How Digipolis stimulates innovation through its procurement strategy

Key insights for public procurement of innovation

  • Redesigning the procurement process in the public sector could encourage the purchase of more innovative solutions.
  • Moving away from the preconception that the contracting party is the only expert gives companies greater freedom to think out of the box when proposing solutions to the challenges faced by the public sector.
  • A strategy of collaboration can be applied by embedding public institutions within a broad innovation network. Innovative procurement could go far beyond merely streamlining the procurement process.
  • A shift is required from an internally focussed public institution, tightly in control of the procurement process, towards a more open and innovation oriented mindset.

The government is faced with many different challenges. Citizens increasingly require government bodies to make the most efficient use of their resources. There is also a demand for effective policies in the areas of innovation, sustainability and job creation. The pressure on the public institutions is increasing still further as a result of the demand for more transparency and the greater involvement of growing numbers of stakeholders. Finally, even the government cannot escape the increasing digitalisation. 

In order to face up to the digital economy and become more innovative, the government will need to cast an open glance beyond its own borders in the search for solutions. One way of reaching out to these external partners is to apply a strategy of public procurement of innovation. By purchasing innovative products and services, the government will simultaneously be able to 1) improve the quality, efficiency and efficacy of the services and 2) use the procurement process as a strategic tool for encouraging innovation in the private sector.

In the context of his PhD, together with Professor Stijn Viaene and Professor Jan Leysen, Ben De Coninck examines how a customised and innovative procurement process could encourage the purchase of more innovative solutions and can therefore also support innovative start-ups. On 14 November 2017, in collaboration with the PhD partners, a workshop for around 50 participants from the Belgian public and private sector was organised. During the workshop, Peter Crombecq, CEO of Digipolis, spoke about their procurement strategy.

Workshop Digipolis

The pioneering role played by Digipolis

Digipolis is the public non-profit body which provides IT services to various public institutions in Antwerp. The IT partner supports the city's ambition to offer comprehensive digital services to residents, companies, visitors, students etc. In order to achieve this, Digipolis must satisfy the digital needs of the municipal services, local police and fire department, social services and various municipal schools.

In 2015, Digipolis realised that it was missing out on innovative solutions – generally from start-ups – as it often called upon large, traditional software players such as IBM, Oracle and SAP. Digipolis realised that its procurement process formed a major obstacle for start-ups at the time, making it difficult for them to participate in public tenders.

A major strategic exercise ultimately led to a drastic redesign of the procurement strategy at Digipolis. The new strategy completely overturned the status quo and boosted the participation of innovative start-ups in public tenders and the purchase of more innovative solutions.

Digipolis worked on the basis of 3 major challenges.

1/ How do we approach these innovative start-ups?
  • Digipolis took on board a number of local partners to co-design a strategy tailored to start-ups. An open mindset and the willingness to explore and get familiar with the environment in which start-ups operate, was of crucial importance
  • This Advisory Board consisting of iMinds,, and the Start-up Manager of the City of Antwerp, suggested to create an ecosystem of start-ups on the one hand, and to publish more bite-size and simplified tenders and challenges on the other hand.
  • It’s also important to dare take the jump and to take risks.
2/ How do we create such an ecosystem of start-ups and creative entrepreneurs?
  • Instead of reinventing the wheel, Digipolis appealed to the existing expertise of various start-up authorities and activated them as communication hubs.
  • straightforward, easy-to-navigate website was created, especially aimed at the start-up ecosystem. It provides them with information and allows them to register in order to receive news and updates.
  • Digipolis also started a Meetup group that acts as a platform for knowledge sharing, networking, and gaining inspiration. Regular gatherings, focusing on hot topics such as blockchain and Internet of Things, are organized in the form of talks, hackathons, and testimonials.
3/ How can we make the existing procurement procedures faster, easier and less detailed?
  • A FAST procurement procedure was implemented that drastically reduced the average throughput time from four months to four weeks.
  • Instead of designing potential solutions itself, Digipolis now launces challenges with a clear problem statement, thereby stimulating the development of out-of-the-box solutions provided by small-scale, innovative companies.
  • Digipolis adopted short, bite-sized tender documents, ensuring that every section contains relevant information and is phrased in a ‘sexy manner’.
  • Interested companies are invited to present their solution during a thirty-minute pitch. The pitch stimulates direct contact between Digipolis, the end client, and the supplier, creating an opportunity for co-creation between the supply and demand-side before an official tender is submitted.

Would you like to find out more? If so, read ‘Public Procurement of Innovation: The Case of Digipolis’, a report on the workshop which took place in collaboration with Nido Innovation Lab.

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