Inside Sweden’s policy labs to tackle climate change

By Medha Basu

The country’s new innovation head is a passionate engineer fighting climate change.

At the end of a record hot summer in Sweden last year, a teenager went on strike from school to protest against climate change, setting up with snacks and a homemade sign outside the Parliament. Around the same time, two blocks away, Darja Isaksson was starting her new role as Head of Sweden’s Innovation Agency, Vinnova.

Isaksson grew up in an electronics lab, graduated as an engineer at the height of the IT boom, and went on to launch two design and creative companies. Five years ago, she was asked by the Prime Minister to be part of Sweden’s National Innovation Council and started thinking about how she could make a dent in the biggest problems in the world.

She’s passionate about climate change. “This is not about saving the planet; the planet will be fine without us. It’s about humans, society,” she tells GovInsider. She sees addressing climate change as a huge responsibility for our generation. “We have a really short time to do it.”

Policy labs

The innovation agency’s role in the Swedish Government is to “show the way things should work” and help others build capabilities to achieve that on their own, Isaksson says. It runs policy labs with partner agencies to identify future scenarios.

The labs’ work is linked to the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. They are set up as a network where teams from agencies and businesses work together with Vinnova and design consultancies to set up temporary policy experiments, she says.

They use a set of design principles and tools to develop and test hypotheses such as user research, rapid prototyping and systems thinking. “It contains everything from working on user journey and personas to things like behavioural insight,” she adds.

Vinnova uses “soft levers” to create incentives for policy change. The labs create empathy for the issue among civil servants. “You increase their empathy with the problem and their understanding of the citizens’ perspective. They put their own work in a biggest context and that creates incentive in itself,” Isaksson says.

The lab also engages users and other stakeholders early in the policymaking process, resulting in “smarter policy instruments, which have positive effects for more people, and hence, are easier for politicians to make decisions on”, she says.

Anticipatory regulation

As a result of the policy labs, the government has set up a permanent committee to promote “anticipatory regulation”, using experiments and rapidly iterating to adapt laws on cutting edge issues. “Regulators have to deal with more uncertainty, less evidence and a greater number of possible risks,” she says.

The committee will focus on adapting laws to deal with cross-sectoral issues and emerging technologies. The Prime Minister has set out three areas to prioritise: precision medicine, connected industry, and connected and autonomous vehicles.

One of the elements missing in Sweden, however, is a “common language and frameworks” to drive change. A good example of this, she says, is Singapore’s government-wide API platform for agencies to share data across government and develop services quicker. “It doesn’t have to be a centralised team that actually builds the API. But we do need a centralised team that coordinates the requirements for what kind of APIs are allowed in,” she says.

Building a positive mission

Overall, governments’ approach to complex challenges like climate change needs to evolve, she believes. Sweden, along with the UK, Netherlands and Finland, are championing a “mission-based approach”, a new concept built on work by economist Mariana Mazzucato.

It’s based on two key things, Isaksson says. One is the urgency of societal transformation. And the other is that all transformation to address complex systems needs to have a shared direction. A good example, she says, is the US space race that put a man on the moon. It mobilised every sector from textiles and foods to space technology towards accomplishing one very complex goal.

She draws on this to say that missions to tackle climate change should be framed with a positive outcome. “It’s the difference between saying ‘let’s have a car-free society’ - where you will immediately have large industries against you - compared to formulating a positive goal, like, ‘let’s reclaim the space in our cities for our people’.”

For instance, Sweden runs “strategic innovation programmes” where agencies, small and large companies, and researchers come together around 17 themes, varying from building future cities to creating new lightweight material. They get ten-year funding from Vinnova, but beyond that are left to their own devices to come up with new things. “They have the mandate to create their own priorities.”

Procuring innovation

Over the last couple of years, the government has set up laws and a dedicated agency to change the way the government buys from suppliers. She sees government spending as a key way to stimulate private sector innovation: “We’re spending so much money in public procurement, and we need to use it as a driver for innovation.”

Sweden calls this approach “innovation procurement” and it requires agencies to set the outcomes it wants to achieve - like reduced noise - rather than specific technical requirements in tenders. It’s similar to procurement methods being used in Israel and Singapore, and allows agencies and companies to build “strategic partnerships”, making way for more agile and iterative ways of working towards solutions.

We’re reaching the end of our interview and Isaksson’s voice is draining. She’s at the end of three full days of meetings and events in Singapore. But she perks up when I ask about what keeps her going. “Right now? Young people taking a stand in demanding action is hugely inspirational. Historically, what’s inspired me is stories about groups of people who have been highly individualistic, typically arguing a lot, but just have decided to make a difference.”

Isaksson has been a leading innovator in Sweden, often listed among its most influential people shaping opinions on social change. She has achieved most of this from outside of government and now she’s set out to make a difference from within.