Academy: Sweden and Germany have a national strategy for social innovation. It's time we follow suit

The Danish Parliament must support the development of a national strategy for social innovation and a strong financing structure to which philanthropic funds and investment actors can contribute, write Sara Gry Striegler and Anders Folmer Buhelt.

By Anders Folmer Buhelt and Sara Gry Striegler.

This article was first published in Altinget November 13, 2023

Sara Gry Striegler: Director of Social Transformation, Danish Design Center, External Associate Professor, DTU, Chairperson, Danish Social Innovation Academy
Ander Folmer Buhelt, Academy Director, Danish Social Innovation Academy

Society's big problems are all over the media, political debates and dinner tables. Whether we call them wild problems or not, it has become clear that certain societal problems require completely different approaches, collaborations and methods than the usual ones.

Our traditional Danish pragmatism, where we collaborate across interests, seems to have been forgotten over the past decades. Collaboration that doesn't happen by itself, but requires prioritization and investment.

Even though we live in a great society, there are problems we haven't managed to solve despite decades of trying. It's as if we've forgotten to innovate, forgotten to move with the times. Forgotten the fundamental conversations about what kind of society we want.

We're not doing enough when thousands of young people from each year end up outside of communities. When there is a labor shortage while there are still people outside the work communities. When there are people who want to be something for someone and people who want someone who is something for them - but we fail to connect the two. And when more and more people, especially young people, experience unhappiness and loneliness.

There is a growing consensus on the need for fundamental change if we are to preserve our welfare society and not get stuck in what Sigge Winther calls "wild problems" - those societal problems that are complex, tangled and difficult to grasp.

He has given us a language for the difficult, difficult and sometimes stubborn problems. At Danish Social Innovation Academy , we feel that this has helped to encourage a readiness and a longing to explore new paths and find new perspectives that can help us to push and influence the big problems in society.

There is a lack of coherence

Fortunately, there are many people working every day to renew and strengthen our society and common ground. Lots of dedicated people pushing the hard issues from every corner with their knowledge, experience and dreams.

"Creating the infrastructure needed to strengthen our ability and capacity for social innovation requires prioritization and bold investments across society."

Danish Social Innovation Academy conducted a mapping of social entrepreneurs in 2021 - people who take action to create social change when they see a problem or an opportunity. This could be by creating new approaches to employment, initiating a forest school, initiatives that promote the green transition or something else entirely.

The report shows that social entrepreneurs feel alone and lack mentoring and experience sharing, whether they work in the public system or outside it. And that there are gaps in the financial infrastructure, which stands in the way of many good initiatives. Not that there is necessarily a lack of money, but that there is a lack of basic understanding of the value of community entrepreneurship and social innovation.

Therefore, there is a need to invest in creating a social innovation ecosystem where actors from all parts of society can come together and collaborate to develop a vision for the future society we want. And which can be a focal point for building capacity and capability for social innovation in all parts of society.

Should Denmark lead or lag behind?

In the EU, OECD and World Economic Forum, social innovation is high on the agenda to solve societal problems and turn future threats into new opportunities. In several EU policies, the EU emphasizes that the green transition is inherently social because it requires joint efforts and a focus on maintaining the cohesion of the transition.

This applies when we need to shift our mobility, clothing and food habits to sustainable models, or when we need to change our culture of replacing broken things to a culture of repair. It requires something from all of us, both mindset and behavioral change.

The countries around us also work systematically with social innovation. If we compare the share of EU funds that different countries spend on social innovation, the figure for Finland is 84 times more than Denmark. And for Sweden, 100 times more. Sweden has had a national social innovation strategy for the last ten years, and Germany just got one. And Portugal has spent the last ten years building an ecosystem for social innovation and social investment with an investment of 150 million euros. We could go on and on.

However, Denmark is still in a good position to take the lead and work systematically to tackle societal problems in ways that create know-how that the rest of the world can be inspired by. This requires us to be far more active and strategic than we are today.

It doesn't happen by itself

Social innovation has never really taken root in Denmark, but is a major field of practice and research internationally. It is a stakeholder-driven approach to social change that over time leads to a transformation of existing structures, unlocks hidden resources and empowers new groups. The processes are inclusive and value-creating for those involved and lead to changes in access to power and resources through new relationships.

This will not happen by itself, but requires infrastructure that supports knowledge, experience exchange and investment opportunities and brings together people from all corners of society. It requires investments, as we know from other Danish positions of strength in areas such as medico, green technology, fintech and robotics.

Denmark is built on a solid foundation of collaboration between sectors, knowledge of societal problems, commitment to everyday democracy and trust. Why not use this strong starting point to work together for systematic social innovation - for example, based on an ambitious national strategy?

In this way, professionals organisations, employers, educational institutions, civil society, foundations and investors can jointly contribute even more to the development of society that will take us strongly into the future.

"The Danish Parliament can support the development of a national strategy and a strong funding structure to which both philanthropic funds and investment actors can contribute."

Both the Danish Parliament and foundations must be involved

There are many in the pipeline. And new players are emerging all the time - thankfully! One example is Sigge Winther's new think tank INVI, which will contribute with new ways of making policy. And Thoravej 29, a community initiated by the Bikuben Foundation that brings together ambitious actors across art, social innovation and other disciplines to collaborate on the necessary transformations of society.

We're thrilled that such ambitious initiatives are emerging and being invested in, and we hope more will follow. Because we need even more people to collaborate, share ideas, dreams, experiences and resources so that we can mobilize the collective action needed to tackle the major challenges we face as a society.

Creating the infrastructure needed to strengthen our ability and capacity for social innovation requires prioritization and bold investments across society. The Danish Parliament can support the development of a national strategy and a strong funding structure to which the big money - both philanthropic funds and investment actors - can contribute, as we know from other areas.

At Danish Social Innovation Academy , we are working to create the conditions for Denmark to once again become world champions in solving society's problems before they have become so wild that we dare not approach them. We hope that the Danish Parliament and many others will join us.

Other articles

Article: Can we extend our empathy to future generations?

Read more

Social innovation can be an export success, but it requires (a different view on) money

Read more