By: Patrice Dutil

The MindLab meets every expectation you might have about a post-modern Danish institution that would dare sport such a title. Nestled on the ground floor of a rather non-descript building that contrasts cruelly with Copenhagen’s old stock exchange (the “Børsen”) across the street, the MindLab presents itself as a deep, white rectangle. At the far back is the door to the iconic “bubble” where MindLab’s guests would congregate to solve important policy problems. The open space is punctuated by large black computer screens that seem to hang in mid-air, perched on high stands, each providing a work space for the young staff. At the foot of each stand are a few file cabinets painted a bright apple green, each on wheels. This is not your typical public service office, yet the thinking that has taken place here has radiated around the world, not least in Canada.

Young as it appears, MindLab is the grandfather of a movement that has spawned similar-spirited institutions, but it remains unique. There has been spreading something of a “lab” fever of sorts as educational organizations have jointed the stream. Institutions like the Stanford ChangeLabs (in California), the DESIS Lab (at Parsons the New School for Design, New York City) and the Strategic Innovation Lab at OCAD University in Toronto have helped spread the enthusiasm for “ground up” rethinking of government services. NGOs such as Nesta (in the United Kingdom), 27ieme Région (France), Kennisland (Netherlands) have also adopted the “Lab” function.

Canada has not been immune, and number of these “labs” have emerged in Vancouver and Toronto to bring the spirit of innovation to social policy issues. The most accomplished is the Institute for Citizen-Centred Service, an intergovernmentally funded agency based in Toronto since 2001, which has served many “lab” functions on its own.

MindLab stays different, however, because it remains a part of the public sector. As such, its influence has been felt in Ottawa, where many departments have created their own “labs”. What MindLab thinks now might be what’s coming to a capital city near you.

Thomas Prehn, the third director in the history of the MindLab, puts the past thirteen years is context, pointing to the reality that the original aim of his organization remains elusive. He is doggedly determined to make it realize its mission. He joined the MindLab earlier this year, succeeding Christian Bason, who had promoted MindLab on the international stage in his seven years as Executive Director. (Bason assumed the position of executive director of the Danish Design Centre, which is more focused on the value of design for Danish businesses and society.)

An entrepreneur active a number of fields, Prehn distinguished himself as head of innovation at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, a government-funded agency. He has never worked as a public servant per se, but was smitten by the challenge. In many ways, his arrival at the MindLab constitutes a return to original intentions.

The MindLab was created in 2002 with funding from the Ministry of Business Affairs to help it develop more creative competencies. The idea was that this new agency would create a new space to better understand how ideas develop and become marketable, with the hope that the thinking there would lead to better economic outcomes for Denmark. The essence of MindLab’s activities in the early years was to break down the silos that had come to separate the ministry from its peers and from the communities it was serving. The idea was to “throw a grenade inside bureaucracy,” and its activities revolved around organizing awareness-building workshops.

Five years later, two more ministries, Taxation & Economics and Employment, joined the initiative. MindLab turned its orientation towards improving the government’s understanding of end-users of government services. It was at that point that Christian Bason was hired to lead MindLab. His notion was to use more “design” methods to reach more people, and to do so more effectively. A lot of the thinking at MindLab in this period was captured by Bason in his many books (two of which are readily available in English) Leading Public Sector Innovation (2010) and Design for Policy (2014), an edited volume.

MindLab pursued a myriad projects inside the Danish bureaucracy and made its presence felt internationally at this point also as it promoted its human-centred approach to delivering government services. One of the priorities was to become a “burden hunter” for its funding ministries: to identify the redundant regulations both inside and outside government that curtailed creativity and energy. In 2010 it led an “Away with Red Tape” initiative to reduce the government-imposed administrative burden on Danish businesses.

At the same time, a new focus emerged on how to craft policy delivery for individuals injured in the workplace. The idea that one-size-fits-all in government services was its enemy. Much of the work of the MindLab was to act as a convener, organizing workshops to raise awareness of design methods and how to bring them to life in government policy work. MindLab’s case study of the “service journey” of “Denis”, a young taxpayer, had a dramatic cultural effect inside the Ministry of Taxation and drove new strategic and administrative changes.

The Ministry of Employment, for instance, called on MindLab to help it refocus the implementation of reforms related to social benefits in a context of early retirement and part-time work. MindLab investigated heavily the experience and ambitions of the ministry’s clients. Instead of measuring the number of cases closed or of maintaining a uniform process for citizens, the MindLab came to the conclusion that the structure of the department, both in terms of its organizational framework, budget allocations and administrative procedures, had to change in order to better serve the client.

The Ministry of Education joined the partnership in 2012 to develop the ideas around a “New Nordic School” that would be based on a more collaborative process of learning and improvement among teachers led by principals and enabled by municipalities and the Education Ministry. What makes this initiative special is that the process is not driven by the ministry itself. The schools are contributing their own resources to make it happen while the MindLab provides the coaching.

The projects are useful, according to Prehn, but his ambitions and those of the MindLab are far grander. In a way, led by Prehn, MindLab is returning to its roots. Its mission is to build capacity inside the bureaucracy.

Bureaucracies know enough about their procedures to change them, he thinks. What they really need is the incentive to change, and a sustaining culture of change. According to Prehn, there is little use in generating new ideas if there is no inherent interest in new approaches inside government. MindLab sees itself as a developer of capacity — something it has always done — but its arsenal is going to involve more than grenades: the thick silo walls are heavy and strongly reinforced. Instead, it will focus on the people who launch the grenades, the people inside government. “Innovation labs must transform from being facilitators of process and service design to enablers of the cultural change in the public sector,” he says. “Innovation has to spread as a culture of practice and leadership.”

In the end, the MindLab focuses on thinking, “Mind” issues: ensuring that departments are fixated on real problems. Too often, he says, success is measured on how a relatively small intervention will resolve a small problem—or a problem that, in the scheme of things, is unimportant. At the same time, bigger problems go unaddressed.

For Prehn, the cultural change will become evident when departments spend more time exploring the realities of the people they serve. He wants to see departments develop pilot projects, but he insists that what is key to innovation is experimentation, and he wants to see a lot more of it.

This fits with the MindLab’s capacity. He also wants to see departments develop “prototypes”; ideas that actually take shape in terms of public policy and that are tested in real time, on real people. It is a new approach to risk, but a reasoned one, he insists. The economic realities and the pressures being exerted on OECD countries make the enterprise all the more important. Governments will have to do “different” with less, he insists. That is not to mean that government will do less—in fact, he sees government doing more, in the end, but doing it more intelligently, while wasting few efforts. For Prehn, this is a fundamentally cultural challenge—the same one that gave it birth thirteen years ago—yet one that his young team of anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, engineers and service-designers are eager to address.