Denmark’s Strategy for Digital Welfare ought to strengthen the conditions for local social innovation and entrepreneurship

12.12.2013 Blog

This post was written together with Jimmy Kevin Pedersen, senior consultant at DTI.

At best, a national strategy puts forward a common vision, sets a clear direction and sends a clear message to all stakeholders concerned where we want to be at the end of the strategy-period and what actions have to be taken to get there. An area currently under strategic scrutiny for Denmark is the area of digital welfare. This is an area where social innovation should be high on the agenda as the means to bring innovation into this sector, new ways of delivering better services especially for the elderly in Denmark.
However, the Strategy for Digital Welfare (2013-2020) published by Danish national government, KL (Local Government Denmark) and DR (Danish Regions) is more a catalog of big scale projects than a strategy that puts local social innovation and entrepreneurship on the agenda. In other words it fails to deliver a vision that will strengthen the conditions for local social innovation and entrepreneurship. If you look a little closer in at the Strategy you will find that it is more a catalog of planned large scale frontier pilot-projects without well documented results and effects, rather than a shared vision that enables and empowers the local level to try new directions, experiment with new ideas brought in by social innovators and works closely with new local partnerships. Instead, projects that are designed to be ”proof of concept” of welfare business-cases, are all under tight control of a central steering committee. Central control seems to be the keyword in the new strategy.

The strategy doesn’t give any indication where and how social innovation will be supported, where the co-operation and collaboration between public, private and civil sector will be intensified, what mechanisms will improve entrepreneurship. Nor does it give any guidelines for making the supplier market more mature and innovative. In fact, it can best be described as a non-interference approach: the focus of social innovation with the use of welfare technology in Denmark is about improving the citizens ability to live a life independent of help from any external support.

What does Denmark need? Denmark needs national strategies and action plans that clearly enable social innovation in the digital welfare context. Emphasis should be on the transformation of local municipality and regionally based processes for innovation. This needs to be accompanied by a high priority on change management and implementation, and will also need to be supported by advanced technolog . Most important of all, however, social innovation should start with benefits delivered to end-users, citizens, real people.
Digital welfare builds on the promise of innovation that advanced technologies will be able to deliver. Despite the lack of direction of the national strategy, we find that a lot of interesting locally based digital welfare technology projects are being undertaken by Danish municipalities.

Summarizing, the experience seems to be that, even though the technology is advanced, the organizations integrating these technologies are very immature. So far advanced technologies often fail to deliver noticeable improvement to quality of life and quality of working processes. Municipalities report that the biggest challenges are how to implement the technology and realize the benefits without getting resistance from middle managers, front-line workers and users. It requires good planning, a well-managed change management process, an innovative approach to the way to deliver technology-enhanced services, as well as readiness to take the organizational consequences. This is where social innovation at the local level and social entrepreneurs might be able to help deliver real innovation. Getting success and improvements in terms of good business cases is more about organizational transformation than technology, more about people than plans, more about local innovation and entrepreneurship than central plans or large scale trial-and-error projects. This is a wake-up call for the municipalities and regions in Denmark. At the local level civil society organizations are much closer to the citizens where co-design, co-creation, participatory design can take place. The vendor markets have to be developed further in close collaboration with local authorities so that innovation in products, processes and services takes place here while the central welfare technology is going to be implemented in a delayed parallel track.

We have to be innovative locally and make proof of concept experiments in real life situations locally alongside the large scale projects. On the other hand the procurement process for large scale pilots has to include social enterprises to be part of the picture. And the social innovation perspective has to be part of the large scale pilots in order to get real social benefits.