« Most politicians don’t want to take risks » : from hackathons to policy making in the North of Sweden

Interview de Lars Albinsson, PDG et directeur créatif de l’agence Maestro.se, par téléphone, le 12 octobre 2016. Maestro a participé à un processus de consultation locale pour permettre de relocaliser la ville minière de Kiruna, menacée de s’effondrer du fait du creusement pendant des décennies de galeries souterraines.

Local involvement for successful local economic renewal

Lars Albinsson – The democratic and political process is good at dealing with a proposition, but the question is how you arrive at a proposition. I’ve been working with crazy projects, such as the relocation of two mining cities, which involved two massive citizen dialogues. We wanted to change the traditional approach from a plan that’s submitted to citizens, to one that comes from them. In a process of co-creation to identify, prototype and implement truly valuable services.

The idea was that they have this region in North Sweden that needs to develop. The economy around is depended on forestry mostly, but they realised that doing just another conference with 200 participants would not work. I’ve been working with co-design, co-creativity. I was asked in parallel by the government to develop hackathons. It’s great, but these work usually for 28-year old educated men.

The government wanted to try this approach for all: bringing all types of people, elderly, younger, and with communications and tech people to try to develop solutions. So we went up there and had a full session. They have now had this over four consecutive years. They choose a theme ever year, like rural development, integration issues, health care, and then people are invited to an “ideas factory” where they kick out a lot of ideas, then the best are brought to a major event, a “development workshop”, with 8 mixed teams of citizens, specialists, communicators, tech people, and they work for a couple days to develop them into a concept that works. Then ideally we want them to turn this concept into reality, so there is a follow-up session a couple months later, with feedback from people who are used to developing companies, venture funders. It’s almost a full-year circle to develop different initiatives.

You can’t expect to have 8 new start-up companies every year, but every year you have one or two, so it’s increased the likelihood of these things happening. Democratically it’s helped people who don’t have a network to do things.

From business start-ups to policy start-ups

Lars Albinsson – In parallel to the Development Factory there are conferences with policy makers who interact with the process, they nominate “winners”, so it’s raised the awareness among the civil servants and elected officials about possibilities, it’s become an important part of political life. However, it’s difficult to claim that it would not have happened without the process…

One of the groups was working on treating phobia with 3D reality glasses. They used the Oculus glasses to test simulated reality and measure stress level so as not to push them too far. For example, there was an idea for collaborative journalism coming out of this, connecting people with stories and media outlets. We are working also with 3D printers that can print in wood and glue mixes, you can build complex wood structures.

All these are very much connected to policy issues: distant health care is costly, especially over the huge distances that we have here. The wood industry has taken many hits from Eastern Europe, so they have to find new ways of developing. All the local papers are also dying. These ideas are very much connected to local policy.

An ecosystem of subsidies

Lars Albinsson – This whole year cycle is mainly funded by the region, and support from the cities of the region, and is sponsored by local companies, some local energy companies and banks.

There are also some public funds, like research or development funds, private venture funds that take part in the latter phases interested in funding; it’s a mix, which is good, it should be funded from different sources, and the companies bring their focus, skills and knowledge, not just money. And it’s something that the local people could never have, these connections.

Stephen Boucher : How do you experiment?

Lars Albinsson – It depends on what types of concepts. In the development workshop, where people spend several days, if you look at apps, you build a prototype. In the oculus case, or looking for alternatives for local media, we have a complete fablab. It’s useful and it’s good to have politicians see how these things evolve from year to year

But then a prototype fabrication system is a bigger project, here we need funding, but mostly we try to get prototypes out of the workshops. People have ideas, but like an artist, the idea is just the start, not the end of the creative process. Prototyping is essential to see the problems.

Stephen Boucher : What lessons do you draw for prototyping of public policies?

Lars Albinsson – That’s a difficult one. There are connections with policy, if you look at healthcare, we have an ageing population, and we prefer taking care of people in their homes, it’s better for people to stay in their environment, if you come up with services, you can go out and test that, and if it works out, you have a very good foundation to develop policy, but it can also fail and you have grounds to abandon.

For example, when we worked on mining cities, we had about 10% of the population of the city involved in thinking of the new city. People want a more vibrant city, where people socialise, so you have to think where to put the school, the town square, how many schools we should have, and you then see you need to have the school in the middle of the city.

This reminds me that in Finland, they can make regional exception areas, where they try different legislation. We wanted to see if our master plan could allow different types of building permits for ecological homes, we saw that we could do better than what the building permits allowed. In Finland, this was against the rules, but they were able to test it out. In Sweden, every prototype and experiment needs to be within the current framework of legislation.

Stephen Boucher : How do you allow risk taking? How do you acknowledge mistakes?

Lars Albinsson – Most politicians don’t want to take risks. It goes with the trade. In the case of this extreme type of urban planning situation where we need to plan for tearing down an entire city and build a new one, the process was successful, because it lowered the risk for politicians by reversing the process by asking citizens what they would like. Then it was low risk for the politicians to adopt these plans. The plan sailed through the process! Even hough the proposition is radical for Sweden, with a lot more in the centre of town than what normal Swedish citizens are used to, but because it came so strongly from the citizens, and vetted by experts who said it’d work, it didn’t seem so radical anymore.

Stephen Boucher : Is there a particular Scandinavian culture in that respect?

Lars Albinsson – We have a much more collaborative culture than any culture on the planet. Even the concept of collaborative design was coined in Sweden. We’re not a very hierarchical society. It’s not so much about what school you went to, it’s flatter. Also, I was with Stéphanie [Bacquère of Nod-A] at an event in Paris. They told me how in French schools you don’t have much group work. In Sweden everybody knows how to run a meeting. I’m still envious of people in the US, because they view mistakes differently there.

More generally, in Nordic Countries we are used to collaboration, to working on common legislation, there is a Nordic way of bringing different stakeholders to have a say. In the Baltic states they want to import this approach. They’ve also identified that the creative part is a bit weak. They are looking into developing the “Nordic way of developing legislation”.

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Illustration de bannière : paysage d’hiver aux alentours de Kiruna, Suède