Who should hold the risk in public and social innovation?

As a product on an immersive residency at InWithForward, Jesper and Sarah explored the next practice of innovation labs – focusing on factors of risk, accountability, power, and politics. This is Part II in the blog series.

Jesper’s prompt:

As an innovation lab, there is high tendency to be considered as a consultant: someone that comes in to facilitate a certain part of a process, deliver a piece of research or develop a ‘proof of concept’. At MindLab, we have always emphasized the different nature of being an internal innovation unit. We need to be able to move beyond the project and into real partnership – away from ‘one-off’ detached delivery to continuous, collaborative innovation efforts.

This is cultural change in how the public sector traditionally involves different sets of methods and processes to creatively ‘disturb’ its practice. As an internal innovation unit, we are formally public servants. This is something that we surprisingly have to remind our colleagues and ourselves of quite frequently. Perhaps it is because the staff of MindLab don’t fit the formal job description of public servants? Or perhaps it has more to do with the informal identification mechanisms of what it means to be serving the public? Both of which are relevant when we explore the role of a lab in the larger public or social innovation effort as well as in what way a lab is held accountable for the outcomes that are created.

We often talk about our work in terms of an evolution from ‘projects’ to ‘partnerships’. The notion of partnership is to highlight that we wish to build continuously on a diverse set of activities that will help our owners to succeed in creating good outcomes. We also wish to build long-lasting relationships with our partner organizations where a real collaborative exchange can begin emerge – which we consider one of the most important foundations of building capacity from within.

However, this partnership is an unequal one as well. As a lab, we are also saying that we are per definition not the ones that have the ultimate responsibility for the successful creation of outcomes. It is important that the responsibility remain with our colleagues that are directly tasked with developing policies or ensure successful implementation of these.

This is an important distinction for us. Not only because it is a way of managing expectations in light of our limited resource capacity. But also, more importantly, it is also a way of emphasizing that an innovation lab is not about creating a parallel development practice termed ‘innovation’ within public organizations. Actually, the real value-creation is about embedding innovation methodologies and practices within the existing operations.

So our ministerial and municipal owners are not just ‘owners’ of MindLab. They are ‘innovation leaders’ or ‘innovation partners’. They are tasked with the incredibly complex challenge of reforming public service systems. Our task is to help build the capacity for them to succeed in this endeavor. This is the partnership that we are engaged in.

In this sense, you could say that it does not live up definitions of partnership where you share the risk equally. But you could also say that this kind of partnership is reflecting a vision of contributing to the continuous creation of public outcomes. As a lab, we should supplement or reinvent the existing bureaucratic structures to increase the legitimacy and effectiveness of public interventions. Our role isn’t necessarily to redistribute power relationships or task responsibilities.

Maybe this is also a question of the difference between ‘public sector’ and ‘social’ innovation? Between changing the existing system or creating a new one?


Sarah’s Response

Words like coordination, collaboration and partnership abound with ambiguity. We all agree that change cannot happen alone. That we require meaningful relationships with multiple stakeholders in order to move from innovative ideas to actual realities. And yet, believing in the value of relationships is not the same as structuring those relationships so they yield transformative results. (I wrote a far too lengthy PhD on the topic, which you can read here at your own risk).

Where coordination is about stakeholders aligning their activities (a homeless shelter offering legal services one day a week), collaboration is about stakeholders aligning their outcomes and activities (the homeless & legal services both trying to get members housed). We see partnership as a step beyond. It’s about stakeholders sharing resources, outcomes, and activities. It’s about everyone putting some real skin in the game.

Our past projects, whilst always framed as partnerships, had no collective accountability mechanisms. When the funding ran dry, the design team faded away, and no one had the same ownership over seeing the solution come to fruition. Or, in the best case scenario, the design team felt real attachment to seeing the solution live, but were relegated to the margins of systems. Solutions went forward as separate social enterprises, rather than as instruments for wider systems change.

When we started InWithForward, we were determined to try and build that collective responsibility. We would not be consultants with briefs set from our funders. We would not come in for short amounts of time and deliver recommendations or proofs of concepts. We would put some of our own resource on the table to equalize the power relations, and demonstrate our commitment to longer-term change. We would be accountable, with our partners, for measurable change amongst end users and practitioners.

Over the past two years, we lucked out and found four extraordinary organizations (with Chief Executives, senior leadership, and boards) who want change as badly as we do. These are particularly reflective organizations (Burnaby Association for Community InclusionposAbilitiesSimon Fraser Society for Community Living and West Neighbourhood House) who can acknowledge their strengths, but not be content with them. They get that social organizations should be vehicles for social change, rather than self-perpetuating entities. We found them by sticking our necks out, and offering up our time and critique pro-bono. We knew that if organizations welcomed us without strings attached, and then offered to act on the ethnographic data we collected, we were on to a different kind of partnership.

In the last 18 months, the partnership with BACI, posAbilities, and SFSCL has taken us down some highways, back-lane ways, and plenty of dead-ends. We’ve had no map – and instead, have made lots and lots of course corrections along the way to get us closer to an unfinished destination: a future where Research & Development is a permanent function and where organizations are serving much more as a platform for developing solutions, rather than delivering services.

It turns out that being a partner engenders totally different feelings than being a project manager or innovation expert. When you know that you are in it for the long-term, you make different decisions in the short-term. When you know that everyone is sharing in the financial risk, you open yourself up to a different level of vulnerability. When you see your partners as courageous people – not just effective professionals – you put a different level of investment and grit into the mix. A level of investment and grit that we hope are important preconditions for innovation to last. No more one-hit wonders.


Published by Jesper Christiansen

Jesper is a public innovation thinker and practitioner. His work is focused on how to deal most effectively with public problems in order to most effectively pursue the common good – in particular through better ecosystems for research and development. He is an experienced presenter and facilitator and has worked with and advised several governments, public agencies and international institutions around the world. From 2009-2016, Jesper worked at Danish cross-public innovation unit MindLab. He founded and directed the research program that captured, analysed and communicated the learning across MindLab’s project portfolio. He also managed MindLab’s international collaboration. Before this he functioned as a program and project manager with the responsibility for MindLab’s work with the Danish Ministry of Employment – with particular focus on employment policy for marginalized and vulnerable citizens. This was also the focus in his shorter term secondment to design agency ThinkPlace in Canberra in 2012. During the period at MindLab, Jesper also completed a Ph.D. degree in Anthropology with a thesis focusing on embedding human-centred innovation practices in public sector organizations. He also holds a Master’s degree in Anthropology from Aarhus University and an additional degree in journalism from the Danish School of Journalism.

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