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Innovation doesn’t thrive in silos

The pandemic has demanded major changes of Swedish municipalities – changes that have been implemented quickly and with great creativity; the question is, how can this innovative capability be made permanent?

On 11 March, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic. Within a matter of weeks, Swedish municipalities had switched to digital teaching for all upper-secondary schools, sourced alternative manufacturing methods for personal protective equipment and created opportunities for staff to work from home. And so on. And so on. Sometimes, these innovations were achieved in-house, sometimes in collaboration with others.

– “We have seen before – for example, when the tsunami struck in 2004 – that in times of crisis, our organisation really rises to the occasion,” says Gunnar Björkman, director of innovation at the City of Stockholm.

– “At times like that, people don’t think in normal structures and silos; the power of innovation is unleashed and ideas and initiative flows freely and staff make contacts and create solutions. We have a completely different culture – a culture based on courage and trust from the leadership and, if it were up to me, would have that culture all the time.”

The pandemic is not our only challenge

The pandemic is far from the only major challenge facing our cities: housing shortages, traffic congestion, climate change – the list of issues that can only be resolved by real change goes on.

– “And these problems don’t disappear simply because we are faced with a pandemic,” says Charlie Gullström, senior researcher at RISE and project manager for NATSAM, a collaboration between Swedish innovation platforms for sustainable and attractive cities.

– “What has become clear is that there actually is a powerful capacity for transition in organisations, and rapid transition at that. The question that many cities are asking right now is, if we can identify such good and rapid solutions in a time of crisis, why can’t we do so in our day-to-day operations?”

Vi måste lära ut det som vi har lärt oss, och vi måste lära av det andra har lärt sig

Strengthening the capacity for innovation and transition

It is exactly this, the strengthening of Swedish municipalities’ innovation and transition capacity, that Vinnova’s investment in innovation platforms for sustainable and attractive cities is focusing on until 2023. Innovation platforms in six Swedish cities are participating, with RISE in charge of national coordination and ongoing evaluation. 

– “If we are to increase the pace of transition and reinforce the cities’ innovation ecosystems, we need to remove complex systematic barriers and develop new solutions in close dialogue with local, regional and national stakeholders,” says Charlie Gullström.

How do we transfer the capacity for action?

The question being asked by many in the public sector at the moment is how the capacity for action unleashed by the pandemic can be transferred to more long-term challenges.

– “Correctly utilised, the experiences gained from the pandemic can provide invaluable lessons to the public sector as a whole and, absolutely, it may have an impact on the development of policy and regulations,” says Charlie Gullström.

– “What is required now is analysis and evidence-based learning and to get down to the nuts and bolts to address the systematic obstacles that are beyond the resources of municipalities. Over the coming years, transitioning to sustainable, attractive cities will be crucial to how we benefit from this knowledge.”

Documented in the collective memory

The City of Stockholm is one of the participants in NATSAM and Gunnar Björkman too emphasises the importance of documenting current events so that they can be saved in some form of collective memory.

– “We are attempting to compile an innovation diary by talking to people out in the organisation and asking them to tell us what they are doing differently, what we should take on board and what we should definitely discard. In the final analysis, however, it is a matter of culture and leadership; otherwise, there is a significant risk that we will fall back into our old ways once the emergency is over.”

That said, Gunnar Björkman is at pains to point out that change is not something that the city can accomplish alone – it must be done in collaboration with others; for example, the regional authority, the private sector and the other cities in the NATSAM network.

– “We must teach what we’ve learned and we must learn from others – anything else is a waste of time and competence.”

Charlie Gullström

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Charlie Gullström

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