Five things we learned at Oslo’s innovation festival

At Oslo Innovation Week, audiences were told that ideas are not enough – it's time for action

Last week, 13,000 people from around the world gathered at Oslo Innovation Week to discuss how entrepreneurship, innovation and technology can build more sustainable cities.

The official theme of OIW was “explorers”: a celebration of the people who push the boundaries of innovation. But the real driving force of the conference was solutions.

We heard about the challenges cities, towns and regions face: climate change, digitisation, security and privacy, healthcare access and inclusive growth, to name a few. But speakers made a conscious effort to infuse every talk with a path forward.

Innovative ideas are not enough, audiences were told — it’s time for action.

Attendees said the focus on how to fix these seemingly intractable problems, particularly on a local level, was a refreshing departure from the usual conference circuit.

Oslo Innovation Week brought together 11,000 innovation leaders

And OIW was innovative in other ways: there were live podcasts, a night of startup “horror stories”, architectural tours and brainstorming sessions, all with a 50-50 split between male and female speakers.

Oslo Innovation Week (OIW) is organised by the city government, Innovation Norway and the Oslo Business Region. There were some 50 events, ranging from pitching contests and hackathons to panels, workshops and networking sessions.

Here’s what we learned over the course of the five-day conference.

Smart cities are out — “good cities” are in

Speakers discussed how to make cities smarter at several events, but the focus was on improving citizens’ quality of life — not using trendy technologies just for the sake of it.

“When we think of smart cities, we think of a lot of tech: sensors, lasers, and so on,” explained Gaute Hagerup, CEO of Oslo Business Region, a non-profit owned by the City of Oslo that is tasked with boosting entrepreneurship. “But in a good city, you shouldn’t see the technology. You should just feel it.”

“In a good city, you shouldn’t see the technology. You should just feel it”

So what are the ingredients for a good city? Green transport, a good work-life balance and easy access to nature, Hagerup said. (He pointed out that in Oslo, you can take a metro directly to a ski slope.)

The best way to build such a city, several speakers echoed, is for governments to understand citizens’ needs before building solutions. This means putting people at the centre of the policy design process.

The goal of Oslo Innovation Week was to discuss solutions, not problems

Estonia was billed as one of the world’s top innovators 

Citizens of “startup nation” can file taxes in five minutes and start a company in a few hours, attendees learned at an event encouraging attendees to “explore the world’s most advanced digital society”.

When Estonians need a prescription filled, they don’t have to see a doctor – they’re encouraged to simply WhatsApp their GP asking for a top-up. Nearly half the country votes online, which saves government over 10,000 working hours annually.

“Invisible services mean zero bureaucracy. The best experience with government is no experience”

“Only marriage, divorce and selling your house aren’t digital — yet,” said Siim Sikkut, Estonia’s Chief Information Officer. “Invisible services mean zero bureaucracy. The best experience with government is no experience.”

Underpinning all this is Estonia’s X-Road data-sharing system, which connects 900 million public agencies, organisations and databases. Citizens should never have to give government the same data twice, Sikkut explained.

With X-Road and e-IDs, they make citizens lives easier — and save public servants 800 years of work annually.

Sikkut credited Estonia’s success to two factors: the government’s readiness to experiment and take on political risks, and its agility in forming partnerships with the private sector and academia.

“But we’ve only just scratched the surface,” he said.

Partnerships can help cities reach their goals 

Time and time again, attendees heard that collaboration is key to tackling wicked problems: challenges that are difficult to solve because of their changing and often contradictory requirements.

Oslo, for example, collaborated with leading Norwegian companies to put on a design sprint for solving sustainability challenges. At the conference, they presented ideas for how to better utilise public space, improve quality of life for the elderly and expand the availability of EV charging stations.

Oslo Vice Mayor Marthe Scharning Lund and Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville sign an MOU

But perhaps the most interesting partnership on display at the conference was that of the city of Oslo and the London Borough of Hackney. At OIW, the two local governments signed an MOU to continue their five-year partnership, which has strengthened investment and trading links between businesses in the two economies.

Digitisation can build trust — but privacy is still a concern, in both the public and private sector

Norway’s Minister of Digitisation Nikolai Astrup spoke about how putting public services online can dramatically improve citizens’ relationship with government.

Norway’s rapid digitisation is one of the reasons its government enjoys high trust from citizens, he said: accessibility breeds confidence.

Minister of Digitisation Nikolai Astrup said digitisation has boosted citizens’ trust in government

But while Nordic governments have a reputation for using technology and data ethically, we also heard about ways other countries – and companies — are treading on citizens’ privacy.

Some schools in China, for example, have students wear headbands that measure their levels of concentration. Robots also analyse how engaged they are. And cameras watch for how often they yawn, or check their phones. This data is sent to the teacher and, in some cases, the students’ parents.

“We shouldn’t help Facebook become a government”

In countries where citizens don’t trust their government, there’s an opening for companies to step in, warned Eric Wall of the Human Rights Foundation.

Facebook, he said, is already starting to take on core functions of government, like providing identification, internet access and currency, without ensuring users’ data privacy.

The tech giant’s soon-to-be-launched Libra is billed as an apolitical alternative to money, and will allow anyone, anywhere in the world to digitally transfer funds.

“And it’s going to do that in a way that’s much more efficient than existing banking systems, which can be used to bully governments,” warned Wall. “We shouldn’t help Facebook become a government.”

Engaging citizens is key to innovative policymaking, speakers told audiences

Citizen engagement is key to sustainability 

Climate wasn’t just a topic at OIW — it was woven into all talks and events. Oslo is this year’s European Green Capital, with a mandate to reduce emissions, mobilise the business community and act as a testbed for green solutions.

Attendees learned about exciting innovations from the private sector, like floating solar power plants — football field-sizes membranes just a millimetre thick that lie on bodies of water — devised by Ocean Sun to collect energy without intruding on urban space.

They also heard about how Oslo became Europe’s greenest city thanks to bold measures like going (mostly) car-free within its city centre and electrifying its transport sector. The city is now the world’s EV capital.

But Oslo also introduced an app for reporting litter, organised speed-dating events where citizens can meet politicians and put together an open climate budget showing where emissions have to be reduced, and who’s in charge of doing so. By integrating citizen engagement into green planning, the city ensured its residents have a stake in sustainability. —Jennifer Guay

(Picture credit: Gorm K Gaare)

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