Canada’s Moonshot: Solving grand challenges through transformational innovation

How can a moonshot approach to innovation policy harness Canada's strengths and resources to help solve our most pressing collective challenges?
Canada’s Moonshot: Solving grand challenges through transformational innovation

Project Team

Thomas Goldsmith

About this project

Governments spend billions to foster innovation, but the economic, environmental and social return on this investment is not always evident. Canada’s innovation policy landscape remains fragmented, and Canada lags on key indicators of innovation, including business R&D, technology adoption, and new product and service development. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has precipitated an economic crisis that demands an ambitious and purposeful policy response. It has also demonstrated the potential of innovation to tackle massive challenges—like the development and roll-out of vaccines in less than a year. As Canada seeks to build a more resilient economy, new policies are needed to clear a path to global scale for Canadian innovation, and to focus innovation where we need it most. 

Orienting innovation policy around “missions” or  a “moonshot”—well-defined objectives related to a social challenge, with a set timeframe—could help to achieve this aim by leveraging innovation as a vehicle for developing and commercializing products, services, and processes that drive economic growth and productivity, while at the same time generating better outcomes for people and the environment.

A note about the “moonshot” terminology: While “mission-oriented innovation policy” is the established terminology,  the term “missions” holds deep historical, military, and colonial roots. As part of the process of reconciliation, it is incumbent on everyone to continue to be aware of the impact that our language may have on groups and communities that are still impacted by the discriminatory policies of the past and to take steps to decolonize our work now. Thus, this report will instead use “moonshots” in its place – drawing on the original moonshot – the Apollo program.

Moonshot innovation policy is not a new idea: The quintessential example, referenced in the title of University College London (UCL) economist Mariana Mazzucato’s latest book, dates back to the 1950s, with the Apollo program’s “moonshot” to land humans on the moon and return them safely to Earth. This original moonshot initiative led to numerous ancillary technological advancements used in applications ranging from portable computers to solar panels, cordless drills, and memory foam. More recent examples of moonshots include developing robotic technology for elder care in Japan, protecting against flooding and sea-level rise in the Netherlands, and the European Union’s commitment to identifying specific missions in five challenge areas related to cancer, climate change adaptation, ocean protection, net zero cities, and soil and food health. 

While we can learn from these and other examples, this paper puts forth recommendations on how to successfully implement moonshot innovation policy in Canada. This report will explore key design considerations related to how moonshots are selected and implemented, and the policy changes, governance models and public-private partnerships that might be required to help innovative solutions move from idea to market.

Read Report



Our Approach

With the intent of bringing new, action-oriented insights to policymakers and leading actors in Canada’s innovation ecosystem, this project will distill practical lessons, design considerations, and governance options related to the implementation of moonshot innovation policy in Canada. It will also provide examples of potential moonshots that could galvanize Canada’s innovators in the coming decade.

This project will deliver focused research and analysis, including: 

  • Synthesis of lessons from global models of moonshot  innovation, drawing on existing literature; 
  • Expert insights from across Canada to translate these lessons into the Canadian context, and to identify policy opportunities, barriers, and key success factors related to implementation; 
  • Analysis of potential moonshot opportunities; 
  • Exploration of approaches for defining and measuring success.

This project includes two phases: 

Phase 1 (March-December, 2021): Research 

BII+E  will research and consult a diversity of experts and organizations on:

  • Lessons from global and domestic mission-oriented policies and programs
  • Criteria and definitions for mission selection
  • Practical principles for implementing a mission-oriented approach to innovation policy in Canada
  • Illustrative missions to ground insights in concrete examples, applying the criteria identified

This project will benefit from the guidance of an advisory panel of leading thinkers from across Canada. The Expert Advisory Panel will support the identification of moonshot selection criteria, advise on the extent to which existing innovation policies and investments could be reoriented around moonshots, and highlight policy changes–including procurement and regulatory—that may be needed to open key markets to innovation. 

Phase 2 (January-February, 2022): Report release and mobilization 

The final report will be released on February 23, 2022. 

Project Affiliate

During the recent federal election a number of parties (including the now-reelected Liberal Party) made commitments to create a new Canada Advanced Research Project Agency (CARPA), a public-private bridge for Canadian-led technologies in high impact areas, modelled on the U.S.’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This created a timely and relevant opportunity to provide commentary on a specific implementation of moonshot innovation policy. As such, The Public Policy Forum will be publishing a complementary report focused more specifically on providing guidance on how best to establish CARPA, including its mandate, governance, talent, organization, and objectives. The report will also be released in early 2022. 

Together, we believe that both reports will be instrumental in providing valuable insights to the Canadian government on how best to select, structure, and execute a moonshot approach to innovation policy in Canada.

Expert Advisory Panel

Bill Tam
Co-founder & Chief Operating Officer, Digital Technology Supercluster
Ilse Treurnicht
Chair, Public Policy Forum

Expert Advisory Panel

Adam Legge
President, Business Council of Alberta
Armughan Ahmad
President, Digital, KPMG
Carol Anne Hilton
Founder & CEO, Indigenomics Institute
Clement Bourgogne
VP, Strategic Programs, Scale AI
Derrick Rossi
Co-founder & CEO, Moderna Therapeutics/Convelo
Judy Fairburn
Co-CEO & Fund Managing Partner, The51
Kendra MacDonald
CEO, Oceans Supercluster
Michel Bergeron
Chief Strategy Officer, BDC
Nadia Theodore
Senior Vice President, Global Government and Industry Relations, Maple Leaf Foods
Pari Johnston
Vice-President, Policy and Public Affairs, Genome Canada
Sara Wolfe
Director of Indigenous Innovation Initiatives, Grand Challenges Canada
Zayna Khayat
Future Strategist, SE Health

Get Involved

We welcome your insights. If you have thoughts on how mission-oriented innovation policy could work in Canada, the project team would love to hear from you. 

Our Partners and Sponsors

Deep Dive

2 Results


Feb 23, 2022

Insights + recommendations on how moonshot innovation policy can help solve our world’s most pressing collective challenges and strengthen our economy.
Canada’s Moonshot: Solving grand challenges through transformational innovation

Feb 23, 2022

New insights + recommendations on how moonshot innovation policy can help solve our world’s most pressing collective challenges and strengthen our economy.
NEW RESEARCH: A bold new approach to innovation policy designed to tackle our greatest societal challenges
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