Innovation Heroes: Adapt Or Be Left Behind: How Norway Is Changing Through Innovation

BY GINA SPARROW | 20 min read

Innovation Heroes Episode.2 

Adam Olsen and Truls Berg, Founder & leader of Open Innovation Lab of Norway. 

Open Innovation Lab of Norway's @trulsberg on the current rate of innovation in the Nordic regions, how crowdsourcing is speeding up success, and how innovation readiness is a core ability affecting every sector and industry.  



My name is Adam Olsen from HeroX and I want to welcome you all and thank you for tuning in live to Innovation Heroes. Our mission is to bring you into the minds of some of the most influential people in the world and their work in the innovation space. We're very excited about the space we have and our special guest and partner, the Open Innovation Lab of Norway.


The Open Innovation Lab of Norway is Norway's leading meeting place and network for innovation professionals. It's a community of Norway's most innovative corporations and some of the world's leading open innovation experts. Their goal is to inspire, innovate and share insights in the ways that make their members more successful.


Today we are joined by Truls Berg, the founder and leader of Open Innovation Lab of Norway. Truls is a senior high-tech business executive with unique and extensive experience from three decades of leadership in digital growth companies. Today we have the pleasure of getting insights into the innovation ecosystem in Norway and how organizations are keeping up with the fast pace of global innovation.

So welcome Truls, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy day to join us. Before we get started can you share a little bit about yourself and a bit of the story behind the Open Innovation Lab of Norway?



Sure can do Adam, and thank you for inviting me to this podcast, really happy to be part of it. So hello everyone, and yes, the Open Innovation Lab of Norway has been taking up most of my waking hours over the last 7, 8 years. But before that, my background is that I’ve been in starting up actually 14 different IT companies in Norway. So I guess you could call me a serial entrepreneur. Some have been doing good one IPO, and some other things, but I also spent some time as the chairman of the Norwegian Computer Association and in doing that met a lot of political leaders in Norway.



What struck me as kind of one of the challenges was that a lot of the political leaders really had no idea how you could use IT for really innovative stuff and really doing the leapfrog thing and it was too much. We understand that this is important but we really don't understand what's going on. So to me, the IT aspect was important and that's where I'm coming from but I also kind of woke up more and more often and said,  “wait a minute we need to have IT also standing not only for information technology but also for innovative thinking and honestly it wasn't too much innovative thinking going on.



And too often the CIOs - the people in charge of the digitalization really went crazy. I remember one of them took me aside and said, “you really want us to become more innovative but the truth of the matter is as soon as we have everything working, the last thing we want is someone coming in and saying listen guys I have a brand new idea, I want to do something really brand new.” So I kind of woke up to the reality that we need to address the innovation techniques, the tools, the mindset, and also the whole way of thinking, in a whole different way. 


That's the start of the Open Innovation Lab and we invited some of Norway's leading companies across industries across the sectors, and that's where it all started. Looking at it formally, we started it as a network eight years ago but the real background was based on what I've been doing over the last 40 years.



That's great. I think a lot of our listeners really enjoy understanding where the people's organizations came from and what really ignited the original fire. It's really interesting to hear that it was really founded with a base in IT.



Do you find that as your network has grown and you've adopted more organizations do you find that a lot of them are still focused on innovating around that digitalization? or have you grown to expand in different ways and areas of innovation?



I would say we basically did that more or less out of the box in the beginning. Business model innovation, organizational, customer-oriented, and employee-oriented innovation was with us from day one. And it's so many things you can do without really involving the IT systems at all.

The truth of the matter is that the real benefits of digitalization, or the digital transformation I probably should say, really come when you are involving your employees and your customers and open up this pandora's box of innovation.



I couldn't agree more. You have to get all your stakeholders involved and that's where the little nuggets of inspiration and innovation really come from - the places you don't really expect it.



Fourteen companies later, serial entrepreneur, that's quite the road you've travelled. Where's your passion for innovation? Where did that come from? And what's your favorite part about what you're doing today, supporting all these companies around Norway and the different projects you probably are working on?



My favorite part is this unique opportunity to take an idea that someone has come up with (we have a couple of members…their companies are more than 200 years old and we have some members where they still have yet to celebrate their 10th anniversary) But basically to take this idea that kind of came from somewhere and then bring it forward to the top management of a completely other business that is -I'm not sure what the English word for that is- but it's kind of the pollination. It's a bit like the bumble bee flying from one flower to the other one and that pollination is really, really great to see that happening.



We have a saying at the Open Innovation Lab, I would say, “never leave serendipity to chance”. And obviously by saying that we are aware that that is kind of playing with the words but there are so many fantastic things going on when you are just bringing up that idea saying that ‘okay, I hear what you are struggling with here but this other company did this thing and then they actually turned it around and then they did that instead? And by getting that cross-pollination, we see some really good results coming out of that. And when you can go in and save someone three or six months or a couple of million dollars, it's really fun.



Do you find there's a lot of collaboration between organizations within your network? I know you have your partner ecosystem like for instance our partnership with HeroX where we're here to support your network with crowdsourcing innovation and you have other ones… but do you see collaboration, the pollination… Does that happen between organizations or is it mostly just partners?



No, we actually do see it more and more, but it doesn't really come by itself so you need to be mentoring that part quite a bit. And that's also where we do see that some of the tools are playing an important role and I have to say that in some areas Norway and the whole Nordic region has been quite advanced. I think you probably have listeners from all around the world now, but it's worthwhile to have a look at what's been going on and what is going on in the Nordic sector and in some other areas I would say for example when it comes to the crowdfunding area - one that we probably have been a bit slower.



So that's again one of my challenges is to basically raise the awareness that the right tools can really cut down on the tedious work that is involved with innovating. We basically say that innovating is probably the easiest thing in the world and it's the hardest work in the world. Because everybody that has been in the shower or taking a ride on the bus has had a good idea.



That's not the problem, everybody has had the good idea, but to implement it in a company that is already full of its culture and probably doing quite well and has been doing quite well for a lot of years… that's the most tedious and admirable work that is going on. And to use those tools and use the tools in the right way. We still have a long way to go just to say that, but I would say that some of our members are, they come a long way. We can also see, I would say that the field is kind of widening up here a bit because the leaders, the best ones, are basically running away from the rest of the field.



It really does come down to finding the right tool for the right situation depending on what the organizations are working on. I think the network that you're building on the partnership side and having access to all these different tools that you can then pass along to your network of organizations is a really cool concept and I think it would be great to see more networks like yours developed around the world.



We do see them popping up now and in some areas (ie. the bank finance sector has its network and then the governmental sector has its network) the strange thing with us is that we're going across those and we are trying to include all the different networks. We are not instead. Obviously, if you are a bank, Norway's largest bank is one of our members, we were not telling them that you should not be part of any finance sector network. On the contrary, we think that that's probably very useful, but that is not instead of being part of the Open Innovation Lab of Norway.



So we do see these kinds of networks popping up a bit more often now and that's why I'm actually probably spending more and more of my time now talking to networks in other regions of the world. Which to me is fun and it's also interesting but I have to agree with you, it's about the mindset and then it's also about the skill set and then it's the tool set. So all of those three, if you get those lined up then you can do amazing things.



I just want to take a step back here. To one thing you mentioned previously how a lot of our listeners are global and probably not overly familiar with Norway even myself, I've always pictured the Nordic region as being very progressive and one of the most forward-thinking places in the world as well as one of the most beautiful, but maybe since some of our listeners aren't overly familiar, maybe you could just elaborate a little bit on what the innovation ecosystem is like in Norway right now. I know you are a major producer of oil for Europe as well as aquaculture and fisheries is a major industry for you. Maybe you could just touch on the ecosystem as a whole?



Yeah, okay, well, first of all then, I think you did a good job marketing Norway and the Nordic region here. I think first of all we need to just address the fact that we're only 5.5 million people in Norway. Sweden is almost twice the size and then Finland has almost the same number of people as Norway as well as Denmark. So if you look at the Nordic countries together, we are all pretty small. If you put us together, it's actually the 12th largest economy in the world.



We don't really have the largest population but in some areas quite advanced. We are the second largest I would say fishing nation when it comes to, not when you talk about the producing not only salmon but it's mostly salmon, so we have all the Norwegian fjords. We have a long shoreline as you know, I think Canada is probably the only one that has a longer shoreline than we have, and we're using that. So the whole fishing industry in Norway is a huge economy by itself.



We have also Europe's second-largest oil producer and we’re actually western Europe's largest gas producer. This is obviously important these days when you have the war in Ukraine and everything going on around that, so our gas and our oil is in the North Sea so we have been building up quite a large industry around drilling in large steps. So that’s an important area. 



As a shipping nation, we’re pretty advanced and there's quite a lot of other industries. One that has largely been forgotten outside of Norway is Norway's oldest recycling company - when it comes to recycling bottles and cans and everything that can be recycled - it's a company called TOMRA. They are actually celebrating their 50th anniversary this year and they still have some 68% of the world market when it comes to recycling. So if you look at the Norwegian, especially in the Nordic landscape, we’re pretty advanced in a lot of different areas but not so well-known perhaps in the rest of the world. That's kind of one of our challenges - to be a bit more well known.



So all in all we've been blessed with quite an advanced infrastructure, Norway was the second country in the world except the U.S. and Canada that was connected to the internet back in the heydays. I think only Iceland is above us when it comes to the internet proportion. We are I think 99.8% of Norwegians are connected to the internet and I would say they actually take free internet as - you can't have a hotel or a restaurant or anything today without offering free internet today - that's been the case for the last 10 years in Norway.



And when Norwegians go to the U.S. and we found out that we have to pay for internet, that's kind of for us, it's stepping back into the old days - like using the checkbook - and everything, but I know that this is probably staring up some emotions somewhere, but it's quite an advanced infrastructure which has been a good thing in many ways because we have a lot of services that has been adding up to that.



I certainly know what you mean, having access to the internet and being connected to the world has really become almost a human right these days. One of our last Twitter spaces we held a couple of weeks ago with 100% Open out of the U.K. We spoke quite a bit about how there's a lot of innovation around sustainability right now, a lot of organizations are really putting out ambitious goals to become net-zero. And what we're seeing a lot, especially in our crowdsourcing spaces, how organizations are tackling this is they're building crowds around these ambitious goals or the problems they're trying to solve to really drive the pace of innovation up.



If any of our listeners right now missed that session last week, the recording can be found on our Twitter, you can scroll back a little bit, but what I was thinking is a lot of these industries you touched on the fisheries, agriculture and oil industries, I feel like there's a very large emphasis around sustainability in those industries.



Have you been seeing a big increase in the organizations trying to innovate around sustainable issues in whatever they're doing?



Definitely, and for us, I would say we really got that message four years, five years back. It's not really that new anymore. I'm also leading up the Norwegian committee for innovation management and we are working very closely together with the sustainability and the circular economy groups, because in honesty you cannot do innovation in Norway or in the Nordics in 2022 without including the United Nations Sustainability Goals.



So that's part of the picture and you basically cannot fulfill any of those goals without doing innovation in much better and much better-involved way. So, these things are, are tied together in a very close way. And what we see is that the best one has gotten the message a long time ago and they're running away, some are still more talkers than doers, and I bet you see that elsewhere in the world as well. At the end of the day, that's kind of where the customers will probably be the ones that will be voting with their wallets. That's our expectation.



Yeah, we certainly do see that in a lot of different places. I feel every large corporation has felt the obligation to announce very ambitious goals and that was a few years ago, as the clock ticks on and they're getting closer to that 10-year mark (that they said they were going to be net-zero by) and they haven't really done anything to progress hitting that goal… that's kind of where you see them scrambling to really build some crowds around, or start trying to ramp up the pace of innovation. And that's ultimately what crowdsourcing and open innovation can do because you're getting access to the global crowd of ideas and knowledge, which can drastically amplify what you're doing internally.



I always love working on sustainable projects with our clients. I think it's really rewarding, I think it's super important. I think you are right, nowadays innovation has to have sustainability and I think that's the way everyone's thinking and they do really just go hand in hand.



They do, and they're actually adding to each other as well. I would say trying to do sustainability without adding the innovation magic spark is kind of stupid. They're in need of each other, but they're also adding to each other. And this is again where obviously also then utilizing the crowd is one of those challenges that I would say, our members and other Norwegian companies do have… we still haven't really kind of, gotten the whole gospel on that. That's one of those areas we're working on.



Now I know with all these major exports that Norway has, there's a lot of investment funds in Norway around these industries. How do you find that affects the pace of innovation? Because sometimes when you're putting a lot of money into innovation it can ultimately affect your bottom line in different ways and investment funds might not always be as supportive of that.



Have you found there's a lot of money getting put into innovation because of these investment funds or what are you seeing?



Looking at it from the Norwegian perspective I think this is all good, and when I started my first company back in 1992 (which my kids tell me that's the latest millennial so they try to tell me that I'm getting old and I guess they do have a point) but when I did that back in 1992, nobody in Norway was anywhere near wanting to start a company if they didn't have to. So it's kind of my friends and colleagues well, they kind of felt bad for me because I obviously had to start a company because if I had been able to get a job in any existing company I would surely have done that. I kind of looked at it a bit different. We built up a company and that was eventually brought up by some Americans, but that was kind of the starting point. Over the last 5,6,7 years in Norway there’s been a tremendous boost in that. And you're right, there's more money flowing into that.



And the good thing with that is that instead of just starting a company and then selling it out to foreigners as soon as it's actually starting to work, we now have the possibility to keep the growth going on without losing the company to foreign investors. That has been to me a good thing. On the other hand, it's a global market, the best ones will always be kind of picked up.



So we have some of the international investors looking into what's going on both in Norway and the Nordic region quite often now. And yes, we have south bank and we have the others as well as the local millionaires and billionaires.



But all in all I would say it's become more of a major market where the private equity funds and the others now see the role they're playing in a much better context than they did 20 years back. That was crazy times. Some got funded and some got busted and you never really knew which ones because some of the best ideas never got funded, and some of the most stupid ideas got funding. I have to tell you. It was crazy 10 times.



You've touched on so many different industries; oil, fisheries, banking… you come from the IT world… I know you deal with so many different organizations in your network. Where do you find the biggest changes are happening? in what industries do you find the biggest changes are happening in the Nordic regions right now?



That's it, it's a good question I knew you were going to ask it. Honestly, I would say that if you look closely now you will see that the changes are going on in almost any industry and some of them will tell you that ‘our industry is going through much larger changes than anyone else’. I have some friends in the media industry and they’ve been telling me for the last 10 years, ‘if you really want to see changes look at us.’ but it's not correct.

It’s basically this, the true changes now are going on in any industry, and if you take one of those CEOs aside and say ‘are you really sure where your company and where your industry will be five years from now?’ All the best leaders out there will tell you basically, ‘Truls, we basically don't really have the total picture but we're doing everything we can in order to try to become more agile so that we can accept the change that is going on and then try to use them to our advantage when things are happening.” I know that it would be much more fun to say that look at the energy sector, that's where the big change is, or look at the governmental sector or look at the finance sector… but the changes Adam that is going on in all the different sectors and some of these sectors are basically interacting and merging in in totally new ways as well.



So, where is the bank starting to become an insurance company? starting to become a major conglomerate? And where is the recycling hero starting to become more of a finance thing because they have their new ways of getting paid or paying their customers? The changes are now cross-industry cross-sector and the only way to survive this is to become more agile, more ready to look upon innovation not as some lucky incidence going on, but as a core ability that you need to water and work on. It's a core ability that is really the one that's going to save you in the future.



It’s interesting, it sounds like the organizations are really just connecting the dots where not so much on how they can innovate on what they're doing right now, but how they can bring new innovations to tackle different sides of the business and build out their offerings. I spent some time in the finance world as well so when you said ‘banks offering insurance’ and things like that I went through that first hand, so I certainly am familiar with that. And to me, it's not that long ago when we folks would say ‘Facebook has become so big that nobody can touch them.’ And then we kind of blinked our eyes for nine months and then Tiktok was just bypassing them. When it can happen Facebook (or Meta these days), it can happen to anyone.



So what we are basically telling our CEOs, the members, is ‘be awake, be looking out and be willing to test all things and you don't necessarily have to do everything in-house, that you need to be so open about that you are looking into innovation that when these young guys or older guys are knocking on your door and say ‘we have something we would like you to see’, you should at least spend a couple of days a year looking into it. And if you're smart you are then probably investing a bit into some of them and you should be using the crowd in a much wider and much better way than most of them have been doing over the last 10 years.



Yeah, that’s so true. That's one of the things we say at HeroX. We talk to our clients a lot about it, we always say ‘no matter how smart you are, the smartest people always work somewhere else.’ If you have the mentality that the team you've built is… that there's no one smarter and you can do everything yourself… you're just missing out on a world of knowledge that you never know who could walk through your door with a great idea. It is important to listen to the people that come to you and be proactive and look for those people as well.



We do so much work with NASA and they debatably have the smartest people in the world and have access to anybody coming out of M.I.T. and yet they crowdsource projects - jeez it feels like almost on a monthly basis right now - we have so many things on the go with them. So, if NASA thinks they need help solving their problems when they're sitting there with some of the smartest people in the world, I think everyone should be open to connecting with other people when it comes to innovation.



I second that yes and anything else than really being open to that is kind of I would say borderline crazy. 



Zooming out a little bit from the changes that are happening in Norway. I know Norway is really focused right now on making sure you're keeping up on a global scale. So the changes that are happening around the world my mind instantly goes to oil when we're talking about that because I know everybody around the world is being faced with gas prices going through the roof and these changes in this industry are affecting everybody's day to day lives.



I know you said you see big changes happening in multiple industries in Norway but do you find there's more importance on a couple of industries on a global scale right now, more than others?



Well it's a bit like the pendulum. The pendulum kind of swings both ways.



If you go 4,5,6 years back and nobody in Norway, the smartest students, they didn't really want to work in the oil industry, they didn't want to work in the gas industry because that was kind of ‘old industry’ and all the political leaders of Norway had kind of agreed that we are shutting down ‘okay, which is gonna take us 20,30 years but we are going to shut it down.’ So obviously the students didn't want to work there. I would say the pendulum has now over the last 12 months swung back a bit. Now the whole of Europe is asking Norway to produce more oil, to produce more gas, because obviously the Russian situation is not good. Things are right now in Norway swinging a bit back. Everything that is related to the oil and the gas and the natural minerals situation as well has gotten a lot more coverage, and has become a lot more sexy over the last 6 to 12 months than just going one year back.



The other area is obviously with the circular economy. As I’m sure you know better than most of them were still kind of scratching the surface in that area. We’re still just in the early phase of that, more than 90% of the resources are not currently reused. That is one of those areas where we will see a lot of things happening. I’ll challenge you guys to have a look at TOMRA. The company I mentioned that is this year having their 50th celebration. 


35: 03

I spent 2 weeks down in Tanzania just a couple of weeks ago, as you know. We saw people just drink their coca cola and they just threw away their coca cola can. You never see anyone doing that in Norway because everybody is recycling. The whole world needs to recycle all the resources and that's probably the largest undertaking we're going to struggle with over the next 10 years.



Yeah, I certainly agree. I think that's definitely one of the largest global issues that need some serious solutions and innovations. Recycling and the plastic problem is something that I've always been very passionate about. I’ve done a lot of traveling myself and you certainly do see countries handle it in very different ways and the ones that are handling it poorly it's noticeable. As someone who does a lot of scuba diving and really enjoys and appreciates the ocean, it's very sad to see the state we're in and the direction we're going, with not many solutions in sight.



I know the Nordic regions have always been very conscious of recycling and you're known for having very clean communities and really taking pride in being very sustainable and living that kind of lifestyle.  



Well, yeah, in Oslo which is Norway's largest town, you can know now dive into the ocean and go for a swim in the middle of town… you couldn't do that 20 years ago. So a lot of good things are happening but obviously when you didn’t go out in the world and see what's going on in some other places, we definitely need to step up our game. I would say that's one of those global challenges where we have been dragging our feet way too long.



Yeah, I agree. We probably don't have time to dive too deep into the recycling issue and we could probably talk for ages on this… how much actually gets recycled and how much actually gets exported to different countries that buy your garbage or un-recycled materials is a beast of a problem that really does need some solutions.


I've always preached that the best way to solve this problem is to turn the water off at the tap. I feel like what we're doing right now is ‘we have a bathtub that's overflowing and we keep trying to mop it up. And we really need to turn it off at the start and figure out new solutions where we can get rid of plastics or make more reusable containers… anything we can do at the front end of our packaging to reduce our waste on a global scale.



Crowdsourcing is one of the answers to that, and collaboration, and partnership really can do amazing things and it doesn't really need to take forever either. When you combine those good forces it's a lot easier to be an optimist than if you just try to do everything on your own. At the end of it all, I have to say Adam, even though I'm soon 60 years old, I'm still an optimist at heart when it comes to that we should be able to to do better and we should be able to solve this.



You should go up and have a look at this company its called TOMRA. And they are doing these things now in more and more countries. When they started out 50 years ago, it was two brothers that funded it company, and they told me a couple of years ago… ‘we said recycling the world and put that as our slogan. Nobody, nobody understood what we meant by ‘recycling the world’, nobody had any idea and today ‘recycling the world’ is really something everybody gets it at at the first instance’.



We are moving in the right direction, we need to be better at working together. Collaboration is key, partnership is key and I think that's what you are doing at HeroX and that's what we are trying to do mostly then on the Norwegian innovation scene.



That's amazing. Maybe if you can share that link with me before we get off the call I can share it on Twitter for any of our listeners that might want to check it out as well, that would be great.



Well we are coming up a little bit on our time here. I usually like to try to keep us around 45 minutes because everybody that is listening is busy. But I'd like to finish off with a question, I think you let into it quite well speaking to your optimism that you still have and the drive you have obviously building several companies as a serial entrepreneur, you've got great vision…



Where do you see Norway in the next five years with all the things innovation-wise? or where do you want to see Norway in the next five years?


40:54 Thank you for that question. I want to see Norway as one of those innovation leaders in the world where, even though we are only 5.5 million where we are together with our Nordic neighbors as the 12th largest economy, as I mentioned, where we are taking on not only just a leading role but the leading role in the world when it comes to innovation. 


And basically try to utilize the fact that we are quite well off also moneywise, and taking a much larger responsibility in helping both Africa and other regions become able to then leapfrog so that they don't necessarily have to do all the mistakes we've done over the last 30, 40 years, but where we can kind of get them over into the circular economy thinking way faster.



I think we have an obligation, I think we have the possibility, I think we actually also have the skillset. And with your help and with other great tools help we also have the possibility to be able  to pull that off. It could be true United Nations, it could be through other ways of working, but it definitely has to involve crowdsourcing and new innovative ways, but that's what I hope to see.

That also means that political leaders need to step up their game and I don't think that all our political leaders are all ready to do that, but hopefully, the voters will help sort out those that are actually able to do that. That's my vision,  that's my hope and that's what we're trying to help out doing.



Fantastic vision. It’s no secret that around the world, governments and politics seem to move quite slow. All those pieces are very important to put in place, but I'm so happy to hear that you really feel crowdsourcing and open innovation is the key to this vision that you have in the future. That's what HeroX’s vision is as well.



Open collaboration is the future of work, the future of innovative ideas, and our mission is to bring that around the world.



I think that's time today. Thank you again so much for taking time out to chat with us. I really enjoyed getting the insights into Norway. Myself having Norwegian roots and have never visited there yet, makes me want to come even more now.



We'll make that happen Adam. That should be one of them should be one of the goals, one of the activities.



Yes, yes, for sure.



Well, I know we've got a few projects that we'll have in the future, so I would love to have an in-person conversation next time. We can do one of these live, let's do that.



Let's do that. Let's hope for that. And, and to all your listeners, good luck with your endeavors and we're happy to help out in any way possible.


44:26 or your people can share that with them as well.


44:34Yeah, for sure, thank you.



To all the listeners today to join in live, if you have any questions or anything post-show, please feel free to tweet at us @trulsberg or @iamherox.



You can connect with me directly on Linkedin. Again, my name is Adam Olsen, I'm always happy to chat and continue these conversations online.



Keep an eye out for the recording of the conversation highlights that we're gonna be able to share very shortly after the show. You can send those to your friends or snip audio bits off of the recording. I hope to see everybody at our next Innovation Heroes event on August 15th we will be going live with a special guest that we'll be announcing next week. Until then, thank you so much, and have a great day.


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