The trials of innovation: dealing with dilemmas in Finland and the Netherlands

The Board of Directors of the Finnish innovation fund Sitra visited the Netherlands in November to gain a deeper understanding of developments regarding social innovation, the future of Europe, circular economy, and public sector management in our country. Kennisland designed and convened a workshop as part of this excursion. During the workshop we discussed the trials of innovation in Finland and the Netherlands, as well as how we try to overcome them.


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Workshop with Sitra

Participants of the workshop share the outcomes of their discussion

Maker: Kennisland

18 December 2017

The Board of Directors of the Finnish innovation fund Sitra visited the Netherlands to gain a deeper understanding of developments regarding social innovation, the future of Europe, circular economy, and public sector management in our country. The Board also hoped to be inspired by insights and examples of dealing with societal issues from the Dutch context. Kennisland designed and convened a workshop at Spring House as part of this excursion as a way to continue our collaboration with Sitra++Collaborations with SitraIn April 2017 we organised a social innovation excursion and training for a group of 60 innovators who had entered in the Ratkaisu 100 (‘Solution 100’) challenge prize. Read a blog on their visit here and the exchange of knowledge and experience between Finland and the Netherlands.

The Kennisland team discussed three important topics with Sitra’s Board members: urban social innovation, innovation in education and the value and use of open data. Based on the World Cafe method++World cafe methodRead more about the world cafe method. , the aim was to host an open and honest conversation about the obstacles and issues we encounter when trying to innovate in the public domain, and to formulate new relevant questions in the process. By addressing questions such as ‘Why is this particular domain important in the light of societal renewal?’; ‘How do we work on innovation in this field?’; ‘What issues do we face during this process?’; and ‘What does this require from public management and leadership?’, we compared the Dutch and Finnish practice of innovating in the public sphere.

Urban social innovation

InThe aim was to host an open and honest conversation about the obstacles and issues we encounter when trying to innovate in the public domain. both Finland and the Netherlands social patterns are changing. As argued by one board member, the Nordic countries are experiencing a transition from homogenous societies with small income differences, to widening inequalities and changing demands of how citizens want to have their voices heard. How can social innovation help strengthen the social fabric?

The first dilemma of urban social innovation that we identified, was how social innovation aims to address large complex issues whereas it is often performed on a localised level. How can we unite these two realities? Sitra is experienced in thoroughly informing policy makers, but they are relatively new to incorporating bottom-up input in this process. Their challenge is to effectively and ethically include personal stories and experiences as hooks to address the underlying needs of citizens. Kennisland on the other hand, considers how there is still a lot to gain in terms of connecting our experience on the ground with policy making.

InIn both Finland and the Netherlands social patterns are changing. relation to this, the second dilemma that was discussed concerned how it is key, when determining a strategy for influencing policymakers, to evaluate not only what a certain narrative consists of, but also how it can be put to use by the target group. For instance, Kennisland works to promote the so-called Amsterdam Approach:++Amsterdam approachWe do so, for instance, by working on the Amsterdammers, Make your City (tr. Amsterdammers, Maak je Stad!) programme. Read more a narrative in which the collaboration between the municipality, private sector, knowledge institutes and grassroot bottom-up initiatives is deemed crucial for innovation. However, in reality it proves hard to break through institutional cultures that are not adapted to these kinds of alliances: a discrepancy between the narrative and reality persists. And once you have forged new partnerships, how do you maximise the impact of such initiatives while respecting contextual specificities?

Finally, it is clear to both Sitra and Kennisland that convening experiments is not enough to achieve social change. New ways of supporting civil society and creating accessible and inclusive spaces for public debate urgentlyNew ways of supporting civil society and creating accessible and inclusive spaces for public debate urgently need to be found in both Finland and the Netherlands. need to be found in both Finland and the Netherlands, which means that discussions about scaling up and finding finance need to be part of experiments early on. In fact, the language of ‘experiments’ and ‘protoypes’, can be used as an excuse to remain incomplete and unaccountable, which is not conducive to social change. Failure should be possible and needs to be widely claimed and shared if we want to move to successful approaches, but this does need to happen within a determined area of experiment.  

Educating education

Another theme we addressed was innovation of the education system. This discussion is particularly interesting among the Dutch and the Finnish professionals, seeing as both countries are performing very well according to international standards++International standardsFor example, see the recent OECD reports. As is commonly known, Finland is perceived to have one of the best education systems++Best education systemsQuite recently Misha van Denderen, head of Schools for Personal Education, nuanced this view in in the Volkskrant (in Dutch).
in the world.

Despite this starting point, several urgent issues emerged as we elaborated on the challenges of our respective education systems. For instance, it seems a much needed re-evaluation of the core assumptions and goals of the education system is necessary, to answer questions such as ‘How does the outcome of our education system relate to our contemporary societal challenges?’. More specifically, we are both looking for the answers as to how the current education system can cope with the rapid developments in the labour market, the increasing diversity of society, environmental sustainability and the need for social-emotional life skills rather than merely cognitive skills++The need for social-emotional skillsAllegedly, according to one of the board members, the lack of social-emotional skills was a fundamental reason why Nokia did not manage to maintain its global and powerful business position..

Finally, we asked ourselves the question what the strategy for organising space and new impulses for experimentation and new forms of education should be. How can we enforce the development towards a more relevant education system that supports a sustainable and learning society, and where we do not consider ‘lifelong learning’ as the ultimate goal, but regard learning as a way of life. After all, education is a social challenge, not just a pedagogical oneEducation is a social challenge, not just a pedagogical one..

The (mis)use of open data

With regard to open data, we soon agreed that data is one of the core resources of the digital society in Finland and the Netherlands. Data is used to inform decisions, to ensure transparency, and to further scientific research. As such, data is often considered the oil of digital society. It needs to be harvested and refined before it can gain value. The key question therefore is: How do we develop a proper new ‘refinery’ of data?

Both the Netherlands and Finland are still in their infancy regarding these specific issues of data use and refinery. We are therefore prone to making mistakes in using data for societal benefit. It is clear that the refinement and use of data needs to adhere to certain principles. Defining and managing these principles should be top priority in our societies.

In particular, the definition of these principles requires the attention of professionals in the public domain. It is paramount to explicitly balance the right of the individual to the needs of society as a whole when opening data sets. Although it is Kennisland’s perspective that open data needs to be accessible for all without being optimised for commercial stakeholders, and that the determination of the specific ‘value’ of data needs to be postponed until after it is made available, it remains important to support scientific rigor in using dataIt remains important to support scientific rigor in using data.. Data has no value in itself, and only gains value once it is used. This can mean, however, that issues such as confusing correlation from causation are real. This urgently requires the attention of lawmakers, policy writers, and other professionals in this field.

Dutch-Finnish nexus

All in all, there seem to be many similarities between the Dutch and Finnish context, particularly with regard to the dilemmas that Sitra and Kennisland face as organisations igniting innovation. It remains important for civil society, especially within Europe, to open up such conversations in a bilateral or multilateral way. Particularly as the European political project is facing hardship coming from different angles, it remains important for civil society across Europe to emphasise the common denominators in addressing complex social issuesIt remains important for civil society across Europe to emphasise the common denominators in addressing complex social issues.. Doing so unites us behind a common goal, and helps to shape empathy for our European counterparts.

Kennisland aims to strengthen this process by continuing to host such bilateral and multilateral exchanges++ExchangesWe also do so for instance by co-organising the European Social Innovation Competition. Read more about the competition here. . We are looking forward to continue these discussions, or possibly future collaboration, with our Finnish colleagues.