New Professional Projects in the Glocal Welfare State?

New Professional Projects in the Glocal Welfare State?

Anders Blok, Inge Kryger Pedersen, Marie Leth Meilvang and Maria Duclos Lindstrøm

In the sociology of professions, it has been suggested that professional services as provided by lawyers, doctors, social workers and others have historically formed a crucial political force in the shaping of Scandinavian welfare states (e.g. Bertilsson 1990). Here, relative to Anglo-Saxon settings, professionals employed by state agencies are understood as acting as important mediators in struggles over the just distribution of citizens’ rights to welfare and attendant claims to wellbeing.

In an on-going research project, we are seeking to update this still important question in the context of the restructuring of the ‘glocal’ welfare state, in which state capacities and professional projects are seen to be undergoing simultaneously ‘upwards’ and ‘downwards’ change (e.g. Brenner 1998). On the one hand, intensified global market competition and the rise of supra-national political agencies are re-directing state sovereignty in new ways. For instance, in the making of a Danish ‘green’ state, climate-friendly technologies like wind turbines are being promoted, both as part of new export markets, but also in response to European and global regulatory shifts. On the other hand, state capacities, to varying degrees, are being re-scaled downwards to regional and local levels. This is partly being led by a desire to promote innovative growth regions at sub-national levels, where particular technological and human capacities are deemed to cluster geographically, such as in medico-tech and design markets. But it is also part of a de-investing of federal state control to promote workable, local, civically informed solutions to the various sustainability challenges – which are social, economic and environmental in nature.

In our research, we direct attention towards how legacies of Nordic welfare state ideology and egalitarian regional policy conditions are being re-routed into new modes of professional working – in relation to the identification with and claims of expertise, practical know-how, and the vital boundary-work that occurs as professional groups must increasingly work together to tackle global challenges (see Blok et al. 2018). Via three cases focusing on climate adaptation, innovation management, and lifestyle-related disease prevention, we show how the nature and development of such inter-professional projects are central in shaping Denmark’s problem-solving capacities around twenty-first century challenges.

New challenges, emerging professional jurisdictions
Starting from Andrew Abbott’s (1988: 20) notion of professional ‘jurisdiction’ as the link between professional groups and the work tasks over which they claim expert authority, our studies detail the emergence, over the past 10-15 years, of new ‘proto-jurisdictions’ for handling global challenges as experienced at the local level. These are arenas in which several professional groups compete and cooperate in order to drive forward local organizational change in the face of new societal pressures.  They do this by mobilizing trans-local networks, standards and ideas in order to reform local practices. These changes are important to investigate as they have direct implications for the ways citizens’ rights are met and affect their livelihoods.

Specifically, our three cases pertain to inter-professional relations between engineers and landscape architects in the work arena of water-related climate adaptation; of doctors and nurses in the arena of lifestyle disease prevention; and of engineers and business managers in the arena of innovation management. As proto-jurisdictions, these still constitute ambiguous arenas where two or more professions must work together to develop and critically sustain new local solutions. Under such conditions of institutional change, we argue, professional groups attain specific socio-political importance, not only for their role in changing workplace routines, but also as leading processes of broader societal change.

Water-related climate adaptation
With heavier cloudbursts and more rain falling as a result of climate change, sewage system capacities in Danish municipalities are buckling under the pressure. Local authorities are therefore turning to emerging alliances between engineering and landscape architectural professionals to find new solutions for handling rainwater on urban surfaces (so-called ‘LAR’). Working out of universities, consultancies and water utility companies, such professional segments are organizing themselves partly via inter-urban networks, learning new ways to cooperate cross-professionally and across municipal sectors, while the national state plays the role of financial facilitator for such regional and urban initiatives.

Under such shifting conditions, landscape architects, in particular, are seeking to establish themselves as an obligatory ‘hinge’ (see Meilvang 2019) between popular political visions of the need to ‘green’ cities and the professional worlds of urban water-related design. While the latter has traditionally been the prerogative of engineers, the fact that landscape architects have positioned themselves centrally amidst administrative concerns for the ‘added value’ of adaptation interventions, in the shape of recreational benefits to citizens, provides them with new sources of legitimacy as partners in these initiatives. Conversely, landscape architectural interventions help local authorities respond to clear citizen demands for more verdant and livable cities in the age of global climate change. Concretely, hundreds of blue-green spaces of varying dimensions, from rain-beds to pocket parks, have proliferated across Danish cities in recent years – giving tangible expression to the glocal welfare state.

Innovation management
Amidst policy concerns for the competitive viability of the welfare state under conditions of globalization, the management of innovation in private and public organizations has emerged as a specialized yet diverse body of expertise. Simultaneously, it has become the source of new projects of ‘corporate’ professionalization amongst segments of engineers, in particular, who are called upon to leverage their skills more directly in the service of technology-driven innovation. The main way this group appears to be affecting change is through developing and facilitating a growing market of MBA educational programmes provided across Danish universities. Here, new organizational models are promoted that seek to crystalize the notion that innovation capacities require both ‘technical’ and ‘business’ competences combined in new ways.

Segments of business-oriented engineers working out of the Danish Technical University (DTU) have actively sought to position themselves centrally in this innovation management arena. They do so by investing in international standard-setting work at European (CEN) and global (ISO) scales, while at the same time deploying new networks, such as the DTU Innovation Forum, as an efficient hinge between Danish university, industry and state concerns. To this end, they have inserted a wedge in the MBA market, promoting the notion of ‘technology management’ as a specialized competence needed for building innovation capacities across all levels of society.

Prevention of lifestyle-related diseases
Reducing the burden of chronic (‘non-communicable’) diseases has become the overriding priority of the World Health Organization (WHO). Like elsewhere, Danish healthcare professionals have been mobilized to identify individuals at risk of developing so-called lifestyle-related chronic diseases. In new hospital-based screening programmes, professionals evaluate the smoking, nutrition, alcohol and exercise habits of in-patients, in the service of preventing or avoid worsening chronic diseases such as type-2 diabetes. Intensifying the logic of health care in a welfare state regime (Bertilsson 1990), such evaluations and their follow-up lifestyle interventions put professionals in the role of mediating concerns for the individual patient’s well-being vis-à-vis those of the ‘body politic’ writ large, as the future costs of lifestyle-related diseases threaten to undermine the system’s fiscal viability.

Amidst recurrent health-political reforms and administrative uncertainties around resourcing and which medical professionals are best placed to meet these new priorities – nurses seem to have stepped into the breach. Nurses’ ‘holistic’ training in the combined biophysical, psychological, and social factors of health and disease, as compared to more specialized medical doctors, makes them well placed to take on this work. Concretely, nurses must learn to speak with, listen to, and motivate at-risk citizens in new ways, many of whom belong to less privileged social groups. As legitimate mediators of the state’s concerns, nurses come to carry significant responsibilities on behalf of a the now glocal welfare state in troubling times – even as the political allocation of resources so far has failed to adequately accommodate this professional vision expressed in such new nursing-led inter-professional endeavors.

Professions mediating socio-political change?
In sum, our on-going research seeks to examine how the twin globalizing and localizing (‘glocal’) reform trajectories found in today’s Danish welfare state are matters not only of political but also, significantly we suggest, of profession-led initiatives to meet these challenges. This, in turn, affects the boundaries of professional identities and skill-sets as well as the forms of collaboration taking place across professional groupings. The service provision offered by an increasing variety of professionals in inter-professional and cross-sectoral ways remain crucial political forces, we argue, when it comes to re-directing the welfare state’s capacities to seek viable local solutions to large-scale global problems.

Meanwhile, the rise of new glocal professional projects serve also to enhance tensions faced by public-sector professionals in times of state fiscal restraints, as resources and responsibilities can often seem mal-aligned to such new tasks and visions. Even more than before, professionals nowadays face challenges in mediating the extremes of social life and organization, from intimate questions of bodily comportment (viz. lifestyle-related diseases) to abstract questions of planetary survival (viz. climate change). Emerging profession-led solutions, we venture, must arise in tandem with and sustain their legitimacy with a citizenry sensitized to these new globalized risks and challenges.

Abbott, A. (1988). The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bertilsson, M. (1990). The welfare state, the professions and citizens. In R. Torstendahl and M. Burrage (eds.) The Formation of Professions: Knowledge, State and Strategy, pp. 114-133. London: Sage.
Blok, A., Lindstrøm, M.D., Meilvang, M.L. and Pedersen, I.K. (2018). Trans-local professional projects: Re-scaling the linked ecology of expert jurisdictions, Journal of Professions and Organization, 5(2), 106-122.
Brenner, N. (1998). Global cities, glocal states: global city formation and state territorial restructuring in contemporary Europe. Review of International Political Economy, 5(1), 1-37.
Meilvang, M. (2019). The professional work of hinge objects: inter-professional coordination in urban drainage. Professions & Professionalism, 9(1) [online first].


Anders Blok is an associate professor in Sociology at the University of Copenhagen. His research and teaching focuses on civic and professional engagements with urban sustainability transitions. Inge Kryger Pedersen is an associate professor in Sociology at the University of Copenhagen. Her research concentrates on health-related issues concerning forms of knowledge and practice within medical technologies and expertise. She has published extensively on lay and professional practice within the health area, including in Sociology of Health & Illness and Social Science & Medicine. Marie Leth Meilvang is a PhD fellow in Sociology at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Her research focuses on climate adaptation and urban planning, and specifically on the role of engineers, landscape architects and urban planners in this process. Maria Duclos Lindstrøm is a postdoctoral scholar in Sociology at the University of Copenhagen. Her current research focuses on professionalization tactics in innovation management projects.

Image: Reprinted from an article by authors in 2018 in the Journal of Professions & Organizations Vol. 5, issue 2.