Collaborative Innovation: The Proper Response to Wicked and Unruly Problems

In this section we first look at why and how wicked and unruly problems can be solved through public innovation and then consider how multi-actor collaboration can help to tackle wicked and unruly problems by spurring public innovation.

Public Innovation

For more than a century, innovation has been considered a key driver of growth and prosperity in private business firms (Schumpeter 1934). By contrast, public innovation is often seen as an oxymoron due to the lack of competition and the prevalence of centralized control, red tape and institutional inertia in public bureaucracies. More recently, however, public innovation has moved to the top of the public sector agenda (Kattel et al. 2014). This has happened partly in response to the pressures emanating from the combination of increasing expectations of citizens for the quality and availability of public services despite dire fiscal constraints, and partly in response to the pervasiveness of wicked and unruly problems. Such problems can be solved neither using the available standard solutions nor by allocating more money, staff and administrative resources (S0rensen and Torfing 2011). Hence, when faced with ill-defined and hard-to-solve problems in areas with many stakeholders and a high risk of conflicts, we need to find new ways of framing these problems and creative ways of solving them. We must develop and implement new solutions that break with the conventional wisdom and habitual solutions in a particular context. In short, we need to foster innovation, defined as the development and realization of new ideas that work (Hartley 2005).

Innovation is more than a continuous improvement of existing designs and less than a ‘radical transformation’ of the entire policy field. Rather, innovation can be seen as a step change that combines old and new elements in the construction of creative solutions that somehow disrupt the established practices and the underlying thoughts and ideas in a particular context (Hartley 2006). Public innovation may aim to transform public discourse, actual policies, organizational designs, public services, or the overall role perception of the public sector (Hartley 2005). It can be more or less radical depending on the size of the steps taken. Further, it can either be a result of the invention of something new or of the adoption and adaptation of innovative ideas from other organizations, sectors or countries (Hartley et al. 2013). Still, the key driver of public innovation, regardless of its forms and sources, seems to be the expectation that innovative solutions will outperform existing solutions and offer new and better ways of doing things at the same or lower costs than before. However, there is no guarantee that public innovation leads to improvement. Innovative solutions may not produce the desired output, and the final judgment of the outcomes of innovation relies on the subjective evaluations of politicians, public managers and employees, private stakeholders and different user groups.

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