumbents.

Using a detailed case study of the Province of Alberta, Canada, we then explore the role
of the province’s mission-oriented policy in the development of technology to produce the Canadian oil sands. The case study illustrates how incumbents influenced the establishment and direction of the mission’s goal. Shifts in incumbency opposition toward the province’s mission-oriented innovation policy coincided with the changing impact of the innovation from being market destroying to market rewarding. We suggest that future research
should be more attentive to the role of incumbents in influencing mission-oriented innovation policy and the importance of their influence at the mission-setting stage. Furthermore, we suggest that to meet the grand challenge of addressing climate change through mission-oriented innovation policies, these policies must be designed to break free of these institutional constraints.






Research Papers