NordForsk: Interview of Mikko Rask

Governments and municipalities across the globe are facing a series of crises. How do we deal with them?

Link: NordForsk (
Published: 30.03.2023

The research project Collective Intelligence through Digital Tools (COLDIGIT) aims to generate new knowledge on innovative digital tools and approaches to help governments manage difficult societal processes in the Nordic Region.

The NordForsk-funded research project COLDIGIT is led by Associate Professor Mikko Rask from the University of Helsinki. He says that the public sector is in a very difficult position right now.

“There are many crises. Everyone knows that there’s an economic and energy crisis going on, alongside the ongoing transformation within the health and social care sectors, as well as the green transition. In sum, there are many challenges that require governments to have more effective tools to address those challenges,” he continues.

“Therefore, we’re looking at how digital approaches and tools might help governments, and municipalities especially, to address societal challenges. At the same time, governments are facing a democratic legitimacy crisis because people are highly sceptical about what they do. That is, governments are in a difficult situation as anything they do is seen in a very, very critical light, and people aren’t interested in getting involved in political matters. Governments, therefore, need new ways to engage their populations and make them interested in public matters. In COLDIGIT, we’re looking at how digital tools can help develop new ways for citizens to participate in public life and society in general.”

How can COLDIGIT specifically help governments in terms of the green transition?

“The green transition is a very good example of an area where COLDIGIT has something to offer. Generally, there are very strict CO2 emission targets. Consequently, the Finnish government has laid down in law that, by 2035, Finland must be CO2-neutral. This very ambitious target cannot be achieved solely by way of a top-down approach – the government needs to mainstream efforts and policies relating to the green transition so that all stakeholders, such as the citizens in municipalities, NGOs, and businesses, are aiming at the same goal.”

“It might seem like an abstract goal. By way of a more concrete example, football clubs need to think about new ways of organising their logistics to avoid unnecessary car use to attend football matches, and so on. Carpooling and digital apps supporting the reduction of the teams’ carbon footprints is just one specific example of how digital tools can help to reduce CO2 emissions.”

Besides the green transition, what kind of transformation is the public sector facing?

“Regarding the transformation of the public sector, more and more academic researchers are seeing a shift from a hierarchical way of making decisions and governing our societies to more egalitarian and participatory models of governance.”

“This means that where once it was the public sector itself that tried to solve these kinds of problems, nowadays a lot of interaction and involvement within the broader societal network is required in order to address these challenges.”

“However, the public sector was constructed as a hierarchy in which authorities usually made the decisions and public institutions had experts who implemented these decisions. In modern societies, however, we have a less hierarchical structure. One could say that the public sector has adopted the so-called co-creation model. This is a theoretical claim that has a good deal of support in academic discussion, but this idea of co-creation is new in the thinking and practices of the public sector, and in terms of the new tools that are needed. We’re therefore also researching how we can identify the tools that are needed.”

What kind of impact do you wish for the project to have?

“One of the primary objectives is to produce recommendations for Nordic municipalities on how to start using digital approaches to support better decision-making and better democratic practices, which is what we call collective intelligence.”

“Furthermore, we want to provide theoretical contributions by analysing how collective intelligence can provide a framework for planning how digitalisation can result in a smoother transformation of governance into models that are less hierarchical.”

“Very concretely, we’re really happy that our Co-creation Radar model, which we’ve developed and tested in three Nordic cities, has had a very positive reception. We’re also especially glad that it has been recognised as a unique model in evaluating and comparing participatory processes. We’re therefore aiming to develop this Co-creation Radar model towards a digitalised evaluation service available for municipalities and other public sector stakeholders given the crucial role that evaluation plays in diagnosing the needs and the direction in which government activities should be developed.”

“In other words, we’re evaluating and giving concrete feedback to cities on how they can create even more successful digital processes.”

What are the key findings so far?

“We’ve already several publications that can be found on our website. However, the most concrete and practical contribution is the report on barriers and enablers in terms of collective intelligence or digital tools. Barriers include institutional skills gaps, rigid regulation, and poor functionality of technologies. Enablers, instead, can be found in, for example, senior champions, strategies and action plans supporting digital participation, and technological best practices. This is a very practical, empirically based study of how municipalities can start introducing digital tools. Examples and case studies of such tools can be found in our Knowledge Platform

“Furthermore, we’ve tested and published our experiences of evaluating participatory processes by using our co-creation radar framework. As an example, we’ve published the final evaluation of the City of Helsinki’s participatory budgeting.”

“We’ve developed automated indicators for evaluating the quality of online processes. And, finally, we’ve published a literature review on collective intelligence, and another is under review for a scientific journal, so we have plenty of theoretical and practical results already.”

What is the Nordic added value of this project, and how do you benefit from working across national borders in the Nordics?

“The Nordic added value in this project is two-fold. First of all, this project couldn’t have been carried out without our current partners, whose skills complement each other. For example, our partners from Norway are specialists in digital technologies, while our partner in the United Kingdom, Nesta, is a specialist in collecting intelligence approaches from very extensive policy networks. We also have the University of Gothenburg with experts in participatory processes that are locally organised, and here at home at the University of Helsinki, we specialise in evaluating these processes. In sum, it’s a perfect match that combines the skills from different institutions in the Nordic countries and the UK.”

“And yet another obvious example of Nordic added value is that we can pilot some similar processes in the different Nordic countries, which helps us to compare and learn from the best practices and difficulties in a very similar context.”

“That is to say, there are a lot of similarities in the Nordic countries. What works in Helsinki is probably something that might work in Gothenburg and vice versa. So, this kind of comparative research definitely provides added value.”