The Oslo Model: how the green capital of Norway makes way for public innovation models in the smart city

6 min read

Take a handful of all the biggest buzzwords of the past decade, such as open innovation, big data, digitalization, visualization, internet of things, ai… then toss them into a pot, stir wildly around and you have the term smart city. The ecosystem of private, public organizations, individuals, animals and organisms, the leadership and governance, the physical and geographical city with its roads, buildings and infrastructure. Paired up with the latest technology that can provide us everything from better healthcare, cleaner air, greener energy to simpler everyday lives. In this enormous mix of technology, materials and human beings, in Oslo Business Region we continuously work to focus our efforts in the smart city field to make Oslo better. On the smart city arena, we create models that connect creative and innovative smart city entrepreneurs with the city of Oslo, and in turn encourage the development of the best and smartest services for the citizens of Oslo.

What can the public sector learn from the start-up ecosystem in the smart city?

If the aim is to create the best public services possible, this demands new ways of collaborating with the surroundings, where the citizens are involved in the development of the services to a larger extent than before. I’m going to sum it up with the punchline: we need to learn more quickly what works, and discard what doesn’t work. This I the mantra coming from the core of virtually every start-up on this planet. Government, both local and national, tends to be rather risk adverse – many depending on linear planning models spanning over several years. However, in this moment in time, we are seeing a shift where more governments and public organisations are embracing innovation in order to transform their bureaucracies. This is at the very heart of how we work at Oslo Business Region; testing fast and failing fast, adapting the successful results and re-iterating the rest. Our aim is to spread this working mode, to ensure more effective, smooth processes – hand in hand with identifying and pushing forward the region’s best smart city solutions that puts Oslo on the global map.

Private-public partnerships

As an illustrative example, in collaboration with the city of Oslo, Oslo Business Region has created an accelerator program: a public-private partnership, aimed at catapulting Oslo-based smart city startups into the municipality – to connect municipal challenges with locally sourced smart solutions. The accelerator program is a project made possible through Oslo being forefront in welcoming back (because this is by no means new thinking) the idea of the dugnad. Managed by Oslo Business Region, the municipality of Oslo made way for a unique co-creative fellowship consisting of some of the best innovation hubs and co-working spaces of Oslo, corporate contributors and interest organizations. It is an example of a smart private-public partnership, aiming at strengthening the city’s start-up ecosystem at the same time as driving digitalization and innovation within the municipality.

In the wake of the SmartOslo Accelerator, we see the tendencies of a shift towards innovative thinking into innovative action and practise. An eight-week intense accelerator program, providing startups with the necessary touch points, arenas, resources and individuals that can take them further into the world of procurement and a few good steps closer to delivering state of the art, cheaper and locally produced solutions to the city. The first round of the accelerator was an experiment – what I personally would deem an experiment as a service. The way we think at Oslo Business Region regarding our smart city initiatives, is that our approach takes us from looking at innovation as a creative, messy process.. to innovation as a process that tests hypothesis. If we are to source the right competencies, solutions and talent to push Oslo forward as a smart city of global calibre, this is the line of thinking we want and need to see more of.  But, no doubt – innovation processes still undisputedly will be a tad bit messy. Even so, at Oslo Business Region we firmly believe that the experiment is the new public review.

What challenges and results you can expect from implementing this line of thinking?

To me a true smart city is one that has a leadership that dares to make prioritizations. That is, a city, in which politicians and leaders have guts enough to set a course of meeting and embracing the new, and not only talking about and preparing for the future, but immersing in it by adapting to it. Such innovative private-public models as Oslo is currently developing, challenge the pace, the organization of tasks and the allocation of human resources. It knocks down silos, it bulldozes bureaucratic processes and it takes little into account legacy systems and “how we do things around here”. Moving from strict downstream workflow models to open partnerships and innovative approaches are difficult – understandably.

However, if your organization is up to the task, one can harness the fruits of quicker and real-time feedback loops in projects, learning, discarding, adapting what works.

Calculated risk taking, which means adapting an attitude where failure is ok, and even encouraged, is necessary. This an exercise dearly needed in many public organisations. Not every project is fit for this type of model, but for innovation projects, risk is a necessary parameter. It can even make for de-risking investments of public funds; since faster feedback enables swifter adjustment to actual needs, working in smart governance models through a set-up such as SmartOslo accelerator, can make way for better expenditure of allocated funds.

What’s next? Public-public partnerships, sharing is caring

The city of Oslo is making a great deal of efforts to meet the new reality, and by encouraging and engaging in development projects such as the SmartOslo Accelerator, we’ve together proved that it is indeed possible for the public sector to work agile. I’ll argue that the only sane next step to create sustainable smart cities, is to work far more on how to more effectively motivate and facilitate for sharing of our learnings and progress. Everything from our technology, our knowledge to our processes and development in intellectual capital. In some cases, one size might actually fit all, and if not – just take the best bits and tailor it to your needs. Just make sure you make your learnings available. So how can we build Oslo as a global smart city, at the same time as growing our own start-up ecosystem to create sustainable business for the future? We should source locally, share globally – and amp up our efforts in letting the private sector help our governments become more effective and citizen friendly.

About Silje Bareksten

Silje Bareksten is Oslo Business Regions head of Smart City. She has background in commercialization of technology and cutting edge research from leading science and technology environments in Norway and abroad, has spent time at CERN in Geneva, Switzrland and taken courses in space science with ISU and ESA, the European Space Agency. She works closely with the Oslo Start-up ecosystem and is passionate about promoting Oslo startups and creating circular, smart and sustainable city models and solutions.