Dr. Shalini Vajjhala

Founder & CEO, re:focus partners + Co-founder @_The_Atlas Marketplace + nonresident senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. Former EPA…but current resilience renegade. PhD in Engineering & Public Policy and B.Arch in Architecture from Carnegie Mellon University.

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.

Spark Innovation in Your City with These Two Steps

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.

Step 1: Craft an Airtight Problem Statement

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.

Crafting airtight problem statements is essential for cities that want to attract innovative solutions.
A large part of the agenda of the first day-long Procuring Resilience workshop at the Kresge Foundation in May 2018 was spent crafting city problem statements to encourage innovation.

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.

The Ansari X Prize problem statement encourages innovation.
The Ansari X Prize is an excellent example of how an airtight problem statement can encourage innovation.

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.

 

Step 2: Know Your Resources

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:

  • Do you have lots of baseline data and/or technical information on hand about the problem you are trying to solve or not much at all?
  • Is there a dedicated budget or funding available to address the problem?
  • How many technical experts (internal staff or external consultants) can you easily tap into to help solve this problem?
  • How much flexibility do you have in your current procurement process to offer non-monetary incentives (e.g. demonstration site access)?

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.

Details about an "easy" level of difficulty for a procurement process.

Details about a "medium" level of difficulty for a procurement process.

Details about a "hard" level of difficulty for a city procurement.

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.

Next up…

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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Access the procurement toolkit for free

This free toolkit can help your city attract new ideas, partners and resources to address its biggest challenges. 7 U.S. cities have already piloted the toolkit with great success.

Rest assured: we will never share your contact information.

Request Received!

Check your email for the ✨magic✨ button to your toolkit – the email will be from admin@the-atlas.com

Access Granted!

Because you’ve visited with this browser before, here’s direct access to your toolkit!

Remember you can always refer to the email we sent you for the ✨magic✨ button to your toolkit.