Procuring Innovation

By Ash Center Mayors Challenge Research Team • February 26, 2014

As one of the winners of the 2012-2013 Mayors Challenge, the City of Philadelphia received a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to implement their winning idea, FastFWD. The FastFWD project will enable the city to engage entrepreneurs in solving big public problems while reforming the underlying procurement system to encourage innovation. “Addressing longstanding public issues in exciting new ways is what the Mayors Challenge is all about,” said Jim Anderson of Bloomberg Philanthropies. “Philadelphia is leading the way in procurement reform, which will allow others to quickly follow.” More information on the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge can be found at

Government procurement can often be narrowly prescriptive: a problem exists (the Streets Department needs trash cans) and the remedy is specified (purchase 368 new grey waste receptacles, 32 gallons in size). Even procurement of professional services usually delineates exactly how the needed services must be provided, leaving little room for bidders to share their creative ideas or problem-solving skills. The procurement process is also technically complex and inflexible, which discourages uninitiated new vendors and partners from participating. And because city governments generally do not have other means for engaging with entreprenuers and innovators, their ideas for solving shared urban challenges go unheard.

The City of Philadelphia has a new vision for procurement: a channel through which the city hopes its toughest, most intractable challenges meet fresh, out-of-the-box ideas from entrepreneurs, businesses, non-profits, and other organizations. A grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies is enabling the City to realize this vision in two ways: first, by reforming its general procurement operation, and, second, by creating a new pathway that solicits, incubates, and pilots new solutions to major public problems. The latter component, called FastFWD, is a new model for non-prescriptive procurement. The process begins with significant internal work across departments to gather data on a problem and define and frame it in a way that is ripe for creative solutions. The top respondents to the resulting call for solutions enter a business accelerator and, ultimately, promising graduating ideas are piloted by the city.

The City of Philadelphia has a new vision for procurement: a channel through which the city hopes its toughest, most intractable challenges meet fresh, out-of-the-box ideas from entrepreneurs, businesses, non-profits, and other organizations.

In October, Philadelphia announced an open call for solutions to the first important problem category identified through this process — public safety. Although public safety is a top priority for Mayor Michael Nutter, the City has had limited success engaging the private sector in developing solutions in the past due to the restrictive procurement process. The broad open call seeks to engage ideas – even novel and untested ideas – from across the globe and will accept those that aim to solve any aspect of public safety. The city hopes that the FastFWD program will catalyze new partnerships and unearth bold new ways to create a safer city.

Early in 2014, the groups with the ten best ideas will receive a warm welcome to Philadelphia for a 12-week accelerator program administered by GoodCompany Ventures and supported by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Social Impact Initiative. The accelerator will focus and sharpen those ideas through business development strategies, mentorship, and collaboration with city employees. The city wil then select two or three pilot projects to implement, evaluate, and refine. This incubation process will support entrepreneurs and small businesses that rarely participate in government procurement due to the unfamiliar and often intimidating regulations and restrictions usually in place.

Throughout the FastFWD process, the city, via an interagency working group, will be working to break down barriers within the city’s standard procurement processes, with the goal of streamlining and improving the existing business model. Bloomberg Philanthropies is particularly interested in how the City’s procurement process and regulations will be informed by the learnings from FastFWD and the fresh perspective competing entrepreneurs offer Philadelphia.

If successful, FastFWD will be a pioneering model for innovative government that should serve as a replicable model for cities across the globe, all of which face common challenges. To further this major goal of the Mayors Challenge, Philadelphia will document its journey in order to share its lessons learned with others. The framework could be adaptable to cities of all sizes, to allow for tackling large issues that have causes and effects across many departments; for defining problems in ways that are open to innovative solutions; for reforming procurement; and for supporting and engaging with small businesses and entrepreneurs.

By encouraging city government to be more open to innovation, FastFWD holds the promise of bridging the gap between government and the private sector. And the City will continue this process by holding another open call for ideas in a new problem category within the next two years. “We are excited to engage new people with innovative ideas in our longstanding mission of making our community a better place,” said Story Bellows, co-director of the Mayors Office of New Urban Mechanics.

About the Author

Ash Center Mayors Challenge Research Team

The Ash Center is the Research Partner for the five Winners of the 2012 Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge. In that capacity, the Center is working with the cities during the implementation process to evaluate and record the process of innovation, develop a consistent body of learnings, promote replication, and provide the cities with research and documentation support.