Sweden as a Test Bed for Anticipatory Innovation Governance

Chronicle describing work with innovation at OECD. Specifically, the aims with a two-year project focused on  innovation governance are described.

Governments are in trouble. Take a look around. Societies are facing substantial socio-technical disruptions, situations of exponential change, and high levels of uncertainty. DNA samples can now be used to re-create 3D images of people’s faces. Social media allows electorates to live in disinformation bubbles. Quantum computing, which allows exponential gains in computing power, may be at the cusp of widespread practical use — or maybe not.

At the same time, we have less and less clarity about how we think government should help us navigate these challenges.

In the face of these unprecedented levels of change, we believe that government needs to innovate, to keep pace with change and direct it better toward ends that serve the interests and needs of people. Governments are innovating and they always have. However, innovation needs to take on new and different forms within society’s as the pace of change is increasing and becoming unpredictable. OPSI’s empirical research into public sector innovation formed the basis of the Innovation Facets model, which posits four broad kinds of innovation.

  • Enhancement-oriented innovation

This kind of innovation typically builds on existing structures and focuses on upgrading practices, achieving efficiencies and better results. It might not challenge the status quo, but it will require government to change its perspective on things or engage people in a different way. For example, the use of behavioural insights to boost compliance with payments.

  • Mission-oriented innovation

This kind of innovation aligns individual or organisation activities to achieve an ambitious goal. Even if the goal is determined, the means by which to achieve may not yet be clear, so government has to leverage political will, learn new things, develop new knowledge and guide relevant actors in the ecosystem to work in service of it. For example, the space exploration mission that ultimately led to the moon landing.

  • Adaptive innovation

This kind of innovation helps an organisation match internal practices to external change in the environment. For example, many government departments now use social media as part of their general outreach, as this has become a new effective channel to engage the public (and the public has changed its preferences for how it prefers to engage).

  • Anticipatory innovation

This kind of innovation explores and engages with emergent issues and risks that might shape future priorities and commitments. It is a broad-based capacity to actively explore options, with a particular aim of spurring on innovations (novel to the context, implemented and value-shifting products, services and processes) connected to uncertain futures.

If we are keeping a scorecard, governments around the world can generally get a tick for doing enhancement-oriented and adaptive innovation pretty well; and there are enough success stories to see where they win big with mission-oriented innovation.

However, when it comes to look at how governments are doing ‘anticipatory innovation’ that part of the scorecard is mostly left blank. Those deeply urgent questions about how might emerging possibilities fundamentally change governments’ roles and core activities remain, for the large part, unanswered.

Anticipatory innovation is a facet where most governments are seriously under informed, under resourced, and under prepared.

Socio-technical shifts are not going away, the “wait and see” approach is not good enough. People deserve a government that can meaningfully engage with change, understand it deeply, and direct it toward fruitful ends. They need to know that government, and the people who work for it, can face the future not only boldly, but also creatively.

We know governments need to address this glaring gap in their governance. This is why OPSI has created a two-year Anticipatory Innovation Governance project. It has three broad aims.

  1. Map existing practices, and explore possible/ new methods, useful to anticipatory innovation endeavours

Currently, no comprehensive understanding of reflexive practices government can use to reckon with uncertain futures exists. We will research and compile what methods/ mechanisms governments are currently using to service anticipatory innovation and explore which ones ought to be developed further, to allow government to embrace uncertainty and influence shifts as they happen. Research into these methods/ mechanisms will be distinct from traditional foresight, horizon scanning and scenario-building studies as the latter need to feed into the innovation process. Certainly, these approaches can help create knowledge that can underpin anticipatory innovation activity but they are not anticipatory innovation in and of themselves. Furthermore, they are not necessarily sensitive enough to various kinds and forces of change that constitute the myriad of challenges governments face in this realm, so this research will identify what other cutting-edge methods and practices for which governments should consider building capability.

  1. Bridge the gap between knowledge creation and anticipatory innovation

Even if governments deploy a range of methods or mechanisms to sensitise themselves to the winds of change and create knowledge that could sustain anticipatory innovation, this is not an end in itself. They need to continually connect the dots, putting knowledge into practice, creating effective feedback loops, and adjusting the course as they go. Our research will look at ways governments have been doing this and will share learnings and case studies.

  1. Build an anticipatory innovation governance model

If public sector innovation is multi-faceted, then a portfolio approach to innovation management is advisable. Our research will help to build an effective governance model for anticipatory innovation, ultimately illustrating what this part of a government’s ‘innovation portfolio’ should include in order to manage, direct and leverage this kind of innovation successfully.

The Anticipatory Innovation Governance project is open for partnership opportunities, for countries who want to build this crucial knowledge and help answer those urgent questions with OPSI, through action-research. Vinnova, Sweden’s innovation agency, seeded this project in 2019 and we look forward to conducting action research in 2020. Sweden embraces this role as a test bed and it has even established the Committee for Technological Innovation and Ethics (Komet) to explore some anticipatory innovation governance questions. Specifically, OPSI’s research in Sweden will focus on the use and usefulness of experimental “greenhouses” for government regulation, to test and explore how the removal of constraints can produce space for transformative innovation. Our action research with Sweden will involve a broad range of agencies, regions, and municipalities with a view to develop feedback loops between these different levels of government so that new approaches can be continuously and dynamically adapted.

Over the next two years, through our action research with governments, we will build new types of methods, structures and capacities to anticipate extreme events, influence socio-technical shifts and make visions of more desired futures actionable now.

Our research will help governments anticipate extreme events, apprehend and influence seismic socio-technical shifts and make visions of more desired futures actionable now. Our ultimate goal is to encourage governments to be curious and proactive, not constantly caught off guard or playing catch-up. To join the project or stay informed about project progress and findings, visit oe.cd/anticipatory

OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI)
Since 2013, the Observatory of Public Sector Innovation at the OECD searches the world for emerging trends in public sector innovation to uncover what is next, turn new practices into normal practices, and provides trusted advice to governments on their innovation governance and initiatives. I is a project of the Governance Directorate of the OECD.

Dr Piret Tõnurist leads the work on systems thinking, innovation measurement and anticipatory governance at OPSI and Angela Hanson is an Innovation Specialist at OPSI.

This is a blog post in a series of articles and chronicles published here at www.kometinfo.se. Each author / interviewee personally represents the content of the text.

This text is written by Piret Tõnurist (left photo) and Angela Hanson (right photo). Photo by OECD.