books economics

Book review: Mission Economy, by Mariana Mazzucato

I’ll be honest: my heart sank a little at the title of Mariana Mazzucato’s new book, Mission Economy – A moonshot guide to changing capitalism.

It’s Boris Johnson’s fault of course. He has ruined the word ‘moonshot’. For me, the word implies pet projects for national pride or politician’s egos, or perhaps the egos of their megalomaniacal advisors. Dominic Cummings was a big fan of the moonshot, and talked the government into a string of ‘high risk, high reward’ projects that have mainly meant throwing millions of pounds at private consultants.

Mazzucato’s book doesn’t help matters with a front cover that literally depicts money being thrown, in the form of a paper plane.

So, I was sceptical.

Still, it’s Mariana Mazzucato and she’s better than that. Sure enough, she makes clear that “moonshots must be understood not as siloed big endeavours, perhaps the pet project of a minister, but rather as bold societal goals which can be achieved by collaboration on a large scale between public and private entities.” In short, it’s about setting ambitious goals that will make a difference to people’s lives, and collaborating across sectors to make it happen.

The book investigates how we might take the ambition of the moon landings and “apply the same level of boldness and experimentation to the biggest problems of our time – from health challenges such as pandemics, to environmental challenges such as global warming”.

There’s no better place to study grand projects than the original moonshot, and the book’s most fun chapter digs into the lessons that can be learned from Apollo. When people write about the space programme, the attention is often on the people – the astronauts and engineers, and what it was like to walk on the moon. Or they might talk about the technology, the geopolitics of the space race, or the drama of the events itself. Mazzucato focuses on the project management, the kinds of contracts NASA was signing, the way companies worked together.

That might sound like the most boring take on the space programme ever written, but it’s full of fascinating details about partnerships and collaboration. There are some remarkable sections on the technological breakthroughs that spun off from Apollo, giving participating corporations a headstart on commercial applications – CAT scanners, miniaturised cameras now found in smartphones, foil based insulation, LEDs – all rolled out of the space programme. So did the computer mouse, and in fact Mazzucato suggests that “the Apollo guidance computer can be seen as the world’s first portable computer.” These things were only possible because of ambitious but carefully constructed public-private collaborations.

If you’ve read Mazzucato’s other books, believing in the public sector is one of her key themes. Decades of dogma have left government with a marginalised role in the economy, asked to stay out of the way and not get big ideas – until there’s a crisis and everyone wants a bailout. Many years of this have reduced government’s capacity and management expertise, resulting in a self fulfilling prophecy of ineptitude.

“We get the kind of government organisations we believe are possible” says Mazzucato, and part of her work is rebuilding confidence and competence in the public sector. One way to do this is to use the motivating power of a big challenge, and the second half of the book applies this logic to climate change, healthcare, universal internet access or the Sustainable Development Goals.

One great strength of the book is that Mazzucato is a hands-on practitioner in this business, so it’s not just theoretical. Her challenge-focused approach is behind Scotland’s new ‘mission-led development bank’. It has explicitly informed Italy’s response to Covid-19. Her thinking lies behind the Conservative government’s new-found confidence in talking about industrial strategy. She’s even done research consultancy with NASA and the European Space Agency, so there’s a strong sense that for all their ambition, the recommendations in the book are practical and not just idealistic.

Mission Economy is one of those rare books on economics that’s actually quite fun to read. It finds new ways to talk across political ideologies, and offers a healthier and more collaborative form of capitalism.

I might even be willing to rethink my view of the word moonshot.

4 comments

  1. Did you hear Radio 4 start the week this morning? She was on it, and I was thinking you would enjoy the programme, then saw this!

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