CivTech is driving innovation in the public sector and helping keep pace with the changing nature of citizen demand

Kate Forbes, MSP, Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy

A government innovation programme is helping the public sector keep pace with the changing nature of citizen demand, according to Scotland’s digital economy minister.

Kate Forbes said the national CivTech accelerator has helped to change the culture in the public sector as it responds to the growing need to use data to transform public services.

Ms Forbes said the programme, which works out of the CodeBase tech hub in Edinburgh, has demonstrated an “impressive” return on investment since it started in 2016.

Now in its fourth cycle, CivTech will host its annual Demo Day in the capital on March 4 – where its largest ever cohort of tech companies will showcase digital solutions to government challenges.

Ms Forbes, who will deliver a keynote at the event at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC), said she now wants to see the programme scale up, and for the ethos of innovation to take hold across all parts of government.

She said: “Consumer or user expectations and demands of services are constantly changing; they are rising in terms of what they can get, where they can get it and the speed at which they get it. And so it’s typical that we see that expectation and demand putting more pressure on public sector organisations.  The CivTech event is one of a number of ways that I think public sector organisations can keep pace with those expectations.” 

She added: “Whatever the problem is – whether that’s healthcare, whether it’s mobility, whether it’s issues relating to climate change – CivTech enables public sector organisations that are grappling with these challenges to work in partnership with entrepreneurs who can develop practical solutions for real people, in real markets.”

“And the very fact that more public sector organisations are willing to use CivTech suggests to me that there’s been a change in culture and a desire to do things differently, which is in itself to be commended.”

For Demo Day, fourteen companies are set to pitch new tech solutions to public sector challenges – with a large number focused on responding to the climate emergency.

Glasgow City Council issued a challenge for CivTech 4.0 to create a digital solution that would enable its citizens to reduce their carbon footprint and make the city more resilient to climate change. Forestry Land Scotland has challenged tech companies to help them improve seed quality, in order to support tree planting schemes that will help Scotland transition faster to a low carbon economy.

This year, CivTech Demo Day 4.0 will feature a Net Zero Zone, spotlighting the tech talent in the environmental sector, and Fergus Ewing, Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity will deliver a speech aiming at encouraging further collaboration between the rural economy and the tech sector.

Ms Forbes said: “Under the climate change mission, I firmly believe – and I will be championing this strongly – that tech is the solution to climate change. So, if that’s your long-term mission, then it has got to include and support tech companies focused on that challenge, and CivTech is a means for them to get their foot in the door.

She added: “What I would like to see more of is a wider understanding of how critical the tech economy is to supporting decarbonisation efforts. I want to ensure that the wider public understands the role of data in decarbonising efforts, too, so that they put greater value on it and are willing to work with organisations, whether it’s Glasgow City Council or the Scottish Government, or anywhere else, to allow their data to be used in that way.”

She said there are a growing number of companies which have progressed through CivTech, which have been able to develop pioneering climate change solutions. As Scotland looks forward to hosting the COP26 global climate change summit in November, she said she would like to be able to put those on display.

Ms Forbes urged the public sector last year to be better at innovating with their data, and to collaborate more. She said she has been encouraged by the response and the fact that more organisations are showing a willingness to take that forward. It is her job, she said, to promote CivTech and the “digital first” approach across government and to encourage the public sector to “channel” more of its spend through the programme. She said she wants to see a growth in CivTech generally, so that it “scales up” appropriately, and also to forge links “beyond Scotland”, working with other nations who are looking to set up similar initiatives.

However, she said she would like to see public sector leaders embed innovation principles at the heart of what they do in their day-to-day work – rather than as an adjunct to their core business – and for more leaders to come forward and grapple with their organisations’ problems.

She said: “I do think we’re seeing some exciting initiatives at the moment; we do have amazing data and we’ve also got brilliant data scientists that are working across the sectors of our economy. If you look at some of the companies working with CivTech, for example, some of the greatest successes have been those working with data in that way, using it for economic and social good.

“We want to see more organisations look at how they use their data more innovatively and consider how they can embed it in day-to-day work, so it’s not just a project on the side but a thread throughout all that they do.

She added: “Just last week we launched the 2020 Analytical Exchange programme and that offers third sector organisations the chance to work with Scottish Government researchers, statisticians and data scientists, to tackle projects where data can make a difference.”                                                                                                                                                               

Her guiding mission, though, is to ensure that tech is not just a means to its own end, and that citizens are engaged in the process in terms of how their data is used – and that the tech solutions being delivered make a positive impact on people’s lives.

Part of Scotland’s international pitch is to position itself not only as a place for digital companies to thrive, but for them to be aligned to positive social outcomes which can be delivered through building a ‘tech economy for good’. The National Performance Framework – the Scottish Government’s policy mission statement – has clear mandates around helping to build a society that promotes inclusive economic growth, environmental responsibility and health and wellbeing. 

“That is the moral compass, it is the guiding light,” says Forbes. “So, whilst people get excited about the different technologies and the use of data, I’m more interested in the end than the means. Digital is the means of getting there, but clearly if we are well-known internationally as being an economy that supports wellbeing, supports good outcomes, then I think that’s an attractive proposition to investors, entrepreneurs and tech companies that share our vision.”

She added: “The country that nails collaboration between public, private and third sector – with academia, citizens groups and investors – is the one that will attract talent, inward investment and create international opportunities. That’s what we want to do, and when it comes to our unique selling point, we’re small enough, nimble enough, flexible enough to allow for genuine, real collaboration. And when it comes to looking outward – and there’s never been a more important time to be looking outward, and to be supporting economic growth – CivTech is a really strong asset that we have under our international pitch and our ‘Brand Scotland’. And in that sense I think CivTech has demonstrated an impressive return on investment. So, it’s our intention to scale the programme to take on more challenges.”

Registration for CivTech 4.0 Demo Day on March 4 is free: https://civtech.futurescot.com/