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How to drive digital transformation by beta testing and project piloting?

7 lessons from Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Digital Innovation Initiative for the use of (African) cities

ASToN network brings 11 African cities together to develop digital practices in order to create sustainable & inclusive cities. The network is designed to support cities in their digital transformation journey and aims to improve the capacity of local authorities to lead innovation processes on their territory. This is done through a combination of local level and network level activities. At the network level, one of the objectives is to foster peer-exchange and learning among cities.

Neighborhood by the mall in Bamako, credits: H.B YALCOUYE.

This article follows an in-depth talk we had in March in which David Ayre and Eva O’Brian from TPX Impact and Louise Ellaby from Bloomberg Philanthropies shared experiences from the Digital Innovation Initiative. Launched by Bloomberg Philanthropies, this program aimed to help 19 European cities deliver high-impact digital services, and share lessons learned with one another.

In ASToN, by creating a network of cities and collaborating in this way, we hope ASToN cities can become leading digital actors. Through peer exchange and learning, engaging our local stakeholders and taking a results-oriented approach, we aim to make our cities more sustainable and inclusive.

We heard some inspiring examples of beta testing and piloting digital service transformations, from cities with very different levels of digital maturity: Bratislava, Sofia and Tallinn.

The Slovakian capital, Bratislava, designed and tested a new property tax service capable of sending online bills via email and offering online payment options. This improved version of the property tax service increased the percentage of residents using the platform. Before the new design, the site was used by fewer than 5% of the city’s residents, and 90% of property tax transactions were still carried out in-person via the front office. 15 days after the launch of the new platform, 70% of the inhabitants of the city had paid online.

Sofia in Bulgaria supported its residents to access a wide range of services through address registration. The city piloted a new digital address registration service where residents can apply online, authenticate securely and receive a digital certificate, without having to visit the municipality office. In the first week, during which the service was only available in one of the 23 Districts of the city, the number of people accessing the platform surpassed the previous service offer for the whole city.

In Estonia, Tallinn designed an online service engaging residents in the planning process. They developed a 3D map to invite resident feedback on urban plans under review. The team introduced a new process to integrate the comments and added supportive technologies (such as a dashboard) to the website to facilitate decisions within the Commissioning Board. The first results were encouraging as they showed more residents contributed directly to the test process, with many more engaging via social media and over 6K interacting with the online prototype.

Based on their experiences, our speakers shared 7 key lessons with our network.

  1. Digital teams need permission to think beyond tech, using human centered design

Many city-leaders believe technology can solve all the issues their cities are facing. However, service design and a customer-driven approach were the most valuable lessons from the Digital Innovation Initiative. Teams spent time understanding the needs and experiences of their citizens, framing the problem they wanted to solve and thinking about how technology might be used to address it. Within ASToN, cities also worked on defining the scope of the problem they wanted to address with a digital solution. These reflections enabled them to distinguish the essence of their issue which simplified and accelerated the reflections to find a solution.

2. Mayoral leadership can be critical to push through implementation barriers

Political support and the authorities’ personal involvement contribute to success. For instance, in Bratislava, the Mayor took on long-standing legislation and process to enable the project to cut through significant bureaucracy. The Mayor of Tallinn gave his team the remit and permission to take a bold and ambitious approach, and the Mayor of Sofia corralled 4 District Mayors to take part in the pilot of the new service to provide valuable buy-in and learnings before the service is scaled city wide.

Many ASToN’s cities also received strong support from their local authorities. In Bamako and Bizerte, for instance, the mayors have participated in some meetings to demonstrate approval. In Kigali and Kampala, the municipality appointed specific people to work on the project and ensure the need in human resources are met.

3. Exemplar projects can lay the foundations for transformation at scale

City leaders leveraged international expertise and external fundings to give them the space and credibility to embed change.

The Bloomberg program encouraged cities to adopt a delivery approach consisting in running an idea, testing it to learn about it and using the proof of success as an argument to promote the solution. The proof of success give an example of what can be achieved and what support is needed to drive change at a larger at a larger scale

This is the aim of the experimentation phase in ASToN as well. Making changes at a certain scale, showing that these projects could be upscaled, adapted in another place or applied on a larger scale can bring even more positive changes.

4. Prioritisation and time management

From political shifts to financial challenges, leaders need to manage competing priorities when on the path to success. In Sofia, when the Mayor gained an interest in the work, doors opened for the team and they were able to progress more effectively. In Tallinn, the project leader’s profile grew within the municipality throughout the programme. As he became more senior, the project’s notoriety increased.

5. Capacity to measure and promote impact

Robust evaluation and impact measurement should be built in from the start of any digital transformation project. They permit us to show the value of innovation and build the case for further change.

For the Digital Innovation Initiative each city developed a Theory of Change for their work [1]. This Theory of Change informed the creation of two other measurement tools cities crafted throughout the programme: project roadmaps and short, medium, and long-term impact measurements for their digital transformation projects.

Meanwhile,ASToN cities use the Local Action Plan to centre stakeholders around the project vision and goals, as well as the plans for measuring impact on an ongoing basis.

6. Cities need to grow and nurture the skills and opportunities of the workforce

There remains a significant skills shortage and a ‘brain drain’ in a number of cities where highly skilled young people can’t connect their ambitions to the opportunities presented by the existing job market. To grow and nurture the skills, talent and opportunities necessary to create a high wage, high skill digital economy, requires a three-pronged approach. This will necessitate partnerships between city government, universities and employers to create a clear pathway to high-quality digital jobs supported by sustainable transport options, housing and high quality public services.

A parallel can be drawn with the Local Action Groups set-up by each ASToN city and the diversity of actors they are made of. Indeed, the local action groups are encouraged to work with all types of stakeholders, including start-ups and associations. The pluridisciplinary of the groups enhance conversation, generate innovative ideas, and create virtuous partnerships, capable of improving our cities.

7. Mayors from resource-poor environments must also consider new budgeting approaches and partnership models

Delivering this sort of work doesn’t just need new technologies and ways of working, but also new budgeting approaches and partnership models. In the increasingly complex world of public service delivery, many outcomes are not owned by a single organisation. Responding to them effectively requires a willingness to engage with complexity, and to create a shared vision and mission for a ‘place’. This means joint investment, a shared theory of change and a shift towards a service-oriented budgeting approach that shifts funding from capital to revenue budgets.

Cities that are able to build the partnerships and governance structures to deliver this have the potential to really accelerate the digital transformation of their organisations.

If you’d like to find out more about resources available to city innovators through the Bloomberg Cities network, you can read more and sign up to the SPARK newsletter at: https://bloombergcities.jhu.edu/.

If you want to be informed of ASToN activities and cities’ progress, register to our newsletter or write to us at hello@aston-network.org !

[1]A planning method that defines the final objectives of a project and then the intermediate steps required to achieve them. More details here.

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