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Five tips for cities to attract innovative start-ups to urban challenges

Partnerships between cities and start-ups can deliver huge benefits but these parties don’t always talk the same language. Judith Schuermans, Simone Ploemacher & Sebastiaan van Herk, Bax & Company, offer some tips for success.


Opening up data doesn’t automatically lead to better public service delivery. Cities should understand that when looking at public service innovation, there are several benefits to applying a challenge-driven approach.


A well-defined city challenge with the right target audience can bring city and solution providers together to develop data-driven products that support the sustainable improvement of public service delivery.


Once the specifics of the urban challenges are clearly set out, there are several ways the challenges and their corresponding datasets can be presented to the market.


One possible next step is to promote them via an open call to which solution providers like start-ups can apply. At Bax & Company, we have gathered the best practices and lessons learnt from both cities and solution providers through European projects like SCIFI and BE-GOOD.


Having worked with cities on a variety of challenges, we have been able to see what does and doesn’t work.


From clearly defining the challenge to making sure you’re reaching the right audience, it became clear that some cities had a better strategy to launch the call than others.


These best practices can prove especially useful for small- and medium-sized cities, who often lack the resources (whether that be manpower, expertise and/or money) to promote their open call.


Here are five of the key lessons we’ve learned so far:


Accurately presenting the challenge is key


To submit a strong offer, it is important for start-ups to fully understand what the city aims to solve. Therefore, it is essential to define a clear context description of the challenge, expected outcomes and results, as well as to provide an up-to-date status on the datasets needed for the start-up’s data-driven solution.


To submit a strong offer, it is important for start-ups to fully understand what the city aims to solve.


Besides these descriptions, a city might want to consider providing extra information via webinars or a video including the challenge pitch.


Furthermore, there should be a specific online location listing solution providers’ FAQs and answers relating to the challenge and application procedure. Start-ups appreciate knowing up front who will be the responsible city official to guide the start-up during the challenge and what their role is within the city.


Providing this kind of information up front will mean city officials end up having to field fewer questions further down the line.


Participants have to know what’s in it for them


Cities are advised to focus on what other benefits start-ups can expect on top of financial compensation when working on a challenge with a city.


One advantage that start-ups consider particularly valuable is the network support that helps increase their (international) market. Cities can connect start-ups to their network of stakeholders and other cities (networks).


Furthermore, cities can offer benefits like improving the understanding of problems and the context of cities as clients. They can also provide information on how start-ups can become involved longer-term – in pilot projects, for example.


In SCIFI, start-ups also receive training from experts on topics such as design-thinking and open data portals.


It’s especially worth underlining these additional opportunities when promoting the open call if a limited budget is available. To boost the attractiveness of the open call, cities should make sure these benefits are made as tangible as possible and emphasised in the communication of the open call.


Remember that most start-ups have a limited capacity



While start-ups can develop a solution for a city, they often do not have the same amount of capacity as well-established companies and corporates. Cities should bear this in mind in setting up the open call.


Application: To encourage more start-ups to submit a complete application, make the application procedure as effective as possible. Cities have to carefully think about what information is really needed to select the best start-up for the assignment while also meeting legal requirements.


This means that the scope of the assignment should match the investment in the application process. Furthermore, the information should be as clear as possible to avoid possible doubts while applying. Just in case, an easy point of contact should be provided for start-ups to reach out to.


Solution development: Even though cities most likely have (internal) restrictions around the solution development, it is good to leave some flexibility for the start-up on how they would like to work on the solution in terms of timing.


When can they start? How long do they need? Start-ups cannot always shuffle resources and you might, therefore, lose relevant solution providers that cannot deliver in the timeframe you request.


The city itself should have enough resources available to work together with the start-up.


On that note, it is also important to remember that the city itself should also have enough resources available to work together with the start-up and make sure they can move forward in developing the solution.


The right communication strategy to reach the right audience


The work for cities does not stop once the challenges have been defined. Making sure that the open call reaches enough relevant start-ups requires a well-structured communication and dissemination strategy. Cities should include channels which start-ups use to look for open calls.


Some examples are:


  • Local (business) networks such as a regional start-up ecosystem. Cities should actively engage with these networks’ members – for example, by promoting the open call in their newsletters.
  • International start-up platforms such as F6S can help cities to target those start-ups that fit your challenge based on information provided.
  • Search engines. Start-ups use specific keywords to find open calls. That’s why cities should invest time in optimising the keywords used to describe the open call.


Besides the different channels, there are also other questions to take into consideration for your communication strategy.


Do you only want to work with start-ups from your region or do you think about taking it to an international level? Do you only want to target specific start-ups or do you have a wider scope?


Based on the answers to these questions, you can adapt your strategy to your needs.


Define clear expectations but leave room for innovation


In an open call, it is important to keep a balance between a clear statement of expectations while also allowing enough scope for the start-up to take the lead and innovate.


Defining the expected results from the start is important for cities to increase their chances of hiring a start-up with a suitable solution. Not stating clearly what the needed outcome is could lead to undesirable results for the city.


On the other hand, asking for results that are too specific might scare off solution providers with innovative ideas. Sometimes, expecting very specific results is similar to defining the solution before procurement, as opposed to the challenge you aim to solve.


You might miss the chance for a new and innovative solution or fresh perspective that you hadn’t considered.


Keep your expectations in check when it comes to impact and outcomes.


In a similar vein, it is also important to keep your expectations in check when it comes to impact and outcomes, by being realistic about the scope of the assignment.


You cannot expect ambitious results with a small project (or budget).


To counter this, cities can leave room for dialogue with the start-up once they have been selected for an interview after the application process.


Even when defining the conditions and contract after the selection process, it is worth having a kick-off conversation and making sure the expected outcomes are aligned. For example, the city of Delft and the start-up Quantillion (working together on a de-icing prioritisation challenge) solved their initial differences by explicitly communicating and negotiating the final results before starting the solution development.


Rather than simply opening up public data, a well-defined city challenge can mobilise and guide solution providers to develop data-driven products that are more aligned with city ambitions.


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