Social Innovation – The Danish Context

September 20, 2010 at 10:04 am Leave a comment

By Peter Baeck

In the last 7 months, I have alongside my work at Innovation Unit been writing my masters thesis. Having now finished it, I thought I would share with you some of my key findings.

The thesis is very much a tale of going ‘there and back again’. As part of my research for Radical Efficiency it quickly became clear to me that social innovation  is a concept that has taken hold in the UK. Initial research into social innovation in a Danish context, showed that very little has been written about this in Denmark, which spurred my interest in to doing more research in to this field. So, seen through the lens of social innovation, this is how I see the current situation in Denmark.

As a result of both the financial crisis and a change in demographics, there is an increased pressure on public spending in the public sector in Denmark. It is facing a series of issues on how to meet the consistent, and in many cases, growing expectations for welfare services with fewer financial resources.

Innovation in the public sector and the potential for delivering more welfare for less money through this has caught the eye of the Danish government.In Globaliseringsreformen (The Danish Government; 2006), it was stated that ‘the (Danish. Red) public sector should aim at being amongst the most innovative in the world’. A number of international researchers and innovation funds have taken the notion of an innovative public sector beyond the traditional borders of the public sector, and have highlighted how there is innovation potential for the public sector in building new partnerships with the non profits as well as individual and organized users. The reason for this is the unique insight these have into the social economy, in particular unmet social needs in society, combined with a flexibility to innovate around these. This type of innovation is labeled social innovation. Initial research for my masters thesis showed that very little has been written on the term social innovation in Denmark, which laid the foundation for the first and main part of the thesis: to understand and define social innovation in a Danish context. I have sought to do this by drawing on existing, and primarily international research, to define what social innovation is, and by developing a set of principles for what good social innovation is, how it can be understood. To understand what social innovation means in practice, I have taken a step down the abstraction ladder and sought to understand social innovation in a public sector context by interviewing four chief executives of local authorities in the northern region of Denmark, and getting their perspective on the principles for social innovation.

In the theoretical work I found that the primary resources for social innovation are the social innovator’s insight into resources in the social economy. They harvest these resources by constantly expanding their networks in the social economy, and by putting a focus on social value rather than profit. For the public sector a systematic approach to this means opening up public organizations so that users can modify and adapt public services based on their specific social needs, as well as public procurement and commissioning processes that include social entrepreneurs, non profits and the services and social values they can create.

 My research into local authorities showed that none of them work systematically with social innovation. This was due to a lack of willingness to take risks, insufficient cross-sectoral cooperation, and a perception amongst the chief execs that a culture where stakeholders interact with public services and seek to co-design these does not exist at present in Denmark.

In addition to this there was skepticism amongst some of the interviewees whether or not social innovation is at all possible.

As one of the interviewees explained when asked about innovation in social services (my translation)

 ‘I find it hard to see how you could to that, because it has to do with people’

 His point being that innovation is tied to risk, which is something that there from his perspective isn’t room for in the service areas that are working directly with people.

Existing research on resources in the third sector in Denmark show that this has the capacity to innovate, and is willing work closer together with local authorities to design and deliver services.

 From the perspective of Radical Efficiency and our work with local authorities across the UK to work closer together with social innovators to design and deliver public services there are lessons to be learned that I think could be transferred to a Danish context. I see a huge potential for local authorities in Denmark to take on a radically efficient approach to designing services. With a large and thriving third sector that employs more than 100.000 people on a full time basis and make up 9.6 pct of the total GDP the potential and resources are there.

The challenge is for local Authorities in Denmark to be better at designing micro policies that are better attuned to the needs of innovators from the social economy and creating a more open structure around service design and delivery. While at the same time creating a creating culture where risk is managed instead of avoided.    This will allow the public sector to better tap in to the huge latent potential in the social economy, build new partnerships and through these make the public sector better capable of addressing the demographic and financial challenges it is facing now and in the future.


Entry filed under: Innovation Policy, Innovation Worldwide, Local Authorities, Radical Efficiency.

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