This is the fourth article in a five part series about how procurement can be an entry point for innovation in cities, rather than an obstacle to it. A freely and publicly available procurement toolkit – piloted by seven U.S. cities – accompanies this article series. (Read about the toolkit in the first article in this series here.) This work is the result of a collaborative initiative of re:focus partners and The Atlas Marketplace, funded with the generous support of the Kresge Foundation.
Innovation takes resources. The default assumption is that you need to have resources in hand to be able to talk about procurement of any new innovative solution. Cities need to get away from this idea. Rather than thinking about procurement as the end point of a process, city and utility leaders should look to procurement as an entry point to spark new ideas, attract new partners, and generate new resources. Below are two simple steps that cities can take to start now with the resources they have to jumpstart innovation and build resilience.
Having a problem is not the same thing as having a problem statement. Shaping the right problem statement is an essential first step toward pursuing innovative, resilient, and cost-effective solutions in any city. Because procurement is a means to an end, it can be easy to fall into the trap prescribing a specific solution before really thinking through how a problem can best be framed to draw the most innovative solutions.
For example, if your problem is stormwater flooding, there is a big difference between framing your problem statement as “our city wants to expand green infrastructure” and “we are looking for green stormwater management solutions on public property that can create operating and maintenance savings for our city.” The first is likely to generate ideas that may or may not be practical to implement. The second contains a built-in path to financing and implementation innovation.
Similarly, if your city’s problem is dealing with lead in drinking water, saying that lead pipes must be replaced is very different than a problem statement that focuses on reducing lead exposure from drinking water. The latter allows for a wider set of solutions that can include pipe replacement, but also education, public health interventions, and more.
“Using the toolkit helped us zero-in on the problems we are trying to solve, rather than prejudging the solutions we thought we needed. As a result, CCMUA will be able to draw from a more diverse set of ideas and partners as we continue to address our top priorities, including water quality and resilience.” -Andy Kricun, Executive Director and Chief Engineer, Camden County MUA
Framing a problem too broadly (e.g. address climate change) can be just as ineffective as framing one too narrowly (e.g. install solar panels on City Hall). The Ansari X Prize is a great example of how a tightly framed “big hairy problem” can generate practical, scalable results. This prize “challenged teams from around the world to build a reliable, reusable, privately financed, manned spaceship capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the Earth’s surface twice within two weeks.” Its goal was to jumpstart commercial space travel.
Unlike a traditional call for bidders to submit proposals for a rocket designed to meet pre-set specifications, the X-Prize team set clear boundaries that ensured that the winning entry met the ultimate objective—having a spacecraft capable of safe and scalable commercial flight—but left the process open to allow for real innovation.
Consider the difference between the X-PRIZE problem framing above and this NASA procurement life-cycle.
Innovation is only useful if it produces results you can use. Asking for more information or data than your city has the capacity or resources to review is a surefire way to make poor procurement decisions. Designing your “ask” to match the resources, data, and expertise you have available to address a problem is an important part of getting relevant and actionable responses.
To get a better understanding of your city’s resources, some questions you can ask yourself include:
These questions, and several more, appear in the toolkit associated with this article series.
The goal of asking these questions is to match your city to an appropriate “degree of difficulty” for any given procurement. Each level – easy, medium and hard – is associated with receiving increasingly high-value, but also increasingly detailed and complex responses to a solicitation.
For cities at the earliest stages of tackling a big problem that do not have a lot of capacity or expertise to dedicate to managing a procurement process, the “easy” level of difficulty is the most appropriate starting point. It can be tempting for all cities to default to the “easy” path, but it is important to note that the easy path is likely to provide inspiration, but unlikely to lead to immediate large-scale implementation. Where possible, every city should stretch to the highest practical level of difficulty to get more bang for each buck. The “medium” and “hard” levels of difficulty both require more dedicated resources, staff time, and expertise, but they also have far greater potential upsides, such as attracting solutions that have built in financing options, public-private partnerships, and direct pathways to implementation.
No matter which procurement pathway and degree of difficulty are the best fit for your city, the up-front process of designing a procurement and setting terms takes real roll-your-sleeves-up work. Getting simpler responses that make it easier to evaluate submissions, select winners, and define next steps on the back end of the process can counter-intuitively take significantly more effort up front. Being clear and pragmatic about your existing capacity and resources can help your city attract innovative solutions that you can really use. After all, the greatest innovations are the ones that get done.
The final installment in this article series will highlight 10 insights gleaned from developing this article series, its associated procurement toolkit, and piloting the toolkit with seven U.S. cities. It’ll be published on Thursday, November 15. In the meantime, join the conversation on Twitter!
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