Open Calls for Solutions – A Must for City Success?

Open calls for solutions is a phrase I hadn’t heard up until 12 months ago. Since then it’s become a regularly used term to describe a new approach to solving those wicked issues (and some much more mundane ones too).

As the economic recession continues to bump along the bottom and, perhaps even more importantly, public sector spending is cut, local authorities (cities in particular) are finding themselves unable to directly fund or commission services. They can now no longer pay for some of the things they might have done, or liked to have done, in the past. In many cases, this has hit the ‘nice to do’ areas of regeneration and development first in order to protect frontline services. But even they are now at serious risk and there simply isn’t enough funding to cover the very basic and important services that citizens have come to expect.

When you cant fund directly but the demand for that service remains it is time to remain fixed on the outcome you are trying to achieve. The most forward thinking cities are doing this. The ‘market’ for that service remains – there is still a value there for others to invest in provided you can demonstrate where, and who, that market is.

This is where ‘Open Calls for Solutions’ might assist.

Open Calls require you to do two things. Firstly, you must accept that your role as a city authority is going to be different in the future. You will no longer be in a position to simply agree an amount of cash you are willing to spend, define what you are going to buy, go out and procure it and then do it all again at the end of the contract. Forward thinking cities are emphasising their role as an enabler, facilitator and agent – focusing on the outcome, not the inputs.

Secondly, and importantly, city authorities need to be able to adequately define their challenges and be brave enough to admit they don’t have the solutions – but are willing to go out and find those who might. And in that process, cities will need to remain open-minded, accept that the solution might be technical, political, economic or an issue of ownership.

Like more traditional forms of procurement, there remains a need to manage the process appropriately and to identify and deal with the risks.

Rather than write lots about the process involved, because they are all nuanced and often quite different, take note of the organisations that are embracing this approach such as The City of York, Barcelona and New York. Take a look at the very interesting case study of the call from the City of Boston, who used the data collected from Boston’s Street Bump app to determine that Boston’s road bumpiness is primarily driven by metal castings that are no longer flush with the road.

These cities have all participated recently in the Living Labs Global process run by Citymart – who use a 7 step process. Others are embracing similar approaches. Closer to home in the UK, the Technology Strategy Board has designed a similar process through their SBRI approach which uses the power of government (local and national) procurement to drive innovation. It provides opportunities for innovative companies to engage with the public sector to solve specific problems.

And that is the key word: specific. The first challenge for any city (read Place) is to be able to define that challenge specifically well enough. The most successful applications of this approach have been able to specify the challenge and the outcome they are looking for. In short – they have been clear what they are looking for. That makes it a whole lot easier for the solutions providers to respond to.

Of course, my view of this is very much from the perspective of ‘commissioning city’ and not as a provider of those solutions. I would be interested in hearing from those organisations (businesses, academic institutions, entrepreneurs) who have sought to provide the solutions. What do you see as the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities afforded by this approach? And what are the pitfalls? How could cities make it easier for you to respond and provide the best solution?

You can see an early example of Sheffield’s experience of this approach in the work we have undertaken with Citymart.com and the Living Labs Global process in 2013. Sheffield has a large amount of industrial waste heat which is currently not utilised and in many cases, ejected into the atmosphere and simply wasted. Our call was to identify solutions to this and we were enthused by the large number of responses we received. Some good, some great. We’re now working with two solutions that we hope will work hand in glove to capture heat from our steel works, sports centres and other heat generators such as energy from waste plants, biomass energy centres and not emit it to atmosphere. You can read about the solutions for Sheffield and the other cities that participated in 2013 here.  

It’s still early days for the ‘open calls for solution’ approach in many cities in the UK. But early experience is promising and presents great opportunities for innovation, product and service development and the creation of new markets that will create employment opportunities and export markets because if it can work in one city the chances are, it will work in another.

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Author: Andy Nolan

An experienced director-level professional with expertise in sustainable development, cities, universities, governance, policy and strategy. 15 years of experience working in the field of sustainability in both the private and public sector. Has worked within a local authority, in multi-authority partnerships locally and nationally. Experience in higher education across four universities in the UK plus representative bodies. Particular areas of interest and expertise include; energy; transport; climate change; waste management; air quality; decentralised energy; education for sustainability; smart cities; knowledge transfer; research.

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