Chapter 11. New approaches in policy design and experimentation

Piret Tõnurist

Complexity and uncertainty are core features of most policy making today, and STI policies are no different. This chapter describes and analyses emerging approaches to science, technology and innovation (STI) policy design and implementation. It reviews several new policy tools, such as systems thinking, design thinking, behavioural insights, experimentation, regulatory sandboxes and real-time data analytics, that are transforming STI policy making today. It argues that innovations in policy making should be applied strategically and systemically – they should not be adopted indiscriminately by layering them on top of one another in an ever-expanding ‘policy mix’. The chapter concludes by considering the capacities and capabilities required of policymakers in this challenging new environment, and discusses the future outlook for policy design and governance practices.



Governments have traditionally played an important role in supporting fundamental science. They have guaranteed scientific autonomy and funding, thereby creating the environment necessary for innovation. At the same time, they are themselves increasingly innovating, experimenting and pushing boundaries in their everyday actions. The literature recognises the quality of public institutions as a powerful driver of economic growth (Rodrik, Subramanian and Trebbi, 2004; Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012). However, it rarely analyses how governments – and the institutions they create – can become “smart”. It is therefore important not only to analyse STI policies as separate outcomes, but also to put them in the context of the institutions delivering these policies. This means shining a spotlight on governments’ capacity to design and implement effective science, technology and innovation (STI) policies.

Government capacity should not remain static; it needs to adapt to societal and technological changes. New – and often disruptive – technologies, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain technology and artificial intelligence (AI), are transforming the production and distribution of goods and services, with significant impacts on society (OECD, 2017a). Technological change is also transforming the way government works, operates and interacts with its policy subjects and partners. Increased interconnectivity, platform economies and peer-to-peer production mean that the private and public domains are in flux. The traditional concepts of public value (e.g. transparency, privacy and accountability) connected to both public and private services and products are changing. The uncertainty and risks created by rapid technological change cannot be borne and directed by the private sector alone: governments must evolve and take an active role in the change process. They must harness digital technologies to respond to the impacts of digitalisation and changing citizen demand (OECD, 2014). They must also anticipate, adapt to and mitigate these change processes as part of their STI policy portfolios.

Addressing 21st-century problems with old tools and methods is unlikely to be effective. The speed, scale and complexity of change is ever increasing. Policymakers face an almost impossible task in maintaining stability and confidence in the public system, while rapidly adapting to a new environment characterised by fast-paced change and new demands. Governments must engage in new policy design and implementation and demonstrate dynamic capabilities. They need to understand the impacts of technology, as well as the changing expectations of citizens, companies and innovators, looking deeper into their user experiences in order to experiment and innovate themselves.

Governments are already changing their STI policy design. They are using design thinking and behavioural insights to analyse the changing needs and motivations of researchers, innovators and lead users in order to apply new technological solutions based on users’ expertise. They are also seeking to learn from practice and experimentation, creating anticipatory and adaptive ways of working with lead developers and users. These trends are also present in other policy fields, so that STI governance can also learn from innovations in other public-sector domains (e.g. Dutz et al., 2014).

This chapter outlines the promise for improved STI policy making that could arise from design thinking, collective intelligence, behavioural insights, policy experimentation and systems thinking. It highlights the need to build government platforms, anticipate disruptive change, and embrace new skills and capacities for STI policy design. It concludes by discussing the future outlook for this field.

Reaping the benefits of design thinking

Design thinking can enhance the commercialisation of scientific and technological breakthroughs, and has long been linked to STI. Some countries have created specialised organisations to funnel design know-how and talent where it is most needed; examples include the Catapult technology and innovation centres in the United Kingdom (UK Design Council, 2011). Although user-centred methods are often discussed in the context of the technology industry, they are increasingly applied to the delivery of public services (OECD, 2017b). Arguably, policy making and policy implementation are a form of design; however, neither was discussed in design terms until recently. In the last five years, design thinking has taken centre stage in most public-sector innovation toolboxes (Observatory of Public Sector Innovation [OPSI], 2018). In the face of severely declining service satisfaction and trust in government, design thinking stipulates that any policy design – including related to STI – should focus on user or customer needs, rather than on internal organisational needs (Bason, 2016). This approach is rooted in collaborative methods engaging both end-users and service-delivery teams.

Brown (2008) describes design thinking as a discipline using the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with: a) what is technologically feasible; and b) what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity. The increase in design thinking in the public sector has gone hand in hand with digitalisation. Some governments (e.g. Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom) have established specific service standards and design toolboxes for digital-service development (Box 11.1). For innovative, user-centred solutions, design thinking presupposes fuzzy front ends1 that ignore established public-sector silos and operating systems (Table 11.1). This allows them to surpass outdated information systems in government, by prioritising users’ needs and experiences. Thanks to its growing popularity, design thinking has become a form of intelligence governments could utilise more systematically, not only to inform more targeted STI policies, but also to initiatives related to digital science and innovation policy (Chapter 12).

Table 11.1. Traditional public-sector context versus design thinking

Problems of “traditional” public sector

Features of design thinking as solutions to public-sector needs

Disjointed incrementalism

Cost-driven problem-solving without asking whether the fundamentals are right and user needs are met

Designing for the fundamental need

Tailored solutions based on user needs

High-risk piloting

Large-scale pilots with considerable risk and costs.

Low-risk prototyping

Small-scale pilots and failing fast and smart

Lack of joined-up thinking

Disconnect between analysis of problems, solutions and implementation

A complete innovation process

Design-led, joined-up innovation process

Lack of citizen engagement

No guarantees that citizens’ needs are met and limited buy-in to government solutions

A citizen-centred process

User involvement throughout the innovation process to co-design and test solutions, resulting in higher ownership of solutions

Poor understanding of citizen needs

Gap between what people want and what they say want, and ineffective methods to determine the difference

Direct understanding of citizen needs

Observation of user behaviour to discover unidentified needs

Lack of tangibility

Important messages subsumed in information overload

Dynamic tangibility

Visualisation of relationships and processes through which solutions work

Silo structures

Problems with co-ordination and collaboration, both inside and outside of government

Multidisciplinary teamwork

Ways of assessing the relevancy of actors and devising techniques to help multidisciplinary teams collaborate.

Designing for the average

Services and policy are designed for a notional average user in an average situation

Designing for extremes

Accounting for extremes, ensuring that solutions cover a wide range of users and scenarios

Source: Based on UK Design Council (2013), Design for Public Good.

Box 11.1. Government adoption of design toolkits and standards

Until now, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and Canada have mostly led in formalising design thinking, by developing and adopting design toolkits, playbooks and methods. Most of these developments are linked to the digitalisation of government, leading to standardisation through design. In the United Kingdom, the Digital Service Standard is a set of 18 criteria designed to help government create and run optimal digital services (Government of the United Kingdom, n.d. a), and the UK Government Digital Service works with a set of design principles (Government of the United Kingdom, n.d. b). The US Government’s digital service agency, 18F, has also developed its own design method tool, “18F Method Cards” and an “ Toolkit: Human-Centred Design. Meanwhile, the Danish Design Centre has led the way in codifying tacit knowledge for the public sector through its Inclusion Toolkit: Designing a User-Centred Living Lab from the Ground Up”. Other examples of government-adopted design toolkits include: “Service Design Playbook” from the Government of British Columbia, Canada; and the “User Centred Design Toolkit”, Government of South Australia, Australia.

Sources: OPSI (2018), “Toolkit Navigator”,; Government of the United Kingdom (n.d. a), “Digital Service Standard,; Government of the United Kingdom (n.d. b), “Government Design Principles”,

The design-thinking methodology is relatively accessible to government and features seemingly straightforward principles. Yet this is also its main shortcoming: most of its core knowledge is tacit and acquired through practice. What individual designers know, how they implement what they know, how they approach and make sense of their own work, and how they actually perform it are essential to successful design. Little is known about how policymakers identify design problems and design criteria, what professional design expertise they themselves possess, or whether and when they collaborate with outside design professions during the policy-making process (Junginger, 2013). There exists a risk that the approach, when placed in the hands of novice public-sector users, may not live up to its promise.

Numerous innovation toolkits and guides have recently emerged in government. The OPSI at the OECD recently reviewed approximately 230 innovation toolkits. It selected around 150 of these for its Toolkit Navigator (OPSI, 2018), making these approaches more accessible and downplaying the expertise required to apply the methods in practice. Several design organisations and policy labs have emerged that focus on design thinking in the public sector, including the Design Centre and the (now closed) Mindlab in Denmark; the Design Council and Policy Lab in the United Kingdom; Design Driven City in Finland; and the Public Policy Lab in the United States.

While design thinking is sometimes treated as an ideology to rethink complex problems – or even as a panacea for solving most policy problems (UK Design Council, 2013) – it is not a cure for all ills, either in the public or the private sector. One of its core strengths, user centricity, is also its limiting factor. Not all deficiencies in government or in STI policy design come from the front end; many may also be rooted in back-office operations, such as the way governments frame problems. By focusing on user experiences, design thinking may ignore this aspect. Moreover – especially in the field of innovation policy – it may focus disproportionately on the needs and interests of today’s user base, ignoring longer-term innovation needs. Thus, design thinking should be coupled with a broader systems-thinking lens and anticipatory governance methods (discussed in more detail in Chapter 10 on technology governance) in order to help identify issues beyond the immediate experiences of researchers and innovators.

Creating collective intelligence

To generate new ideas and innovative solutions, governments have used a variety of tools, including challenges and prizes, such as the US Government’s initiative (Mergel, 2018). Some governments are branching out, co-creating and co-producing innovations and innovative outcomes with citizens. By tapping into various digital crowdsourcing platforms, they have systematically collected ideas, opinions, solutions and data from a wide sample of the general public (Noveck, 2015). Crowdsourcing offers benefits in terms of cost and speed; the potential to find new patterns in large datasets; and the opportunity to conduct near real-time testing and application of new policy approaches (OECD, 2015a). Crowdsourcing can rely on crowd-based resources to design innovative solutions.2 For example, Mexico City’s Mapaton initiative (Box 11.2) uses gamification strategies to encourage citizen involvement. Collective intelligence can also involve more active co-creation of innovations (e.g. through hackathons and living labs) between government and citizens3 (Almirall and Wareham, 2011; Cardullo and Kitchin, 2017a; Lember, forthcoming). For example, the Agile Islands initiative, spearheaded by Tekes in Finland, uses hackathons for innovation procurement; and the Belgian city of Antwerp is developing its own IoT solution, City of Things, with specific input from local residents in a living-lab format (OECD, forthcoming a). In Canada, the government has launched a Drug Checking Technology Challenge to develop new or improve existing technologies in order to empower the community of people who use drugs to make informed decisions and reduce potential harm (Impact Canada Challenge Platform, n.d.). Longer-term, expert-based collaboration approaches are also emerging as a form of collective intelligence. Some authors (e.g. Mulgan, 2017) are predicting the emergence of a “bigger mind” – human and machine capabilities working together – to solve the great challenges facing the world today.

Box 11.2. Mexico City’s Mapaton initiative

Mexico City has one of the largest public transit systems in the world. Its buses provide over 60% of all transit in the city, ferrying about 14 million daily riders on 29 000 buses, covering more than 1 500 routes. However, partly owing to its size and complexity, Mexico City had no bus-related data or maps.

Mexico City’s Laboratory for the City (Laboratorio para la Ciudad), an experimental office and creative think-tank reporting to the mayor, partnered with 12 governmental and civil society organisations to develop Mapatón CDMX. This crowdsourcing and gamification experiment maps the city’s bus routes through civic collaboration and technology, using smartphones to feed global positioning system data to the authorities. The participants who mapped the most routes and earned the most points won tablets and cash prizes up to MXN 30 000 (Mexican pesos, about USD 1 700 [US dollars]). Because users are concentrated in certain areas of the city, an algorithm was used to assign the most points to neglected routes; the algorithm constantly recalculated the point values of the routes to ensure mapping the maximal number of routes. The city-wide game attracted more than 4 000 participants, who accomplished the main mapping task in two weeks for a total programme cost amounting to less than USD 15 000. Several other cities are considering replicating this platform. The data generated are now available as open government data for others to use and build on, and to guide policy.

Sources: OECD (2017c), “Embracing Innovation in Government: Global Trends”,; Mendelson (2016), “Mapping Mexico City’s vast informal transit system”,

Collective innovation is also bypassing the public sector altogether. With “civitech”, citizens are creating solutions as varied as voter-to-voter communication, opinion matching, watchdogging, online petition sites and hyperlocal news. Some technologies (e.g. blockchain) can facilitate peer-to-peer service delivery (Pazaitis, De Filippi and Kostakis, 2017a). At the city level especially, models of local resilience and self-organisation are emerging, with user-driven innovators generating bottom-up solutions for their communities (von Hippel, 2016). Instead of top-down initiatives co-ordinated by the government or the private sector, collectively produced solutions are being adopted (for example, Wikipedia, or community-owned public taxi services, e.g. in Austin, Texas).

Acknowledging the potential of such bottom-up innovation, governments have sometimes intentionally given control to citizens to decide on initiatives (as with technology co-design workshops).4 Citizens choose the design and implementation methods, co-create the technologies, and co-ordinate the activities from start to finish (Pazaitis, Kostakis and Bauwens, 2017b). These initiatives, however, can be extremely disruptive to existing public service systems. Governments may need to stay involved and possibly take back control when the risks taken become too large for the system or to guarantee citizens’ safety – as when testing privately-led circular-economy solutions in urban settings (OECD, forthcoming a). Governments are also actively creating room for innovators to experiment in public spaces. In 2017, for example, the Estonian Parliament authorised testing self-operated robots in public streets.

Even though collective intelligence for innovation can be a thoroughly positive resource for governments, downsides also exist for digital co-creation and co-production. For example, the increased capabilities for gathering data from everywhere – the IoT – could mean that the scale and reach of co-production grows exponentially. Coupling this with increased data processing capacity, governments can precisely target their collaborations for STI, potentially leading to manipulation, excessive control and “nudging” of researchers and firms actions.

Exploring the promises of behavioural insights

Another major trend in the public sector is the adoption of behavioural insights5 – “nudges”, “budges”6 and “shoves”7 (Thaler and Sunstein, 2008) – to influence, rather than direct, the behaviour of policy subjects. Nudges are gentle pushes aiming to change people’s behaviour, leaving them the option to choose a route not promoted by government. As they do not specifically regulate people’s behaviour, they sometimes extend the governments’ scope of action (and the political feasibility of traditional incentives), or make it easier for government to adopt short-term measures that can easily be discontinued after the desired positive change has been achieved. In the field of STI, governments have especially considered nudges to drive technology diffusion – e.g. green innovations (Schubert, 2017). Even when they promote pro-social behaviour, the ethical implications and subversive nature of nudges, which address or exploit cognitive biases, are subject to criticism. This does not mean that behavioural insights should not be used (behavioural biases exist, whether or not they are addressed in traditional policy approaches – behavioural insights help make these choice architectures visible). It does mean that the extent to which they are used to manipulate people, rather than help them make informed choices, should be considered.

The promise of behavioural insights is not new in economics; the concept of behavioural additionality, for example, has been used for some time in evaluations of innovation policy (OECD, 2006). However, STI policy making appears to underutilise behavioural insights and especially rigorous experimentation (e.g. RCTs) that draws on behavioural insights of STI policy subjects. Although approximately 200 institutions worldwide apply them to public policy (OECD, 2017d), OECD member countries mostly apply them to finance, health and safety, and consumer protection, rather than to devise STI policies.

Behavioural insights are generally not used as inputs in agenda-setting and enforcement in the traditional policy cycle; rather, they are most frequently used at a later stage of policy design. Yet they may have great potential for STI policies in the agenda-setting phase – which requires an inductive approach, where experiments replace and challenge established assumptions of the “rational” behaviour of people and business. In this way, behavioural insights can inform policy making and implementation with evidence of “actual” behaviours (OECD, 2017d) – especially when those behaviours are changing. It helps understand the complexities and contradictions of human actions, using the derived insights to nudge behaviour. For example, The United Kingdom’s Behavioural Insights Team has developed a tool called Predictiv (Box 11.3), which helps governments and other clients run behavioural-insight experiments on a pool of online volunteers, thus scaling and speeding up the process of evidence-informed policy making that STI policy makers could also draw upon. Behavioural insights may be very useful for demand-side STI policies as many barriers to innovation procurement and agile development are actually real or perceived behavioural deficiencies (Georghiou et al., 2014).

Box 11.3. Predictiv : Online behavioural experiments platform

Predictiv is an online platform for running behavioural experiments. It enables governments to run randomised controlled trials with an online population of participants, and to test whether new policies and interventions work before they are deployed in the real world (Figure 11.1). After a short design phase, the tests take one to two weeks to complete, enabling policy makers to obtain responses to questions that would otherwise have taken many months (or years) to answer. As such, it has the potential to profoundly change governments’ working methods. While time constraints and political realities sometimes make it hard to run “field trials” on live policy, Predictiv makes experimental methods more accessible.

Figure 11.1. Predictiv’s Approach
Figure 11.1. Predictiv’s Approach

Source: OECD (2018), “Embracing Innovation in Government: Global Trends 2018”,; Predictiv (n.d.), “Predictiv for policymakers & practitioners”,

Experimenting with new STI policy approaches

Policy makers are taking an increasingly active role in creating solutions themselves, rather than facilitating innovation through demand or supply-side policies. As such, they can act as technology makers or innovators in their own right, taking on the uncertainties of innovation through direct policy design, experimentation and implementation activities inside government (Karo and Kattel, 2018). Arguably, governments already support experimentation through the different initiatives and programmes within their STI support portfolios. Some have also started to spur on experimentation directly inside government to devise more innovative services and develop technology. For example, central banks and financial authorities are actively exploring blockchain technologies to support their operations (Berryhill et al., 2018). Among others, NESTA’s Innovation Growth Lab and the European Union’s Joint Research Centre’s Policy Lab have been supporting experimentation in innovation policy for some time.8 Some commentators have also called for experimental government to meet the policy challenges of today’s world (e.g. Breckon, 2015; Mulgan, 2013). They argue that public authorities will need to experiment more and learn iteratively, to gather knowledge and evidence on what works or could work better in a more cost-efficient manner. Many governments are already exploring ways to create “safe spaces” for experimentation inside the public sector, helping civil servants to contend with the uncertainty connected to experimentation processes, and sometimes giving them an explicit licence to fail (OPSI, 2017a). For example, both Canada and Finland have recently adopted formal frameworks to support experimentation within their respective central governments (Box 11.4).

Box 11.4. Central government support for experimentation

Experimentation has been a part of some countries’ policy design for some time. For example, What Works Centres in the United Kingdom have been collecting and evaluating evidence from randomised controlled trials since 2013. More recently, central governments, e.g. in Finland and Canada, have begun supporting experimentation in the public sector more explicitly.

Experimentation programme in Finland

In 2015, the Finnish Prime Minister’s Office of Finland employed a combined systems and design thinking approach to develop a new policy framework for experimental policy design. As a result, experimentation was incorporated into the strategic government programme and an experimental policy design programme was set up. The new approach to policy design allowed both broader “strategic experiments” (formalised policy trials) – e.g. the universal basic-income experiment – and grassroots experiments, designed to build up an “experimental culture” in the Finnish public sector. In addition to the original six strategic experiments introduced by the Finnish Government, hundreds of experiments and policy pilots have emerged across the country, at both the central and municipal levels. In 2017, the Finnish Government launched its digital platform, Place to Experiment, to promote an experimental culture aiming to develop innovative public policies and services. This work is monitored and supported by the Experimental Finland Team in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Experimentation directive in Canada

In 2015, the Prime Minister of Canada issued a mandate to the President of the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat to support experimentation in government. In late 2016, the mandate was further clarified by a subsequent directive on experimentation, produced by the Treasury Board Secretariat and Privy Council Office. The experimentation directive explicitly linked experimentation to more effective policy making, and called for government departments to allocate part of their programme funding to experimentation.

Sources: OECD (2017e), Systems Approaches to Public Sector Challenges: Working with Change,; OECD (2017c), “Embracing Innovation in Government: Global Trends”,; Government of Canada (2016), “Experimentation direction for Deputy Heads – December 2016 ,

Building government platforms

Policy making is becoming more data-driven (OECD, 2017f). For countries that are digital frontrunners, the next wave of innovation inside government will rely on new services and solutions, built on linked data, advanced data-processing capabilities, real-time data analytics, and new ways of combining and making sense of information.

Mobile-data collection and advances in real-time data processing will shift policy design from “descriptive” to “predictive”, and thereafter to “prescriptive” (Chong and Shi, 2015). Algorithm-based decision-making models are already used in policing and public-space management. Governments are now using them as part of the STI policy portfolio, e.g. to enable better trademark protection in Australia and beyond (Box 11.5). Some are also using text mining, mapping and visualisation tools to monitor innovation, e.g. in the context of the European Commission’s Tools for Innovation Monitoring project.9

Box 11.5. Australian Trade Mark Search

Over 80% of an average company’s value is rooted in its intangible assets, including brands and trademarks, which represent a business’s identity. A good trademark identifies a unique product or service in the marketplace. However, the steps necessary to ensure the uniqueness of a company’s brand are difficult and time-consuming. IP Australia, the government agency that administers a number of intellectual property (IP) rights in Australia, launched Australian Trade Mark Search to help businesses protect their intangible assets. Powered by industry partner Trademark Vision’s image-recognition and AI technology, the solution provides security for businesses by protecting their most important assets, with significant global applicability. The search function was developed as a platform for continuous improvement over time, as user needs, expectations and technical capabilities change. The success of the initiative in enhancing brand identities has led IP Australia to expand the technology to other IP domains. The next public-facing IP Australia search solution will be Australian Design Search, which will allow users to search registered industrial designs using images.

Source: OECD (2018), “Embracing Innovation in Government: Global Trends 2018”,

The biggest trend combining all of the above-mentioned technological functionalities is the increased presence of platforms in both the economy and government (Tõnurist, Lember and Kattel, 2016; Teece, 2018). Platforms facilitate transactions by creating trust and accountability. In the future, innovation through and within government (and, arguably, STI policy implementation) will be influenced by the idea of Government as a Platform (GaaP). New platform-based service designs are already emerging (Box 11.6). In China, for example, the WeChat platform numbers more than 800 million individual and 20 million company users; it combines multiple platforms into one app, with a variety of (private and public) functions and services built into the platform.

Box 11.6. GaaP and the case of eResidency in Estonia

The concept of GaaP envisions that government uses digital technologies “to support the resolution of collective action problems at various levels (city, county, national, regional) through shared software, data and services – and thereby improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government and governance, doing more for less” (Margetts and Naumann, 2017). GaaP rests on the idea that citizens themselves may be involved in delivering digital government through platforms provided by governments, beyond what might be termed the “vending-machine” model of government, where taxes are exchanged for services.

One of the most innovative (albeit contested) GaaP examples is Estonia’s eResidency programme. Adopted in 2016, it allows a non-resident of Estonia to apply for (limited) residency, making it possible to use digital public services (such as establishing a company and filing taxes) without being physically located in Estonia. Collaboration is easier among public organisations and private companies that have subscribed and use Estonian e-identity systems. Finland will soon start to use similar data-exchange platforms. Estonia’s eResidency can be seen as the first major GaaP proof-of-concept case, allowing new forms of identity and service use beyond governments’ traditional remits.

Sources: O’Reilly (2010), “Government as a Platform”; Margetts and Naumann (2017); Lember, Kattel and Tõnurist (2018), “Technological Capacity in the Public Sector: The Case of Estonia”.

Anticipating disruptive change

Earlier sections of this chapter have outlined the disruptive nature of existing technologies. Much larger changes are on the way, e.g. autonomous vehicles, drone technologies, blockchain and widespread IoT solutions (see Chapter 2). Governments need to anticipate these changes and consider their implications for public policy. New technologies offer opportunities to improve economic efficiency and quality of life, but they also bring many uncertainties, unintended consequences and risks. Anticipatory governance (see Chapter 10) acts on a variety of inputs to manage emerging knowledge-based technologies and the missions built upon them while such management is still possible (Guston, 2014). It requires government foresight, engagement and reflexivity to facilitate public acceptance of new techno-sciences, while at the same time assessing, discussing and preparing for their (intended and unintended) economic and societal effects. Anticipatory governance considers risk – especially systemic risks – over extended timeframes, and develops the capacity to mitigate uncertainty (e.g. through critical infrastructure and wealth funds).

The benefits and risks of new technologies do not generally befall the same people. Anticipatory governance requires governments to consider which public values should be preserved during the change process, and how technological change – e.g. the adoption of disruptive technologies – affects public values (Box 11.7). Reliance on traditional policy tools is difficult in situations where the future direction of technological innovation cannot be determined. New policy tools – such as normative codes of conduct, regulatory sandboxes and real-time technology assessments – are therefore necessary (Stilgoe, Owen, and Macnaghten, 2013); Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom, for example, have adopted regulatory sandboxes.10 This means that government must better operationalise foresight and upstream engagement with technology developers and lead users.

Box 11.7. Regulating the sharing economy: The experience from Canada

In 2014, the transportation network company Uber started operating in Toronto without specific regulatory oversight. The city had to move quickly to implement new regulation and appease the alarmed incumbent industry. To tackle the regulatory challenge and simultaneously preserve the beneficial aspects of a sharing economy, MaRS Solutions Lab served as an independent arbiter, facilitating productive dialogue between the different stakeholders. Utilising systems thinking and design methodologies, the Toronto-based innovation lab proposed a user-centric vision for the regional sharing economy, highlighting the increased public value accompanying the disruptive change. It also helped develop new legislation enabling the city and its citizens to both regulate and benefit from new entrants that disrupt old businesses.

MaRS Solutions Lab developed the “Periodic Table of System Change”, a framework for understanding the various elements required to navigate and alter complex systems. The method acknowledges it is not enough to tackle policies and provide solutions for systems to change. For the process to succeed, systems thinking must tackle the capacities of different stakeholders, and how they understand the problems and values connected to them. As part of an anticipatory process, the method also discussed possible future values connected to technological change. To regulate the sharing economy, the City of Toronto needed new competencies, as well as the capacity to understand the newly emerging service models and deal with the unintended consequences. It also had to reframe policies regarding insurance, taxation and market entry. As governments continuously face increasingly complex problems, these insights play a central role in initiating and implementing change.

Sources: OECD (2017e), Systems Approaches to Public Sector Challenges: Working with Change,; OECD (2017c), “Embracing Innovation in Government: Global Trends”,

Adopting systems thinking in STI policy making

The design of STI policy is as important as the solutions it seeks to provide, especially in a context of accelerated change. The increase in data analytics alone will force policymakers into real-time decision-making. How should policymakers manage these situations so that they are not locked into reactive policy designs? How can they manage technology upstream and govern innovation in the making, while still demonstrating strategic intent? What do adaptiveness and reflexivity look like in practice? Although many tools and methods exist today to engage in iterative and agile policy making, they should come together more systemically at some stage.

Systems thinking (Box 11.8) is not new to STI (OECD, 2015b). Analysis of “innovation systems” is pervasive, covering national, sectoral and technological perspectives. Yet such perspectives have proven difficult to operationalise in policy settings: they are mostly retrospective and tend not to outline or analyse the real-time choices facing policymakers. An ecosystems-based approach to how government manages innovation both internally and externally is necessary, coupled with the ability to use systems thinking not only as a descriptive, but also as a transformative tool inside government (OECD, 2017e). Some governments and international organisations are building scenarios integrating “socio-technical transitions” to respond to sustainability challenges (Geels, 2004; Geels, McMeekin and Pfluger, 2018). Similar to systems thinking, the concept of socio-technical transitions considers the roles of markets, user practices, policy and culture in the development of new technologies, in addition to the “politics of transitions” (Lawhon and Murphy, 2012). The Swedish Government has used socio-technical roadmaps to determine which large-scale investments it should make in its strategic innovation programmes (Coenen et al., 2017). Austria used them to develop its Industry 4.0 programme.

Box 11.8. Systems thinking and the public sector

Systems thinking is an interdisciplinary approach to understanding how different parts of a system relate to each other, how systems work and evolve over time, and what outcomes they produce. Systems change is an application of that thinking to real-world situations. Systems approaches have developed over the last 75 years to include general systems theory, dynamic systems theory and cybernetics. However, although other sectors have embraced systems change, it is far from established in the public sector, which has only shown interest in applying systems approaches more rigorously in the past decade. In its 2017 report, Systems Approaches to Public Sector Challenges: Working with Change, the OECD proposes several tactics for systems change.

Source: OECD (2017e), Systems Approaches to Public Sector Challenges: Working with Change,

Lacking system stewardship and clarity, innovation in government will fall back on individual organisations and policymakers. While this may produce pockets of excellence, it will not result in a balanced portfolio of innovative activity inside government. At the OECD, the OPSI is working on these issues as it reviews public-sector innovation.11 As part of the review process, a new model of how governments innovate internally in policy making is emerging (Figure 11.2). The model involves individual, organisational and systemic elements, and incorporates ways for governments to steward and interact with the system at each level.

Figure 11.2. Determinants of innovation in the public sector
Individual, organisational and system levels
Figure 11.2. Determinants of innovation in the public sector

Note: The model is based on a grounded-theory approach as part of the empirical analysis accompanying the review on the Innovation System of the Public Service of Canada. (forthcoming).

Embracing new skills and capacities

To adopt and adapt to the new policy tools and approaches described in this chapter, policymakers need different types and combinations of skills, as well as the organisational capacities to lead and work with change (Lember, Kattel and Tõnurist, 2018). The OPSI has outlined six core skills supporting increased levels of innovation inside the public sector (Figure 11.3). Officials working in a modern 21st-century public service will need to be aware of these core skills in order to support increased innovation in the public sector. However, based on the different types of innovation (e.g. user-centric, mission-oriented or anticipatory), more specific combinations of skills and organisational capacities will be needed. The new tools and methods described in this chapter can help design better policies, but only if they are applied correctly and to the right occasion. For example, while calls have been made for more targeted, challenge-based approaches to STI policy – e.g. the European Commission’s new narrative around missions (Mazzucato, 2018) – rapid change significantly raises the risk of lock-in and makes directionality more difficult. This may require different organisational solutions for adaptive and mission-oriented innovation, or different models for balancing the two in practice.

Figure 11.3. Six core skills for public-sector innovation
Figure 11.3. Six core skills for public-sector innovation

Source: OPSI (2017b), “Core skills for public sector innovation:

A beta model of skills to promote and enable innovation in public sector organisations”,

Future outlook for STI policy design

Governments are facing a fundamental sea change, brought about by the increased complexity of socio-technical challenges, globalisation and the digital transformation. Many STI policy challenges are no longer in the hands of single governments. Rather, they are dispersed among networks of governments, innovators, private platforms and users. STI policy will need to tap into new types of demand, new networks and new ways of managing uncertainty. It will have to both provide direction for change (mission-oriented innovation) and adapt to fast-paced changes in technology. If governments do not adapt their operating practices to this new environment, they may become increasingly irrelevant, dysfunctional and disconnected.

With new practical methods of tapping into various dimensions of collective intelligence, STI policy will need to explore more distributed ways of designing and implementing policy. This may mean leaving space for people to experiment and test new solutions by themselves, without direct government involvement or control over the process. The risks connected to this approach should not be ignored. In some cases, government will need to take back control, if the risks become too large for the system or the safety of citizens themselves is at risk. The political dimension of these new policy design tools should also be considered, since they are not value-free (for example, the use of technology to interact with the larger crowd of lead users or technology developers will invariably influence the power of different stakeholders and governments).

Machine-to-human and machine-to-machine interactions are increasingly taking over not only service delivery, but also policy formulation and evaluation. They are creating new types of evidence (personal, real-time, interconnected, etc.) to evaluate policy effectiveness, as well as new ways of implementing policy (e.g. through government platforms). Part of this process is the personalisation of all government services. While this creates the potential for better-quality, timelier evidence to plan STI policies, it also requires the public sector to become more nimble, targeted and adaptive. STI policy is entering an era where real-time change and implementation becomes actual policy making. Yet governments still need to uphold confidence in the overall public system, maintain its stability and manage the long-term risks connected to R&D investments.

Overall, changes in STI policy making will need to be governed systemically, connecting policy intent with the right tools and capacities inside government. This means that the internal design and implementation of STI policies should also adapt to systems thinking. Innovative STI tools should not only be centralised in dedicated units (e.g. innovation labs and agencies), but should also be used by public entities adopting innovation agendas across the board. More sophisticated, diversified innovation strategies and portfolios for STI policy design and implementation will need to emerge inside the public sector. They should be coupled with the right public-sector skills and capabilities, not only to use new policy design tools for maximum impact, but also to steward systemic change itself.


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← 1. “The fuzzy front end” is an established term in product design and product development, akin to the writer’s well-known “blank page”. In design thinking, various strategies for fuzzy front ends have been proposed (e.g. Cagan and Vogel, 2001).

← 2. For example, Phones Against Corruption in Papua New Guinea developed user mobile-based reporting to monitor corruption anonymously. In Slovenia, the interactive mobile application “Check the invoice” has been used to reduce the shadow economy, with the help of the public. In some cases, voluntary data repositories have been created, where citizens can donate their personal data (Symons and Bass, 2017) so that they can be used to co-create and co-produce new services; the data are processed, maintained and controlled through various blockchain technologies (Berryhill et al.; 2018). Such repositories include the European Union’s DECODE project (European Union, n.d.).

← 3. Hackathons are a form of technological co-creation (e.g. government-sponsored, weekend-long prototyping/coding events for citizens, often based on government-provided open data) and a source of new co-creation initiatives (e.g. apps and other technical solutions enabling further co-creation and co-production). Living labs are a bottom-up approach to testing digital technologies with their users in “in-vivo settings”. They also aim to solve local issues through community-focused civic hacking, workshops, and engaging with local citizens to co-create digital interventions and apps (Cardullo and Kitchin, 2017b; Schuurman and Tõnurist, 2017).

← 4. Technology co-design workshops are a form of participatory design where users and designers express and exchange ideas to develop technology-intensive services (Wherton et al., 2015).

← 5. The OECD defines behavioural insights as “an inductive approach to policy making that combines insights from psychology, cognitive science, and social science with empirically-tested results to discover how humans actually make choices” (OECD, n.d).

← 6. Behaviourally informed regulatory interventions.

← 7. Traditional behaviourally informed bans.

← 8.

← 9.

← 10. The “regulatory sandbox” approach was pioneered by the United Kingdom’s Financial Conduct Authority (2015) to address and control the barriers to entry for Fintech firms – small, innovative firms disintermediating incumbent financial services firms with new technology – in the financial landscape. In 2016, the Authority released its “UK sandbox,” which allowed innovative FinTech development without requiring a full, strict regulatory testing process. The prerequisite of a sandbox is publicly available criteria that actors need to meet as a prerequisite for entry into the sandbox (meaning that only fulfilling certain criteria they can introduce innovations in the domaign). For further information, see:

← 11. The first OECD review of the public-sector innovation system was carried out for Canada and is forthcoming; the second review will cover Brazil and is preparation.

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