Sweden once again won the title of European innovation leader last year, a feat the country owes not least to its state innovation authority Vinnova: “We help increase Sweden’s innovative capacity and sustainable growth. We strive to turn Sweden into a driving force in a sustainable world.”
Author: Benjamin Dierks
The large conference room at the center of Stockholm is filled to bursting at 8 a.m. sharp already. The stage is shared by two women in business suits and a man with a fine moustache, topping off his own suit with a baseball cap. The women are Susanne Ås Sivborg and Lena Lindgren Schelin. One of them runs the Swedish surveying office and the other the country’s data protection authority. The man with the hat is IT entrepreneur Christian Landgren, whose company Iteam stood out a few years ago by revealing just how easily Facebook and other social networks can manipulate users. All three of them have followed an invitation from the innovation authority Vinnova, to discuss integrity and ways for businesspeople to protect the information entrusted to them. “Data protection and climate change are issues far too large for a single company or authority to tackle alone,” says Landgren. “That’s why Vinnova is important. If I had my way, they’d get involved even more often.”
Joakim Appelquist enjoys hearing those words. The vice director of Vinnova drops onto a light blue sofa.
Founded in 2001, Vinnova derives its name from a pun on the Swedish terms for profit and innovation. The authority is subordinate to the Ministry of Enterprises and Innovation. Its primary task is the allocation of subsidies from its annual budget in the equivalent of around 300 million euros, or one tenth of Sweden’s research and development budget. The ministry places only few specific orders every year, leaving Vinnova free rein within only roughly defined targets otherwise.
The authority also feels confident to phrase major societal goals for innovation. Funds are awarded based on the goal of sustainable growth. Anyone who wants Vinnova’s support must prove that the innovation project to be subsidized will advance the sustainability goals of the United Nations’ Agenda 2030. These development goals are omnipresent in their office premises in Stockholm. Climate justice, health, gender equality, inclusive education, and others stand out as brightly colored icons on wall panels, seat cubes, and sofa cushions.
New ways to promote innovation
This also brings actors into the focus who did not play any role in conventional innovation promotion before. “We started out looking mainly at new technical solutions,” says Judit Wefer. “But we have always had those small social entrepreneurs and initiatives striving to change society instead of just hoping for new technologies to show up.” At Vinnova, Wefer is in charge of social innovation. She knows that the projects she supervises are not the first thing people will think of when considering innovation. She talks about a son of Bosnian parents who wants to motivate children from immigrant families with sports in his club after his own example showed him just how much sport can do to help. Vinnova also sponsored a project to support children of addicted parents. One Swedish municipality’s desperation at finding entire year groups lagging well behind the national average in terms of learning levels was resolved when a company was involved to help with homework.
Vinnova wants to help make them more effective and expand the target groups for their solutions, based specifically on the hope that the administrative and public agencies will benefit from the creativity of such initiatives and social entrepreneurs as well. The idea that innovation can only succeed if the administration ventures on new paths as well is growing increasingly vital for Vinnova, which means that the authority also brings the state itself on track. Policy laboratories are to improve cooperation between ministries and authorities.
Nothing in these premises in the inner city of Stockholm raises the impression of being inside a government office. The open space with its modern and brightly colored interior design is part of Vinnova’s own innovation, looking rather like a modern co-working space with clear Swedish design, inviting coffee tables, an elegantly suspended private space, but also jumbled furniture as it might be expected in a shared kitchen. The people working here haven’t had fixed workplaces for years. Everyone locks their things in wooden lockers printed with a boxwood hedge pattern, as a last reminder of the small-town mentality of the conventional office cubicles this workspace replaced just a few years ago. Design students transformed the wooden sound-absorbing walls that used to separate cramped work niches into a structure with several steps and cushions, creating a popular place to sit down for lunch.
Not all of the approximately 200 employees approved of the change, as Daniel Rencrantz, head of the innovation management department, says. “But it’s made us more effective.” According to him, many things are now coordinated during random meetings since the members of different teams no longer work separately, but mingle wherever they feel the most comfortable.
Cooperation beyond the rim of their teacups
Vinnova’s philosophy is one of creating a social climate that encourages experimentation and accepts failure as a part of any learning process.
While many societal issues need to be tackled by the public sector, potential solutions often originate in the private sector instead, Rencrantz explains. As a result, these two sides must be brought together. Disruptive innovation happens when companies, universities, and societal actors stop staying separate and meet in new partnerships instead.
Vinnova pursues various approaches for its projects. Some of them are specifically designed to support small and medium-sized enterprises and start-ups, while others target the promotion of a specific sector, such as artificial intelligence. Vinnova is also setting up strategic innovation programs to bring different players together. The authority encourages companies to form innovation clusters. Business, research, and even civil-society actors submit their shared project ideas. Some of them included a new mobility concept for Sweden, the smart city, or competitive production. If Vinnova approves funding, the network must set up a steering committee before it can begin developing its own innovation projects. Vinnova and the companies involved will then equally share the financial burden.
Vinnova’s strategists keep being surprised by the momentum these projects gain all on their own. Cecilia Sjöberg is leaning over her laptop in a meeting room, pointing at two network charts that reflect the participants of the innovation program for digitalization and automation in industry, headed by Sjöberg. The computer scientist is in charge of industrial development at Vinnova. One of the charts looks manageable. With ABB group at its center, surrounded by several technical universities and research institutes, Swedish mining company Boliden, and several other companies, it reflects the program structure after three years. The second chart contains a network that is virtually impossible to disentangle. It has exploded in size, comprising even corporations such as Siemens and IBM. Additional clusters have developed around its fringes. This is what development has come to after six years now. “This shows what these programs can achieve,” says Sjöberg. “They have created an innovation ecosystem within the sector.”
Cecilia Sjöberg is currently negotiating with a large high-tech group that has approached Vinnova about getting into contact with smaller innovative companies.
Corporations used to buy in expertise and acquire companies they found of interest without further ado. At this point, however, the target is allowing the little companies to continue their development independently to keep them innovative. Vinnova’s goals state: We encourage cooperation where knowledge and skills from different perspectives meet. If large corporations are willing to preserve small businesses to learn from them, our authority has already made a great achievement.
This article is an excerpt from the current change Magazine (1/2020).