Innovation in the public sector gains new momentum

Photo: Sverre Chr. Jarild The Research Council’s role is to help to foster innovation in areas where research and research institutions have a crucial part to play, explains Jesper Simonsen, Executive Director of the Research Council Division for Society and Health. (Photo: Sverre Chr. Jarild)

The Research Council of Norway is taking active steps to encourage greater innovation within the public sector. “It is an important objective to ensure that public institutions incorporate research results more widely into their activities,” says Jesper Simonsen, Executive Director of the Research Council Division for Society and Health.

“The Research Council’s role is to help to foster innovation in areas where research and research institutions have a crucial part to play,” he explains.

More research aimed at innovation

There are still many areas in Norway’s public sector where more research is needed to strengthen and expand innovation efforts.

“Much of the work carried out to restructure or make improvements in the public sector cannot be labelled innovation. While these activities often incorporate important innovation elements, the definition of innovation presupposes that the results need to be new and beneficial, and can be put to practical use. And they should preferably be able to be applied beyond their original target,” asserts Mr Simonsen, pointing out that research activities also serve to document impacts and risks, convey knowledge and increase the use of findings from international networks.

Closer interaction

Municipal development officer Christian Skattum in Bærum, a large municipality just outside Oslo, stresses that the municipalities can benefit greatly from participating in research projects. “For one thing, it helps us to become more aware of how we can work more systematically and in a more structured manner to achieve innovation.”

“The municipalities often provide researchers with empirical data but we rarely hear much from them after that,” Mr Skattum explains with regret. “Both researchers and municipalities have a lot to gain from closer interaction throughout the research process,” he states.

Photo: Siv Haugan

Both researchers and municipalities have a lot to gain from closer interaction throughout the research process, states Municipal development officer Christian Skattum. (Photo: Siv Haugan)

 

Genuine interest on both sides

A prerequisite for success is for researchers and municipal employees to take genuine interest in each other and their collaborative efforts. “Projects often end up in the predictable pattern where municipal activities serve as the empirical basis and the object of study, while the researchers are busy documenting their findings. In order to succeed with innovation both parties need to step out of their usual roles,” Christian Skattum explains.

“Far too often, research is overly focused on observation in order to explain what has taken place instead of directing more attention to what is needed to make things develop,” he says.

Taxpayer money

Bærum municipality has a large number of innovation and development projects underway at all times – projects which are being funded by taxpayers. As such, there is no leeway to absorb any major risks.

At the same time, the very nature of innovation requires latitude for trial and error and inconclusive results. These considerations can be difficult to accommodate, says Mr Skattum, who goes on to describe how budgetary constraints in the public sector pose an obstacle to efforts to initiate research-based innovation projects in municipalities or other public institutions.

Using research to test out ideas

“Research communities are crucial for investigating and quality-assuring ideas, helping to determine if they are worth putting into practice,” says Dr Trond Thorgeir Harsem, researcher at the University of Oslo and Norconsult, one of Norway’s largest engineering consultancies.

“The public sector is often approached by suppliers who claim their products will provide new and smart solutions. Researchers should be brought in to test whether the ideas are as good as these salesmen maintain,” urges Dr Harsem.

Photo: Norconsult 

Research communities are crucial for investigating and quality-assuring ideas, helping to determine if they are worth putting into practice, says Dr Trond Thorgeir Harsem, researcher at the University of Oslo and Norconsult. (Photo: Norconsult)

 

Cutting hospital energy consumption in half

Dr Harsem has many years of experience as head of research and development at Norconsult and has been in charge of many research projects – large and small – in both the private and the public sectors. He is currently managing a large project aimed at finding solutions to reduce energy consumption in new hospital buildings by half. The project has been granted funding under the Research Council’s Large-scale Programme Clean Energy for the Future (RENERGI). Activities have been underway for roughly two years and will be concluded in 2014.

“Hospitals are among the most energy-intensive buildings there are,” Dr Harsem explains. “Health facilities use twice as much energy as other non-residential buildings and the potential for energy savings is great. The current plan is to develop guidelines to support the entire sector in achieving the same goal.”

There are some 20 hospital trusts in Norway, and all are very positive towards the study. “The trusts have their own ambitious targets for reducing energy consumption, so we can expect to see the research results followed with interest and put into place,” Dr Harsem says. 

Research Council strategy for innovation in the public sector

The Research Council will

  • direct more funding towards innovation-targeted research in and for the public sector in cooperation with relevant players;
  • encourage active dissemination of research results that can promote innovation and value creation in the public sector;
  • enhance the knowledge base for innovation in the public sector through more innovation research to support policy development and the development of incentives for innovation in the public sector.

 

From Forskning magazine no. 3/2012

 

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