No, that is never going to happen!

How to prepare for uncertain futures. On fostering innovation and change in the public sector.

Av Petra N. Andersen

The emergence of new technologies is continuously threatening to disrupt any industry or organisation. The rapid technological changes require governments and public institutions to take an active approach towards innovation and transformation, and to create partnerships and share risks.

Technology is a driver for transformation in the public sector as the citizens require more digitalized services and new service delivery models based on real needs. How technology will change a complex society is hard to predict, but we must be prepared to navigate new scenarios.

The OECD Declaration on Innovation in the Public Sector

Last year Norway, together with 37 other OECD-countries, joined the OECD Declaration on Innovation in the Public Sector.Under the auspices of the OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI 2 ), a joint developed statement emphasized the need for an integrated innovation systems approach. The declaration identified five common principles and associated actions to support innovation assessment in the public sector:

  1. Embrace and enhance innovation within the public sector
  2. Encourage and equip all public sector servants to innovate
  3. Cultivate new partnerships and involve different voices
  4. Support exploration, iteration and testing
  5. Diffuse lessons and share practices

An important challenge is the need to incentivize innovation in the public sector, spurring more radical solutions and digital services. Innovation must also be fostered to address societal challenges, and open up for multi stakeholder co-creation.

Inspired, in part, by the OECD’s declaration on innovation the Norwegian government recently launched a white paper for public sector innovation. 3

The aim is to establish a broad national policy for innovation in the public sector, and to contribute to the development of a comprehensive public sector innovation system.

The white paper focuses on culture, competence and management for innovation, and presents ten political measures to increase the degree of public sector innovation.

Anticipatory Innovation Governance – supporting proactive innovation

Policymakers are often caught up in short term decision making, and politically prioritized activities, rather than addressing long-term trends and promoting discovery driven policy development. One important ingredient in fostering a future oriented innovation at the policy level is securing a dynamic capacity for government policy learning and policy making.

The complexity of policy making has increased, and technological and non-linear societal changes require new ways of thinking and working. In complex systems it is valuable to keep multiple possible futures in mind so that if and when they unfold, you are better equipped to see, understand and handle the challenges and opportunities that arise.

As Professor Rita McGrath at Columbia Business School states: «Your ability to look into the future is only as well developed as the set of possibilities you are prepared to entertain.4

The Innovation leads at OPSI in the OECD, Dr. Piret Tõnurist and specialist Angela Hanson, have written a paper on Anticipatory Innovation Governance (AIG). 5  Anticipation is an interdisciplinary field where modelling, temporality of change, ethics and power of the future are addressed. 6

This future-oriented proactive approach represents, according to the authors, a broad-based capacity to actively explore different options. The aim is to not only to create knowledge about what might happen, but also to ask questions, and shape the future through innovation.

Policy experimentation

AIG goes beyond traditional foresight by using real-world experiences, testing and experimentation in policy development. The relevant agencies must be given enough freedom to be able to develop a future consciousness, and to act towards future-oriented goals.

Policy Labs are already operational in several countries, but many political administrations are still reluctant to use this infrastructure as it may challenge the existing political priorities. However, extreme challenges have been known to encourage the testing of new practices.

Finland is one of these courageous countries. Experimental Finland, 7 led by the Prime Minister, aimed at promoting experimentation in the public sector. It has been a great inspiration for Norway. In January 2020, the Government of Spain established a foresight unit within the Prime Minister’s Office to address structural issues over the next 30 years. Moreover, the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) represents a great case of budgetary planning, where a joint interagency effort created shared goals and priorities for handling emerging technologies.

The Norwegian white paper acknowledges the importance of experimentation. The government will, for instance, continue to establish regulatory sandboxes. 8   Regulatory sandboxes are spaces used to test out new technologies, regulations and business models. So far, sandboxes have been set up for arenas like fintech, autonomous vehicles and responsible artificial intelligence. The Ministry of Local Government and Modernization has also developed four scenarios for the public sector in 2040.

Stakeholder involvement

This is all good, but is it enough? To succeed in exploring joint futures, the whole architecture of the public sector needs to be involved. The agencies cannot operate alone but must co-create with the government level. The Norwegian government and its ministries are, as other national administrations, struggling with conservative thinking and budget-based silos. There is a great need for more inter-departmental strategic cooperation, and for applying holistic governance approaches. This also requires testing different tools and methods, and securing efficient learning loops, adapted to a Norwegian context.

For Norway, it is obvious that the indicated ambitions on experimentation, testing and the future scanning, outlined in the white paper, must continue. New societal crises and the impact of diminishing fossil fuel revenues in a world of climate change requires strong commitment to future thinking.

Se også våre podcast-intervjuer med Piret Tõnurist fra OECD  og kommunal- og moderniseringsminister Nikolai Astrup.   

Anticipatory innovation involves:

  1. Picking up on weak signals about deep, societal shifts
  2. Engaging with weak signals before a new course or paradigm is locked in
  3. Exploration and experimentation with emergent issues that might shape future priorities and commitments
  4. Testing assumptions and exploring radically different possibilities
  5. Developing continuous learning loops to quickly change course
  6. Building up internal capabilities as part of a diversified innovation portfolio


[1] OECD Declaration on Public Sector Innovation.

[2] OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI),

[3] Meld. St. 30 (2019–2020). En innovativ offentlig sektor — Kultur, ledelse og kompetanse

[4] McGrath, R., 2019. Seeing around corners, HMH. p. 102.

[5] P. Tõnurist, A. Hanson, 2020, Anticipatory Innovation Governance. Moving governments from a reactive to a proactive approach. OECD, OPSI

[6] P. Tõnurist, A. Hanson, 2020, Anticipatory Innovation Governance. Moving governments from a reactive to a proactive approach. OECD, OPSI. p. 7.


[8] Actors perform live experiments in a controlled environment under a regulator’s supervision.