Denmark’s take on citizen participation in the public sector (seminar with Christian Bason)

A few days ago I got the honor of being invited to attend a seminar in Bilbao with none otheChristian Basonr than Christian Bason. I was particularly thrilled to meet Christian as his book on co-creating for a better society  is one of the few that attempts to name characteristics of different types of spaces for social innovation and offers quite a long list of different names under which people gather to solve society’s problems through innovative solutions. Christian is also the director of MindLab in Denmark,  a classic example of the spaces for social innovation I am currently interested in, a golden oldie.

Different government officials, researchers and practitioners from the field of social innovation in public services were gathered under the same roof by Mr. Gorka Espiau for two hours under the title “Nuevas formas de participación ciudadana en el sector público. El caso de Dinamarca” or its English equivalent “Redesigning public services : cases, methods, challenges”.

Even though we didn’t gather there so much to look at Mindlab itself but at their work, a few things about the space stuck out. My favorite insight was on the neutral nature of this space, being owned and thus accountable to not one but three different institutions, yet disregarding hierarchy, including everyone and taking all types of knowledge into consideration. Christian presented three stories about the projects they have been working on, from simplifying bureaucracy for small businesses to digital mentoring program for unemployed and revolutionizing the whole education system with a government initiated bottom-up approach. Indeed, it was as interesting as it sounds though these cases are easily accessible on MindLab’s webpage. Some interesting learnings from Christian’s presentation were that it’s difficult to keep true to the space’s mission in terms of really creating long-lasting change, that projects should always be opened to continuous learning and adjustment and my favorite: the point of co-creation is to look around and see who else is doing what you plan to do and think of how we can work together, instead of working on the same idea separately. The latter is actually the reason I am so avid to create this common knowledge base about which are the different types of space for social innovation and what are their components that actually work when it comes to aiding social innovation. Proving that the Basque Country is making its own progresses in terms of citizen-driven social innovation in the public sector, ProsumerLab from San Sebastian presented a case study on the issues citizens face when applying for subsidies for their first child, also offering a list of solutions to be implemented arisen from interactions and conversations and most importantly active listening and empathy. Amaia’s presentation ended with the lessons they learned while working on this initiative such as the importance of front line public servants.

Christian ended the seminar by bringing to our attention the need to find the best way engage with leaders who are prepared to make the most of the approaches and tools we are prepared to offer them, ultimately leaving the audience chewing on larger issues such as if these social innovations are only treating symptoms or superficial challenges in the society or are they aimed towards  something bigger and if so, what is the kind of change we are really striving for and what is the true value that our projects bring? Walking back to the Bilbao’s bus station on the warmest weather I have yet to see, these questions were still lingering in my mind.

Innovate conference in San Sebastian

On 18th of February, Fomento San Sebastian organized the Innovative conference on Social Innovation for cities: challenges and opportunities. Reuniting experts in social innovation from across Europe, Kursaal Congress Center was the host of an engaging 6 hour conference with two main talks followed by two round tables. Local organizations (Tabakalera, Sinnergiak and Deusto Push) shared their tables with innovators from UK, Scotland or Ireland.

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I found myself among the participants of this impeccably organized conference, my first since my recent move to San Sebastian. After the ceremonial greeting in Basque, Spanish and English, the conference was opened by Iñigo Olaizola’s overview of social innovation in San Sebastian. What stuck out to me was the pro activity of Fomento to put to good use the existing knowledge and expertise latent in the city, recognizing its highs and lows and forming 3 strategies for San Sebastian to become a “smart city”.

Chris Durkin, expert on social innovation from the University of Northampton (and for me the co-writer of one of my recommended course literature: “Social Entrepreneurship – a Skills Approach“) was the first international guest to take the word, presenting, among others, a new concept of University with social entrepreneurship at its core with a few interesting perks to say the least. Keeping his skills oriented perspective for which he is known, Durkin stressed the need for open learning spaces where people from different domains with matching skills can connect and experiment to find local solutions for local problems.

Colin Combe was the second guest speaker at the conference, representing Glasgow Caledonian University. Everyone took their pen (or mobile) out to write down the website of the Social Innovation Network that Combe is currently putting in place. He caught my attention in particular with the mention of their first E-Journal (coming out this spring) and, nicely enough, his presentation was ended with a picture of him with Nobel peace prize winner and social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunis.

During the coffee break, I had the opportunity to change a few ideas with Iñigo Olaizola about Fomento’s view of social innovation in San Sebastian and managed to make Chris Durkin blush as I guess he probably did not meet too many Romanians studying his book. A few ideas and contacts changed later, we were all back in the conference room for the second part of the conference.

Overall, Fernando Mendez-Navia moderated two round tables with different examples of social innovation, in the field of creativity and arts, as well as from businesses or local universities. In terms of spaces for social innovation, I was glad to learn about Hirikilabs and their work so far from Josian Llorente, who I later stalked down to make sure we could share knowledge and thoughts. Impact Arts‘ representative Lynne Carr also talked about the Craft Cafe initiative where the elderly learn and practice artistic skills while Angie Smalis from Patterns Dance Collective shared an emotional event that illustrated the social importance of dance. The second round table’s discussions were dominated by questions towards Sinnergiak and their Urban Social Innovation Index presentation, engaging the public into understanding the importance of evaluation, scaling and measuring impact when discussing social innovation.

Overall, it was an engaging conference with good networking opportunities. I left Kursaal’s warmth towards San Sebastian’s too-common heavy rain, wondering about the other over 100 people that signed up and/or attended the conference, their interest in social innovation and their take-aways from the conference. I couldn’t help thinking that the real innovation force of the city was sitting on the other side of the microphones, with headphones for (English-Spanish) translation, frenetically taking notes and gathering inspiration and positive energy.