When the world’s first public innovation lab, Denmark’s MindLab, shut down earlier this year, it sent shockwaves through the sector. MindLab wasn’t your typical innovation unit: it pioneered many of the methods experimental teams around the globe use today, and was the first — and perhaps still the only — one to prove that a tiny lab can change the culture of an entire civil service.
MindLab was replaced by the Ministry of Business’ Disruption Taskforce, which launched in May. The Taskforce is a new type of innovation team: one focused on inciting a digital transformation across the Danish government. MindLab version 2.0, as the Taskforce’s director, Kåre Riis Nielsen, put it.
Nielsen, a former policy chief at Uber, faces weighty challenges, from ensuring best digital practices are shared between government departments to regulating tech giants that want to set up shop in Denmark. He also has big shoes to fill, as the public sector innovation community waits to see whether the Disruption Taskforce can live up to MindLab’s legacy.
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Here, he tells Apolitical about his ambitions for the seven-person team that has set out to change how Denmark’s government is run.
Denmark is already a leader in digital government — it was named the world’s best e-government by the UN earlier this year. Why devote a new taskforce to digital?
We don’t want to rest on our laurels. We want to do better — and we need to be better at navigating new technology, digitisation and smart regulation.
The Disruption Taskforce is there to challenge, operationalise and accelerate the Ministry of Business’s efforts in making Denmark a digital frontrunner. We need to be more agile and adaptive to new technologies and business models.
Part of your remit is to challenge outdated legislation and systems, which is no easy task in a bureaucracy. How will you go about it?
Some years ago, when Uber left Denmark, there was widespread public reflection on what happened and who was to blame. I remember a leading figure from the trade union summed it up eloquently: “Denmark cannot afford to miss the next Uber”.
Fast forward to this summer, when Denmark became a regulatory frontrunner with a world-first agreement with Airbnb on automatic tax registration [which forces the home rental company to report rental income directly to government authorities]. Denmark is becoming more agile.
We’re looking into more experimental schemes like regulatory sandboxes and testbeds to better learn how to regulate new technologies and services. On one hand, you have regulators devising rules on technologies they hardly grasp. On the other hand, you have businesses introducing new models and technologies with a huge impact on society.
Both parties are a bit on the back foot, and need to figure out how to address these challenges. Regulators need to be more active and involved in tech ecosystems to better understand what is being developed.
You used to work at Uber. Will your experience there help you in this role?
I believe it’s positive that the ministry is recruiting people with an outside perspective to lead this taskforce. That’s the interesting part — it’s not whether I came from Uber, but that the government is bringing in people with external experience from digital platforms. It sends a clear signal that the Ministry is serious about bringing new competencies on board.
What does the ministry want you to achieve in the short-term?
The goal is to accelerate and operationalise all the good stuff that is going on already. We need to flesh out concrete regulatory sandboxes or testbeds with autonomous driving, last-mile delivery and 3D-printing.
We also want to kickstart a GovTech initiative, where the Ministry will match internal technological challenges to startups and small tech companies in Denmark.
When it comes to digital transformation, we want to connect the dots within the ministry and catalyse better utilisation of data. It’s a huge organisation with seven authorities. We want to ensure lessons learned are translated from one to another, and devise best practices and pilot new technologies like robotic process automation and machine learning.
Has MindLab laid the groundwork for the Taskforce, or is it starting from scratch?
The idea of having an innovation team within the ministry is not new. So we’re standing, of course, on a lot on the experience of MindLab.
We’re kind of a version 2.0. We’re working more deeply in the tech and digital innovation space to see what we can do better to harness the many benefits of new technologies, data and business models, while addressing the potential pitfalls of data ethics and privacy. It’s really a tech version of MindLab.
What challenges have you faced thus far?
First, you have to understand the organisation before you can disrupt it. Getting a sense of how civil servants and the bureaucracy operate is critical to being perceived as a colleague who is there to help and drive change. If not, you’re viewed as just another funky consultant hired to introduce the latest management trend.
Second, we need to understand where and how to add value in organisations that are highly focused on day-to-day operations. The challenge here is that most organisations are so busy with today or tomorrow, while the disruption agenda is very much focused on the day after tomorrow.
What do you hope to achieve in the next couple of years?
I would be very happy if, in a few years, the Taskforce would be considered the go-to place when dealing with new technologies, testbeds and experiments within the public administration.
Also, I would love to catalyse and accelerate a more risk-oriented culture, where regulators engage actively in ecosystems, are incentivised to innovate and have a strong urgency to put users first in any new initiative. —Jennifer Guay
(Picture credit: Pixabay)