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A Better Way for Cities to Buy

A new online platform aims not only to take some of the risk out of municipal procurement but to make the process smarter as well.

When I was deputy mayor of New York City, young companies would come to me with new approaches to service delivery -- often driven by cutting-edge technologies -- that they wanted the city to try. They would earnestly promise impressive results, and I would ask, "Where have you successfully done this before?" That's the big question on everyone's mind in public procurement: Nobody wants to get burned on an idea that turns out to be too good to be true, to wind up in a lawsuit or on the front page of the local newspaper.

In an effort to grapple with this problem, in 2016 the New York Mayor's Office of Technology and Innovation launched, in collaboration with the White House. The public facing website aggregated information about vendors seeking contracts with the city. Companies, large and small, would set up profiles detailing their technology as well as successful deployments to answer that "Where have you done this before?" question. And while there's no way to eliminate the inherent risk of trying a new technology even if it has a successful prior application, gave the city easy, centralized access to essential information and credentials.

Jeff Merritt, former director of innovation at the Office of Technology and Innovation and now head of the World Economic Forum's Internet of Things initiative, noted that inspiration for the project struck in an unlikely place. "The need for this platform first occurred to me in 2014 at the Smart Cities Expo in Barcelona," Merritt said. "There was this massive hall with hundreds of companies and thousands of products. I realized there was no way to systematically research, compare and keep track of all of them."

Working with a local design company, Fictive Kin, the Office of Technology and Innovation built a prototype funded as a public-private partnership. The site signed up a hundred companies in the first few weeks, and many other cities expressed an interest in joining.

After a year of running the prototype, the positive response from users encouraged the team to launch as a standalone company with global reach. Chris Foreman and Andrew Watkins were recruited to help expand the site and transition the prototype into a new, sustainable, independent venture. "New York identified a major problem that a lot of cities face," said Foreman, who is's CEO. "They want to innovate, but there's only so much bandwidth to do so, and they can only focus on so many projects at a time. They are bombarded by news, information and sales pitches from startups and multi-national companies with new products and solutions."

The functionality that adds includes two-way direct connections, verified validations of deployments, technology specifications and Q&A capability. Additionally, cities from around the world publish their profiles along with their requests for information, qualifications and proposals onto the site, and vendors can check to make sure that they don't miss new opportunities. That, Foreman pointed out, is particularly valuable for smaller municipalities: "Some of the greatest benefits will be realized by smaller cities that do not attract as much attention and do not have the resources to find and validate new technology." In fact, the idea to host city profiles on the website came from Cary, N.C., a midsize city currently undertaking the development of a smart corridor. has increased the city's visibility to new vendors and provided a new tool for officials to search and source innovative companies.

Eventually, plans to aggregate and organize similar requests from multiple cities, so that, for instance, a company can see all of the ongoing street-light solicitations happening around the world. This feature will not only make life easier for vendors but also allow cities to compare solicitations and write better RFQs and RFPs.

Cities are finding creative uses for the online system. As part of its entry in the $50 million prize category of the Canadian government's Smart Cities Challenge competition, for example, Vancouver is asking companies vying to be part of the application to register through That way, noted Foreman, the city "can gather information and also see case studies the companies have published in addition to who else has used their product. Vancouver then has a place where they can find all of these people without having to catalog them on their own."

So where does go from here? Foreman said this year has been about getting cities and companies on board and using the platform. The future, however, will likely bring new features to the site. "We've been getting a lot of requests to start publishing pricing and doing transactions in the marketplace as well," he said. "That's the next big thing for us." He's hopeful that will be able to handle transactions sometime next year. For cities looking for better ways to procure critical goods and services, that would be a big thing indeed.

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He can be reached at
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