• Analysis
  • February 27, 2019
  • 10 minutes
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Public innovation labs around the world are closing — here’s why

In Mexico City and Colombia, a change in political priorities shut down labs

Nine months ago, we reported that the world’s longest-running innovation lab, Denmark’s MindLab, closed its doors. The Danish government’s decision to shutter the pioneering agency stunned innovators around the world, many of whom had modelled their own work after it.

“I think MindLab was in its best shape ever,” Thomas Prehn, who headed MindLab from 2014 to 2018, told us last year. “Very frankly this was about being able, as a politician, to promote your politics.”

Denmark replaced MindLab with the Disruption Taskforce, the goal of which is to digitally reform the Danish government — which is already ranked as the top e-government in the world. The swift change in focus from innovation to digital seems to be a wider trend across governments, as two more labs — Mexico’s Lab for the City and Colombia’s Innovation Centre — recently folded for similar reasons.

In exclusive interviews, employees from both labs tell us about the shift from innovation to digital, and what its implications are.

The lab that sparked innovation across Latin America

Lab for the City opened in 2013 as then-Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera Espinosa’s experimental arm of government. It set out to help Mexico City’s 260,000 public servants bring innovation into their work.

It was also Latin America’s first government innovation lab. The Lab and its employees helped spawn similar units across the region — there are now at least 50.

But after Mexico City’s July 2018 mayoral election, in which Espinosa was ousted by challenger Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo, newly elected officials set out to replace existing teams with new ones.

When Lab for the City employees found out the lab would close in December, they were stunned, especially because they heard about it alongside everyone else — on the news.

“Half the people in this city don’t have access to the Internet. You have to contextualise your strategy”

“We were shocked,” said one former Lab for the City employee, speaking anonymously because they didn’t want to tarnish their relationship with the new government. “They came in with this ego, saying, ‘We’re going to change everything’.”

The new government is scrapping the Lab to start from scratch with a new, digital-focused agency.

“That may work in other countries, but half the people in this city don’t have access to the Internet. You have to contextualise your strategy. You can’t just say you want to focus on digitisation without first tackling electricity access and telecoms prices,” the employee said.

Requests for comment from Mexico City’s government were not returned. In Denmark’s case, the government replaced MindLab with a digital innovation-focused unit to get better at “navigating new technology, digitisation and smart regulation,” Kåre Riis Nielsen, director of the government’s new Digital Taskforce, told Apolitical.

With the Taskforce, the Danish government wants “to harness the many benefits of new technologies, data and business models while addressing the potential pitfalls of data ethics and privacy,” Nielsen said.

“In Latin America, an innovation lab represents a beacon of hope. But if you only have 20 people for that, there’s only so much you can do”

It’s too soon to say whether Lab for the City’s replacement will focus on similar areas of interest, but Denmark is a trendsetter in the digital innovation space.

For its part, Lab for the City has been instrumental in some major policy changes in Mexico City — most notably, the city’s crowdsourced constitution, which brought together contributions from half a million citizens.

One of the Lab’s biggest challenges throughout its five-year tenure, Martinez said, was a lack of understanding about what it did, both from other public servants and citizens.

“People want to see things change immediately — and if you’re not doing enough, they get angry. Here, in Mexico City or Latin America, an innovation lab represents a beacon of hope. But if you only have 20 people for that, there’s only so much you can do in five years of government,” said Martinez.

“It’s a gamble for governments to open labs — but they’re still gambling too small.”

Undervaluing innovation

Colombia’s Innovation Centre (not to be confused with LABcapital, Bogotá’s city-level lab) also closed in December following an election in August. It will be replaced with a new innovation unit focused on digital government, the Centre’s coordinator, Santiago García-Devis, said.

The Innovation Centre sat under the umbrella of the Ministry of Information Technologies and Communications (MinTIC), and was formed in partnership with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Colombia.

The Centre’s five-year contract was up in December, so García-Devis and his nine colleagues knew there was a chance the lab would fold, but they were told there was a chance of extension. When they learned the lab was to close 15 days before the end of the contract, they were deflated.

MinTIC did not respond to Apolitical’s requests for comment.

“The government let us down”

“When you change governments, there’s a big possibility that there will be a change in vision or strategy. Even though we were aware of this possibility, most of my colleagues felt that the government had let us down,” said García-Devis. He has now started his own social innovation consultancy, Qüid Lab, with several colleagues from the Centre.

“They really didn’t understand the public innovation approach and how it’s valuable for them. We built a Centre with a broader remit than the responsibility of the ICT Ministry. I feel this was part of the reason why they didn’t renew it,” said García-Devis.

García-Devis and his colleagues aimed to instil an innovative mindset in public servants by training them in experimental techniques, coaching agencies through projects and hosting hackathon-style challenges.

An independent impact assessment carried about by Technopolis, a consultancy that carries out policy evaluations, found that the Centre was achieving its goal to strengthen the public innovation ecosystem in Colombia.

“Traditional politicians feel that innovation is a threat because they don’t want to have to change the way they do politics”

García-Devis doesn’t know what will happen with the projects and services the Centre developed. “Will they be transferred to other agencies, or will the learnings stop there? We have no idea,” he said.

The Centre’s decision to focus on innovation, not digitisation, certainly played a role in its closure. But, in a similar vein to Lab for the City, the Centre also faced a bigger-picture problem: a lack of understanding of — and respect for — its work.

Even more worryingly, some officials view innovators’ focus on upending bureaucracy and improving government efficiency as a threat.

“Some traditional politicians feel that innovation is a threat because they don’t want to have to change the way they do politics,” said García-Devis. “The problem is that innovation is still seen as just a trend; something temporary. For innovation to work, it has to be long-term and strategic.” — Jennifer Guay

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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