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SIE interviews Danish Culture Minister Uffe Elbæk

Uffe Elbæk’s profile reads:

“Uffe Elbæk […] was born in 1954 and has, as he says, already managed to live several lives since.”

This seems accurate given that, since 1991, Uffe has founded an internationally acclaimed alternative business school, run one of the largest sporting events ever held on Danish soil, and been appointed to Danish government.

KaosPilots, founded by Uffe in 1991, teaches in the fields of leadership, new business design, process design and project design for challenges in business, society and organizations, has been nominated as a top design school by Business Week, and has inspired schools in countries such as Australia, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and The Netherlands.

The 2009 World OutGames, for which Uffe Served as CEO, attracted around 8000 athletes and participants with the aim of supporting “the creation of an inclusive, globally recognized, integrated gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered association that celebrates, supports and promotes our culture through sport.” (

On 3 October 2011 Uffe was appointed Minister for Culture in Denmark in the Cabinet of Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

And, as if he didn’t already have enough to do, Uffe has also opened a consultancy called Change the Game, where he has given himself the title “Senior Troublemaker and Solution Finder,” because, as his distinctly personable Linkedin profile quips: “that is his job these days.”

You’ve achieved a great deal across a range of projects which, superficially, seem quite different. What connects these pieces of work for you?

The way I see it, the projects, initiatives and organisations that I have headed during 30 years – from the Front Runners to KaosPilots and OutGames and now in my role as Minister for Culture – have all had a common thread: Creating greater personal freedom and greater social responsibility through social innovation. For me, this means working for a society where the individual citizen has the intellectual capacity and the cultural and social insight as well a well-functioning creative gene to create the life that he or she wants to live. Of course, this means that from time to time I have had to challenge traditional structures of power and well-cemented traditions and habits. But it has been worth the struggle!

What inspires you to take on new projects? How do you know when it’s the right time to leave a project in someone else’s hands?

Whether I’ll say yes or no to a project depends on three things: Is it attractive? Is it challenging? And is it realistic? For me, it is not sufficient that I can say yes to one or two of these questions. It has to be all three of them.

When do I know if it’s the right time to leave a project in someone else’s hands? The earliest possible time to leave a project is when the project has reached it’s first decisive tipping point. This means when the project goes from it’s first developmental phase to when it reaches a point of organizational maturity with both professional, economical and organizational sustainability.

That’s the way it was with the Front Runners and the KaosPilots. Outgames had a different dynamic in its leadership, because the event had a definite timetable. I knew when the project started and stopped. What I didn’t know was whether it would be come a success or a failure. Thankfully it turned out to be the first.

By the way, I’ve never had a planned strategy for my career. The development in my professional career has been organic. One project has taken me on to the next project. The Front Runners gave me the experience and the courage to start the KaosPilots. And the experience from the KaosPilots made it realistic to accept spearheading OutGames. And OutGames created the public platform in Copenhagen that made it possible for me to be elected for the Danish parliament.

This means that the list of the leadership positions I’ve had during the last 30 years is first and foremost a reflection of my own personal journey. I feel that life has given me the right challenges with the right timing and it has allowed me to meet the challenges in cooperation with the right group of people. There have been plenty of ups and downs, but I have never regretted a single choice I have made.

The stated purpose of the KaosPilots programme is “positive social change through personal growth.” What is the relationship between the KaosPilots programme and the concept of social innovation? What is your personal relationship to the concept?

To me the KaosPilots were one of the first serious attempts at creating an educational program in social innovation. The special thing about the KaosPilots was that the school didn’t grow out of an already existing academic institution. It grew from down below. It grew from all our experiences in the cultural grass roots organization The Front Runners. The KaosPilots do not only teach about social innovation. The KaosPilots are social innovation. They represent a new understanding of what motivates individuals to learn and to unfold their unique, personal talents. Finding their own voice, so to speak. I have neither before nor since seen an educational institution that to that extent was able to let the students’ very best shine through. It is really a very special educational institution that attracts some very special students. Specifically I mean that it attracts creative outsiders with an excellent work ethic. That is the combination that creates tomorrow’s socially conscious entrepreneurs.

As the 2012 Olympic Games come to a close in London, everyone is asking “what will the legacy of these games be for citizens of the UK?” What was the legacy of the 2009 World OutGames? Have they had a lasting social impact in Denmark? Internationally?

When the secretariat was established at the beginning of 2007 to take on the task the City of Copenhagen had given us – namely to develop, plan and run WO – the management was also in agreement that “just” delivering a once-off event was not in itself a success criterion. Of course we also had to do just that. But we also decided to look at the job of holding WO as a potential entrepreneurial and attitude-forming strategy for the city.

In other words, that the city’s various different players should be able to use the event as a strategic springboard to move forward organizationally, politically, culturally and from a business point of view in their own development processes. So how could these players use WO as a testing ground for new ideas, new products, new partnerships and new communication strategies, etc.?

But just as important as it was for WO to be understood and thought of as an entrepreneurial strategy for the city (financial growth), it was just as important, as mentioned, that WO should be seen as a attitude-forming strategy for Copenhagen (social and cultural growth). This twin focus had a lot of influence on the way the event was organized, communicated and run. Or as we said it to each other in the secretariat: “World Outgames must be consciously used to upgrade Copenhagen: financially, socially and culturally”.

So was the strategy successful? It would appear so. Because if you take the following few selected “upgrade items”, you can see WO as a good example of how politics can use an event as an “upgrade engine” for the local community where that event is to be held.

Outgames lead to the renovation of Østerbro Stadium and a new swimming arena at Bellahøj. Investments in facilities which will be of benefit to the local people for many years to come. But there was also another – and perhaps just as important upgrade to the infrastructure – namely the experience of making more proactive use of public spaces for a large international event.

The local LGBT community in Copenhagen was strengthened both culturally and organizationally.  People are now more confident about their own strengths and purpose, which can be seen in new, promising projects already launched.

WO also meant that completely new working relationships were created. A good example was the anti-hate campaign which was developed in the run-up to and during the WO. A campaign conceived and implemented in close cooperation between the Copenhagen Police, the City of Copenhagen, the Danish Institute for Human Rights, the National Association of Gays and Lesbians and WO. This partnership is just one of the many new inter-organizational links which have come about between LGBT and mainstream organizations as a result of WO.

The National Association of Gays and Lesbians has for many years sought a national survey of LGBT living conditions as seen in for example Norway, Sweden, Netherlands or the UK. Only with the arrival of WO was it possible with the support of the City of Copenhagen and the Tryg Foundation to undertake Denmark’s first national living conditions survey.
The results from the survey were presented at the human rights conference during WO and are a contributing factor to both local and national politicians for the first time having a serious basis for decision-making about potential new legislation in the area.
In addition, Copenhagen Police have decided that in future all attacks on lesbians and gays and transgender people will be documented systematically. This is partly a consequence of the survey and partly because of the hate crimes during the actual WO week.

For the first time ever in the history of Denmark, an established cultural history museum included LGBT (cultural) life in its program as part of WO. It was at the Museum of Copenhagen, which produced the “Som jeg er/As I am” exhibition. An exhibition about more than 200 years of LGBT life in the Danish capital, and a chapter of the city’s history never previously covered or therefore presented to a wider audience. The project consisted partly of a special exhibition of newly-collected contemporary and historical material and partly of exhibits the museum already had in its collection.

The large amount of positive feedback from local Copenhagen people was like an echo of the “reviews” which the numerous foreign journalists, participants and artists gave Copenhagen during the WO week. They were unanimous in being impressed by the city’s hospitality, openness and tolerance. Not least the way the city made its squares, streets, canals, harbor and beaches available for an event such as WO. In fact the way the whole city supported WO, from the Lord Mayor to ordinary people in the street, made a big impression on the numerous visitors from abroad. This very much strengthened the identity both within the city and outward to the surrounding world. The people of Copenhagen became happier and more proud of living here. And the many thousands of visitors from abroad could be convinced about the high quality of life Copenhagen actually has by being able to experience it at close quarters.

The terms ‘social innovation’ and ‘culture’ don’t often appear in the same sentence, despite their common goals of social development. Does social innovation have a place in the Ministry of Culture? What is the Ministry’s theory of change?

I’ve only been minister for culture for about a year. Ask me again in a year, and I’ll give you the answer! But I can already now say that we’re working on it, and we’re getting practical experience with change and innovation. At any rate it is my ambition that the Danish Ministry of Culture becomes not only the most dynamic, most globally oriented and most action-oriented ministry in our part of the world. But that we in addition become the ministry that everybody wants to work with because the ministry is filled with of a sense of generosity. Because we want to share our experiences with everybody who wants to take part. So please contact us - anytime.

You’ve had a career which, from the outside, seems to have moved from strength to strength. Have there been times when you’ve doubted your ability to create positive social change? Are there times when you’ve been challenged? What has helped you move through those times?

Of course I have had moments of deep doubt. Both of my own capacity and of the relevance of the projects. But fortunately I have been surrounded by good colleagues and co-workers. And it is my experience that it is the total power of the team that in the end decides whether we can overcome the conflicts and challenges we are facing. At the same time I have made it a priority for many years to have an able coach on hand to guide me if I should lose the big picture. In my latest book, Leadership on the Edge, I have written a whole chapter on exactly that problem. So please buy the book when it comes out in English.

What’s next for you?

I am not sure. As a top-level politician you can never be sure when you’re put out of work. Your government might fall or you’ll be replaced by somebody else or you might not get re-elected at the next election. You know when you got the job, but you never know when you might lose it. This means that you have to make an effort to make a difference when you’re in a position like mine. On the other hand I can tell you already now that I am no career politician. So if I am not to be minister for culture, I am sure that life will give me some other deeply meaningful challenge. I am ready for that moment, when it arises. So if there are any of you out there who have a challenge in mind, please let me know.

Contact the Danish Ministry of Culture here: