Scottish Government inverts tech procurement to help public sector buy ‘what you do not know exists’

The CivTech scheme starts with a problem, not a solution, and encourages public sector agencies to work with start-ups and entrepreneurs to develop ideas

Preventing the persecution of birds of prey in the Cairngorms National Park (pictured here) was one of the challenges set during CivTech 2.0  Credit: postdlf/CC BY-SA 3.0

It’s a feeling familiar to most of us; you’ve weaved in out of the hordes on the high-street and outflanked the other sale-rack hawks and finally found exactly the shirt, or dress, or pair of shoes you were looking for – and at the right price, too.

You excitedly try it on. Only to realise that, while it somehow makes a headless fibreglass figure appear poised and stylish, it looks dreadful on an actual human body. 

You move onto the next store. And the next. And the next. Until you go home, tightly wound and empty-handed. Or, worse still, in possession of £40’s worth of garment you’ll wear once and dislike for evermore.

Shopping is difficult – even when you know exactly what you’re looking for.

But imagine scouring the shelves for a product that you have never heard of or seen before – and may not even exist yet. And, what is more, you’re shopping with taxpayers’ money, and working under all the strict governance procedures that apply to government procurement.

While this may sound like the basis for a recurring anxiety dream, it is, essentially, the remit of the Scottish Government’s CivTech programme.

The scheme is designed to help public-sector customers use new and innovative technology to solve their service-delivery or operational challenges, while supporting local start-ups and entrepreneurs. And all in a way that minimises risk and cost for all parties.

CivTech challenge sponsor manager Barbara Mills says: “When you have a situation where you have specs that take a year to write, then six months to procure, and another year to roll out – how you can you procure what you do not know exists?”

Rather than tendering for a solution, the CivTech programme starts the process by outlining a problem to be solved. Public sector organisations across Scotland can submit challenges, to which companies or individuals are invited to respond with a proposal for how technology and services could help. 

Value of the contracts awarded following the CivTech 2.0 Demo Day

Number of new jobs created across the companies that took part in CivTech 2.0

Public sector organisations are encouraged by CivTech to “embrace the F-word”, and use the procurement process to pursue innovation without fear of not succeeding 

New investment attracted by the firms that participated in CivTech 2.0

Wednesday, 16 January 2019
Date of demo day for CivTech 3.0


Challenges that were posted during the second iteration of the scheme – dubbed CivTech 2.0 – included combatting bird of prey persecution, tracking visitors to historic tourist sites in remote areas, creating a better appointment-booking system for outpatients, and using data “to create the most positive perception of Scotland” across the world. 

“We start with a problem, not a solution – that is critically important,” Mills adds. “We work with lots of different organisations that might come to us saying ‘we want drones’ [for example], or another particular piece of technology. But we try and work in a way where we are focused on a problem.”

Rate of acceleration
Once challenges have been set and applications been made and analysed, three firms, teams or individuals are selected for each challenge to go through to an exploration phase. Each of these is given a £3,000 contract to work through their idea over a five-week period. 

One or more of these ideas may then be chosen to progress to an accelerator stage, where £17,000 will be invested in four monthly tranches to develop a demo. At the end of the process, a prototype product can be produced using 3D-printing facilities. Organisations selected for the accelerator are expected to base their work at CivTech’s offices in Edinburgh.

The culmination of the programme sees the resulting products presented at a demo day, which this year took place in January. The event saw nine teams present their solutions to seven challenges.

At this point, it is up to the organisations that set the initial challenges whether they choose to invest up to £100,000 in rolling out the product. Indeed, Mills says that the programme can break off at any time during its various stages if it becomes apparent that “there is no viable solution” to the challenge in question.

But the two iterations of the programme so far have each seen more than £1m in contracts awarded to the successful teams. More than 50 jobs have also been created, and the participating companies have attracted hundreds of thousands of pounds of investment.

During the pilot scheme of CivTech which concluded in January 2017, all six winning teams secured contracts with their challenge sponsor. 

One of these was Edinburgh start-up Learn To Love Digital, which created the Highland Discovery app to help Transport Scotland with its challenge to promote tourist destinations on the A9. An 80-mile section of the road is in the process of being converted from single to dual carriageway in a £3bn scheme.

“The challenge Transport Scotland set was how we can limit the impact on communities on either side, who will lose footfall as a result of the faster roads,” Mills says. “The app has sites of interest and activities for children in the nearby area. It even has things like recipes for shortbread, and local cafés where people can buy it. This then diverts visitors off to those counties that would otherwise lose a lot of footfall.”

The challenge of how to reduce the number of raptors being shot in the Cairngorms National Park was met with a solution from Rapungi, a start-up that has created a monitoring system for the park’s raptors. The technology alerts staff when a bird has died and where, allowing to take action quickly and better understand the problem.

Aberdeenshire-based data-science company DeepMiner has created a business-intelligence offering that allows news stories about Scotland to be found and analysed more quickly, and maps potential outside investment avenues onto the key skills and strengths of the business sector across the country. This technology was designed to solve the challenge set by Scottish Enterprise of how to harness data to promote a positive image of Scotland throughout the world.

Challenges for CivTech 3.0 will be set shortly, with application, sifting, exploration, and accelerator phases following over the course of the year. A date is already set for the next demo day in January 2019.

“We work with lots of different organisations that might come to us saying they want a particular piece of technology. But we try and work in a way where we are focused on a problem”
Barbara Mills, CivTech

The CivTech programme will also be expanding its remit in the coming months, and launching an “intrapreneurship” programme that aims to embed the scheme’s agile and entrepreneurial ethos and disseminate it across a wider public-service landscape.

“We want to take the principles and use them with the public-sector leaders that are working with us,” Mills says. “There are things [in our programme] that can be rolled out not just in an innovation project, but when people are looking at service delivery.”

Mills was speaking at the recent Public Sector ICT summit, hosted this week in London by PublicTechnology parent company Dods.


Sam Trendall

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