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Solace blog

1st October 2015

Social innovation as a strategic tool for local government leaders

Local governments across Europe face similar challenges of aging populations, increased demand for services, and constant new and complex social challenges. The increasing number of refugees currently arriving in local communities across the continent is just one of many new pressures facing Europe’s local governments, requiring them to constantly adapt and find new and sometimes unconventional solutions.

In Denmark, municipalities are looking to social innovation as an alternative to simply cutting budgets and lowering service levels to make ends meet. Here, private sector and civil society actors are increasingly becoming involved in finding and carrying out new solutions to pressing local issues. This takes pressure off municipal budgets and creates more efficient and on-point solutions while at the same time strengthening the local sense of community.

That is the ambition, at least. In reality, supporting social innovation from a local government perspective is an extremely difficult balancing act that far from always succeeds. It takes a new approach to governance, humility, guts, and, not least, patience.

A large number of Danish municipalities meet regularly across geographical jurisdictions and sectorial boundaries to share knowledge and experience on how to work strategically with social
innovation. The Danish Municipality Network of Social Innovation is currently in its fourth season and has, to this point, hosted 200 local government leaders from 2/3 of all Danish municipalities.

One of the municipalities leading the way in terms of strategically involving actors outside the public sector in the welfare project is the Municipality of Hedensted located at the heart of Denmark’s main peninsula, Jutland. The municipality’s city council has decided to involve citizens across all activities in the shaping and delivery of public welfare. For instance, local groups have been established to discuss and address numerous aspects of everyday life.

The municipality calls it ‘Release society’. The fundamental thought behind it is that there is enough money in the Danish public welfare system – the challenge is how we spend and allocate resources efficiently. The initiative has led to five different initiatives in five areas. In one of the initiatives, local citizens decided to re-plan bus schedules to a cheaper solution and the money saved was invested in their own city bus. In another initiative, the citizens established a shared kitchen in a school aiming to create a more attractive town. In a third initiative, citizens and employees from the municipality set up a joint ‘cleaning squad’ for a general cleanup of the streets and green areas of the municipality.

To accomplish such initiatives, the city council must be ‘brave’ and open. The professional leadership and the employees must learn and take on radically new roles; and, most importantly, you cannot read about in a book, you cannot learn it in a class – you must learn by doing.

At the upcoming Solace Annual Summit, Senior Consultant and author John René Keller Lauritzen will share innovative practices from all around Europe and discuss how local governments can work strategically with social innovation. Municipality Director Jesper Thyrring Møller from the Danish Municipality of Hedensted will provide an insider’s perspective of the do’s and don’ts involved in leading the transition from fixing to facilitating.

By John René Keller Lauritzen, Senior Consultant Policy and Business, Danish Technological Institute