Traditionally there is only one reason for the public sector to invest in projects, we call it market failure and basically means two things: (i) it is not happening, the market doesn’t provide it naturally and/or (ii) the benefits of doing it outweigh its costs, normally here we evaluate also social benefits and externalities. So far economics 101.
Cities dream on reproducing the wealth of apps that we enjoy in the private space in the social and civic sector. Wouldn’t be great if our city engages in a discussion the way we do in facebook or public services were as easy and efficient as Amazon is?
The problem with this is precisely that they are social or civic apps. I mean there is not a business model that allows them to compete with the über, airbnb, Instagram, … of the time. Therefore, investors don’t invest, the app doesn’t have the money to be visible, adopted and it doesn’t develop and our hopes never become a reality.
What is worse, developers lose faith, they abandon defeated and nobody engages in something with an improbable future. Result: no civic apps and the ones that exist, crappy and underdeveloped. Sounds familiar?
Of course this situation varies depending on the country and the city. In the US we can observe how some Foundations invest in civic tech accelerators, e.g. 1776 or Knight and in Europe there are also some structures with a mixture of private and public capital that support organizations such as Waag Society in Amsterdam. The problem is that this is clearly not enough.
There are only a few co-working spaces and accelerators devoted to the civic space – mostly U.S. – and without more of them we cannot get the richness of apps that could not only provide valuable services but be significant enough to mix with the ones in a commercial enriching the whole ecosystem.
It is not going to happen is a powerful reason to invest public money in civic accelerators, but there is more, the more is how it will happen otherwise.
Civic endeavors benefit a lot from the input of policymakers and cities. This is probably the only way to create a real marketplace, have the city involved so that it could consider bidding for apps and taking advantage of these developers for the customization of open source products such as the Ckan Open Data portal(http://ckan.org) . Actions like this will create opportunities for developers, develop a marketplace for civic apps and civic tech and allow it to grow and cross national boundaries.
However, how this investment materializes should be meticulously thought, keeping it at an arms length from the gov and avoiding direct intervention is a must. As we know, the only investor that manages to be consistently a worse picker than random is the government and we want business to succeed but to succeed in the eyes of citizens and not according to the criteria of the administration.
Here, as in many other cases, the devil is not hidden behind the general concept which is easy to grasp but in the details of the implementation.
But again, there is more. Today it is not enough to have an accelerator, in fact everybody has one. Today, the world is global and this is particularly true in the case of digital startups. The objective is visibility, how to get visible and opt for the adoption of citizens in a world with 1.5M apps + web apps is the real problem. The path to visibility is connections, to be connected particularly to global centers is what ensures this visibility. All this can only be achieved when accelerators and co-working spaces are connected to the leading ones, giving the opportunity to startups to be visible globally instead of locally.
Governments must grant themselves permission to explore these alternatives in an open way and develop networks that could lead to global civic marketplaces. This is the path not only to put IT at the service of citizens but to a better world.