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  • June 5, 2018
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How Denmark lost its MindLab: the inside story

In exclusive interviews, former directors tell how the world's first innovation lab ended

Innovation labs may be everywhere, but few can claim to have had a lasting effect on a whole public service. Denmark’s MindLab was different.

From its LabRats initiative, which nominated innovative public servants to disrupt their own departments, to Project X, which rewarded government employees for experimenting in their everyday work, MindLab’s reach across government was unprecedented.

That was until, in a shock to its imitators and admirers around the globe, the world’s first — and most famous — public sector innovation lab shut down last month after 16 years. In exclusive interviews with Apolitical, Thomas Prehn and Christian Bason, who headed the lab from 2007 to 2014, spoke of how a swift shift in political priorities led to its demise.

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From innovation to disruption

“I think MindLab was in its best shape ever,” said Prehn, but “there is a time for everything, and it was time for something different. Very frankly, this was about being able, as a politician, to promote your politics.”

MindLab was replaced by the Disruption Task Force, a unit set up by the prime minister to digitally reform Denmark’s civil service. It was owned by the Ministry of Industry, Business and Financial Affairs, the Ministry of Employment and the Ministry of Education.

The ten-person Task Force, which sits solely within the former ministry, has taken on seven of MindLab’s 18 employees. The head of the Task Force, Kåre Riis Nielsen, did not respond to an interview request.

“I don’t know of anyone who worked with culture change the way we did”

The two units were briefly running alongside each other. Ultimately, Prehn said, they were “too similar” to both survive. “MindLab also had a ‘disruptive’ agenda,” said Prehn, who now works as the transformation lead at Børnefonden, a children’s charity. “We were already looking into how to build an organisation to fit those needs.”

But if they had waited for MindLab to shift to a focus on digital, “it would have taken a few years — to change design thinking consultants into more of a transformation team,” Prehn added.

While Prehn did not disclose details about the political changes that led to the closure of MindLab, he made clear that the Danish government’s priorities shifted from experimentation and innovation to the digital transformation of the civil service.

MindLab’s legacy

MindLab wasn’t simply known as a team of design thinking consultants. It heralded a culture change in Danish government, which labs around the world have attempted to replicate.

Since Denmark created MindLab in 2002, dozens of equivalents have sprung up around the world, from the OPM Innovation Lab in Washington, DC to the Laboratorio Para La Ciudad in Mexico City to the Human Experience Lab in Singapore.

The focus of MindLab’s work evolved from designing solutions to civic problems to ingraining experimentation and risk-taking across government. Eighteen innovation lab employees can only do so much, but teaching thousands of public servants to think like innovators can unlock unprecedented productivity.

“I don’t know of anyone who worked with culture change the way we did,” said Prehn.

Christian Bason, who headed MindLab for nearly eight years, agreed that the lab has had an outsized effect on Danish institutions.

“In the public sector, a small handful of people — or sometimes just one person — can decide whether something exists or not”

“In Denmark, a lot of municipalities, local government bodies and state administrations work with user engagement and collaborative innovation methods now. They may not call it co-design, or use other innovation terms, but there’s been a major shift in how organisations think and work,” said Bason, who is now CEO of the Danish Design Centre.

Bason said he felt “a sting of sadness” when he learned MindLab would close. “In the public sector, a small handful of people — or sometimes just one person, with the stroke of a pen — can decide whether something exists or not.”

But, he said, when MindLab was created 16 years ago, it was only intended to operate for a few years. The lab was an experiment that managed to remain relevant by constantly shifting its focus and staying ahead of trends.

In the end, Bason said, labs will have to face up to government’s new focus on digital technologies. “I think [MindLab’s closure] says something about that,” said Bason. “To be sustainable in the long-term, labs must constantly reinvent themselves. They must pivot.”

If Bason was director of MindLab prior to its closure, he would have hired external partners to measure the impact of projects and “focused more energy and a longer time on fewer projects, taking them further toward realisation”, he said.

For Prehn, the legacy of MindLab will live on — and not simply because 70% of the Disruptive Task Force’s employees once worked at MindLab.

“I think we gave it just enough of a fight to ensure all the great aspects of MindLab will stick around. If we really had time, we probably could have done more — but I do believe we made the most of it, given the time we had.”

(Picture credit: MindLab)

Jennifer Guay
jennifer.guay@apolitical.co

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