International Co-operation: Seek Interference, Not Interaction!

“We welcome your visit, but only if you are prepared to enter meaningful collaboration immediately!” This is the message that the Innovation Unit of the Central Denmark Region distribute to our international colleagues – and it seems to work. A case of breaking the paradigm of co-creating in the public sector.

Death by Powerpoint!

Then the visitors arrive…and the programme becomes a round of endless presentations and meals. Intentions to co-operate in the future are declared by everyone at the end of the day. On the following day everybody is exhausted, but pleased that it went smoothly. There is no time to discuss the outcome of the visit since the neglected business from the day before is demanding everyone’s full attention.

We probably all recognize this situation: the anticipation before the visit and the creeping sense of disappointment after the foreign visitors have left.

The number of visits from international colleagues to the Innovation Unit of the Central Denmark Region has gone down. We still appreciate the interest shown in us, and we are still flattered when e-mails requesting invitations to come and to learn from us arrive in our mail boxes. But we have realized that our strategy must be clear and visible to existing and potential foreign partners if all parties are to benefit from international co-operation. We realize that being a prestigious, internationally oriented agency is a status that we have to earn through trial and error.

Co-creation is about hitting the ground running

An innovation group from Sweden developed a prototype for a hospital ward alarm system. It was a sophisticated, but simple to use system based on existing mobile telephone technology.

The group wanted to introduce its  WARD ALARM 1.0 system to Danish hospitals, and contacted us for assistance. Our response was that we welcomed their innovation and their efforts to assist hospitals to achieve greater efficiency in health care routines. However, we told the group we were not interested in their version 1.0. Instead, we would be willing to cooperate with it  on the development of a version 2.0 based on Danish hospital environments. And we would be willing to assist the group in developing  version 3.0 once they had returned to Sweden and summarized their experience in Denmark.

Aiming for international markets – an unusual outcome

Luckily, the Swedish innovation group decided to take up our challenge and spent some time preparing for the encounter with the Danish hospital system. In the course of this, they discovered some crucial differences between Danish and Swedish ways of organising hospital health care. They consulted their own hospitals for advice and brought along a small group of Swedish nurses and doctors for their first visit to Denmark. And how fortunate that they did this! It was not until a dialogue between the Danish and the Swedish nurses and doctors was established that it became clear to the Swedish innovation group that the international market opportunities for the ward alarm system was dependent on current trends and future hospital health care scenarios.

These future scenarios, across borders and traditions, are now an important element of the development of version 2.0 of the alarm system, which will be radically different from the 1.0 version and not at all similar to what the Swedish innovation group originally envisaged. Version 3.0 is on its way. Furthermore, co-operation on innovative approaches to future hospital care has been established between Danish and Swedish hospitals. We are still debating which is the byproduct – the alarm system or hospital care development?

A medical director in a Swedish hospital:

“This way of working allows us to see failure and hope for successes – we are always already preparing new versions and do not cling to one version as an end in itself”

Needless to say, the first visit of the Swedish innovation group was hectic. No one had the time to make or listen to traditional presentations about the other’s organizations or achievements. But huge numbers of observations, questions and requests emerged in a number of different ways. Most exchanges took place in the corridors between meetings.

The source of inspiration…a movie

It is no secret that our approach is inspired by the Danish film The Five Obstructions (2003) by Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth. Throughout the film, von Trier challenges Leth to make updated versions of his 1967 short movie The Perfect Human. We see Jørgen Leth being lured into applying animation techniques, using apparently impossible locations and limiting himself to only a few frames while still communicating his original message to the audience. Obviously frustrated by the enormity of the challenge, Jørgen Leth responds with five beautiful short movies with high artistic value. Obstructions can serve as productive and fertile elements of innovation.

Another example

Perhaps intoxicated with its success, we have used this approach several times and still are finding new and simpler ways of getting to the core of co-operation even before the arrival of our future partners in Denmark.

We are currently in the process of involving an international hotel chain as a partner in a project looking for innovative approaches to developing “the hospital bed of the future”. The contemporary Danish hospital bed is basically a modification of a model introduced on the market more than 60 years ago. Treatment and care in hospitals have undergone radical changes during this long time span, but the hospital bed has remained virtually unchanged.

A sales director of a software company operating as a sub-supplier to hospital equipment manufacturers commented:

“If we want to innovate together – then the public sector has to stop asking for what is already underway from the manufacturers”

We need inspiration and inputs from sources outside the traditional circles. When we announced our interest in Nordic co-operation and made it clear that we would need new partners, a Scandinavian hospital suggested bringing the hotel chain into the partnership. This chain has more than 400 hotels and is thus a larger market for bed manufacturers than the Danish hospitals. Also, this chain is in the process of positioning itself as the leading provider of hotel facilities for handicapped people. At present, hotels and hospitals are benefitting from the rapid exchange of knowledge and experience – and it is expected that prototype results will be introduced to specialists across Nordic borders within the next year.

By Jens Peter Jensen,
Projects Director, MidtLab, Central Denmark region

About Jens Peter jensen

Jens Peter JensenJens Peter Jensen is a project director at MidtLab, an innovation catalyst agency of the Central Denmark Region. He has more than 25 years of international work experience, most of it as a managing director of a publicly owned consultant agency. For more than two decades he has been involved in management training in China. His work assignments cover a large number of countries in East Asia, South East Asia and Africa. He is an international consultant for The University of Cambridge International Examinations. At MidtLab, he is a senior innovation specialist focusing in particular on cross-sector innovation between the private, public and third sectors.
Jens Peter Jensen has a MA in British and American culture. Most of his leadership training was at universities in Singapore and Ohio, USA.
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